Category Archives: Community building

Sister Providencia, Advocate for Landless Indians

Sister Providencia, 1980, book in hand.
Born Denise Hortense Tolan in Anaconda in 1909, Sister Providencia is pictured here in 1980, after years of working in collaboration with Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest, the National Congress of American Indians, and other Indian-led organizations to advance the cause of Indian people. Photo courtesy Providence Archives, Seattle, Washington.

In 1952, a nun teaching sociology at the College of Great Falls committed herself to alleviating poverty among the city’s Indians. What began as an effort to solve a local problem grew into a twenty-year crusade on behalf of all American Indians, taking Sister Providencia Tolan from Great Falls to Congress. In the process, she collaborated with charitable organizations and Indian advocates to change the course of federal Indian policy.

Great Falls’ Indian residents lived primarily in makeshift communities like Hill 57 on the edge of town. Their overcrowded shacks lacked utilities. Many were unskilled, undereducated seasonal laborers who struggled to provide for their families. For years, concerned citizens donated necessities to provide stopgap assistance. While supporting these efforts, Sister Providencia also approached the matter as a sociologist: studying the problem, ascertaining its root causes, and advocating social and political solutions.

One cause of the urban Indians’ plight was the matter of jurisdiction. The federal government denied responsibility for unenrolled, non-recognized, or off-reservation Indians. City, county, and state agencies frequently refused assistance out of the misconception that all Indians were wards of the federal government.

Compounding the jurisdictional conundrum were two federal Indian policies instituted in the 1950s that increased Indian landlessness and poverty: Termination and Relocation. Under Termination, the federal government dissolved its trust responsibilities to certain tribes. Deprived of services and annuities promised them in treaties, terminated tribes liquidated their assets for immediate survival. When the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe was terminated in 1953, some families moved to Great Falls to live with their already impoverished relatives on Hill 57. The Relocation policy also moved Indian families to cities without ensuring that they had the means for long-term survival. Meanwhile, the government did not increase aid to states or counties so that they could cope with the expanding numbers of people in need. Continue reading Sister Providencia, Advocate for Landless Indians

“She Spoke the Truth”: The Childhood and Later Activism of Lula Martinez

A young Lula Martinez, poses by a tree in a patterned dress.
Lula Acebedo Martinez became a social activist in part because of the discrimination she experienced growing up in Butte. Her mother’s determination and generosity also inspired Martinez. “Mama never turned anyone away,” she remembered. Courtesy Phyllis Costello

Born to Mexican immigrants Petra Ortega and Fidencio Acebedo in 1922, Lula Martinez grew up in Butte but left as a teenager for agricultural work in the Pacific Northwest. She returned over forty years later to work on behalf of the city’s impoverished and unemployed. Her memories of her childhood in Butte reveal the complex racial dynamic that existed in the mining city in the early twentieth century, and her experiences as an ethnic minority instilled a lifelong commitment to community activism and female empowerment.

Martinez’s father worked construction on the railroad, and his job took the family from Texas to Montana. The Acebedos settled in Butte, and Fidencio worked in the mines. The Acebedos were part of Butte’s small but significant Hispanic population, drawn to the booming copper mines in the first decades of the twentieth century. By World War II, “several hundred Mexicans and Filipinos” lived in Butte. The majority of the Mexican immigrants worked at the Leonard Mine and lived on the city’s east side. Unlike Filipinos, who encountered violence in the mines and tended not to stay, Mexican workers seem to have been generally accepted by the other miners, and Mexican families did not live in segregated neighborhoods. Martinez recalled that growing up “we were surrounded by different nationalities. We had Vankoviches and Joseviches and Biviches, and we had Serbians, and we had Chinese. We had italianos, españolas, and Mexican people. We had the whole United Nations around on the East Side.”

In spite of this ethnic diversity, Martinez did encounter discrimination. As she got older, and especially after she began to attend school, it became clear that she was trapped in a racial hierarchy that discriminated against Mexicans and Mexican Americans. She remembered, “As children we didn’t know there was a difference so we got along fine. It was when you’re . . . going to school when the teachers started to say, ‘well you gotta sit over there. All the Mexicans sit on that side.’ . . . [A]nd then we found out that there was a difference.” Martinez’s encounters with racism in her childhood instilled a determination to work for social justice, but they also gave her a “hatred” of Butte that she carried with her into adulthood.

Continue reading “She Spoke the Truth”: The Childhood and Later Activism of Lula Martinez

“Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”:  Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups

Cornish women in Anaconda came together to form the Daughters of St. George, shown here picnic at Gregson Springs, July 30, 1925. MHS Photo Archives 941-933

 “Thanksgiving Day is over and we have Women’s Meeting Sale at Elling Rogenes and it is quite enjoyable when there are so many Norwegians together,” Rakel Herein wrote in her daybook in 1917. Two years later, a March entry reads simply, “Have had Women’s Meeting. . . . Yes it was extremely delightful.”

Herein arrived in Carbon County in 1899 as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Norway and married a local Norwegian immigrant sheep farmer within the year. Translated years after her 1943 death, her scattered, terse daybook documents the birth and growth of five children and a lonely, despairing life. This context makes her descriptions of Red Lodge’s St. Olaf Lutheran Church women’s group—“delightful” and “enjoyable”—that much more telling. Herein yearned for the companionship and support of women who understood how hard it was to immigrate to a foreign, male-dominated western landscape. She found that companionship and support within the Women’s Meeting.

Herein’s Women’s Meeting was one of hundreds of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana women’s groups. Montana women gathered whenever they could under a wide range of banners: to pursue education, art, community improvement, children’s activities, homemaking, health, their families’ occupational interests, and church growth and stability. Typically, these women’s groups supported the status quo, celebrating their members’ primary roles as mothers, wives, and daughters; yet for the women themselves, they were lifelines leading out of their homes and into a larger world. Continue reading “Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”:  Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups

Inez Ratekin Herrig, Lincoln County’s Tireless Citizen

The mural outside the Eureka library commemorates Inez Herrig's contributions to Lincoln County, featuring a portrait of her in the foreground and the bookmobile she used to serve rural patrons in the background. Photo courtesy of
The mural outside the Eureka library commemorates Inez Herrig’s contributions to Lincoln County, featuring a portrait of her in the foreground and the bookmobile she used to serve rural patrons in the background. Photo courtesy of

Born in 1910 as Halley’s Comet streaked by, Inez Ratekin Herrig died ninety-four years later, an exemplary engaged citizen and community champion. For all but two of those years Herrig lived in Libby, Montana; for all but twenty years she occupied her parents’ small art- and music-filled home. In young adulthood, she helped to care for her older brother, who had encephalitis and Parkinson’s. She also helped support her family when her father lost his sight. In 1953, at the age of forty-three, she married Bob Herrig, an educator and forester with deep local roots. In a life framed by duty, social convention, and the economic and geographical confines of her remote northwestern Montana home, Herrig served her community as librarian, engaged volunteer, policy advocate, and local historian.

Herrig’s passion for books and for community service surfaced at age twelve when she began volunteering at Libby’s tiny public library. In 1927, a year out of high school, she took library work in Seattle to fund classes at the University of Washington. Two years later, facing the Depression and her parents’ poverty, she returned home to fill the vacant Lincoln County librarian position, a job she would hold for the next sixty years.

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Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including  the club's founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11
Members of Pleasant Hour Club, including the club’s founder Mamie Bridgewater (third from right) and her daughter Octavia (far right) picnic in Colorado Gulch west of Helena, ca. 1926. Octavia, who graduated from Helena High School in 1925 and then attended the Lincoln School of Nursing in New York, served as an army nurse during World War II. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2002-36.11

Mamie Anderson Bridgewater and her daughter, Octavia, were strong African American women who lived under the veil of racism in Helena during the first half of the twentieth century. Each earned the respect of the Helena community, and each helped to make a difference in the lives of other African Americans.

Mamie was born at Gallatin, Tennessee, in September 1872, one of eight children. In 1892, she married a career “buffalo soldier,” Samuel Bridgewater, at Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory. In 1903 she followed her husband to Fort Harrison, Montana, where he was stationed after the Spanish-American War. There she raised five children and worked as a matron at the veterans hospital. All the while, she cared for Samuel during his frequent bouts of illness from wounds received at the Battle of San Juan Hill in 1898.

After her husband’s death in 1912, Mamie Bridgewater worked as a domestic in private homes, always scraping together enough to care for her children and grandchildren whenever they needed her assistance. She was a leader of Helena’s black Baptist congregation and was heavily involved in fund-raising for Helena’s Second Baptist Church, completed circa 1914. She was also a founder of the local Pleasant Hour Club, which organized in 1916 and became the Helena chapter of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. At her death in 1950 at age seventy-seven, she was serving as chaplain of the Pleasant Hour Club. Continue reading Contributions of a Mother and Daughter

“The Men Would Never Have Survived”: Women, Union Activism, and Community Survival in Butte

95WHM women  children picket
Betty Jo Houchin and Ruby Larson used their informal network to organize a picket of St. James Hospital in July 1971. Their husbands were both on strike when the women decided to protest the hospital’s decision to treat strikers and their families “only on an emergency basis” because striking workers were not covered by the Anaconda Company’s health insurance. Photo courtesy of the Montana Standard (July 4, 1971).

Although excluded from most jobs in the mines and smelters of Butte and Anaconda (with the short-lived exception of female smelter workers in World War II), women played integral roles in the survival of these company towns. The success of each community depended on the wages of laborers who toiled for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. When those wages were threatened—during strikes or company shutdowns—the entire community mobilized. During periods of conflict, women’s contributions to the household economy became especially significant, as women pinched pennies and took on paid employment to help their families survive. These and other activities in support of labor were crucial to community survival, but men’s resistance to women’s full participation in union efforts also reveals the prevalence of conservative gender ideals in mid-century Butte and Anaconda.

Continue reading “The Men Would Never Have Survived”: Women, Union Activism, and Community Survival in Butte

“Lifting as We Climb”: The Activism of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

Catalog #PAc 96-25.2
This photo captured the women (and children) of the first MFCWC Annual Convention, which took place in Butte on August 3, 1921. Photograph by Zubick Art Studio, Butte, Montana. MHS PAc 96-25.2.

In 1921, the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (MFCWC) organized “to encourage true womanhood . . . [and] to promote interest in social uplift.” While its members engaged in many traditional women’s club activities—raising money for scholarships, creating opportunities for children, and providing aid to the sick—advancing the cause of civil rights in Montana was one of the organization’s most important legacies.

MFCWC (originally the Montana Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs) held its inaugural meeting in Butte, where members agreed on five organizing principles: “Courtesy—Justice—The Rights of Minority—one thing at a time, and a rule of majority.” At the local level, member clubs engaged in a variety of volunteer work, from bringing flowers to hospital patients to adding works by African American authors to local libraries. But at both the local and the state levels, MFCWC members also concentrated on racial politics, raising funds for the NAACP and taking positions on abolishing the poll tax and upholding anti-lynching laws.

The MFCWC’s legislative committee became especially active after World War II, and from 1949 to 1955 it led the campaign to pass civil rights legislation in Montana. The committee’s efforts reflected Montana’s complicated racial climate. As its members advocated for legislative change, the MFCWC often encountered resistance from white Montanans, who simultaneously asserted that Montana did not have a “racial problem” and that, where prejudice did exist, it could not “be changed by passing a law.”

Continue reading “Lifting as We Climb”: The Activism of the Montana Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs

Early Social Service Was Women’s Work

A nun and children looking through the rubble after the 1935 Helena earthquake.
St. Joseph’s Home for Orphans fulfilled one of the missions of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth. Earthquakes in 1935 left the children homeless and they spent nearly two years as the guests of wealthy U. S. Senator James E. Murray at Boulder Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Independent Record

Parochial institutions in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana, which were almost exclusively under the supervision of women, were the forerunners of our modern social services. Catholic nuns, Methodist deaconesses, and nondenominational Christian women offered comfort, sanctuary, and stability to the lost, the desperate, and the destitute. Their contributions were far-reaching and some of their pioneering services evolved and remain viable today.

Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Kansas) came to Helena in 1869 at the invitation of Jesuit priests who saw a dire need for feminine influence in the rough-and-tumble gold camp. The sisters’ mission was threefold—to teach youth, care for orphans, and minister to the sick—and it fit in with the real needs of the frontier community. St. Vincent’s Academy, the first boarding school for non-Indian girls, opened in 1870 and educated girls until 1935. Continue reading Early Social Service Was Women’s Work

Empowering Women: The Helena YWCA

This 1957 photo shows the interior of the Helena YWCA. A piano sits in the corner. On the other side of the room, three women drink tea.
The forty-three room Helena YWCA has provided women with a place to stay, and organizations a place to meet, since 1919. Photograph by L. H. Jorud, 1957. MHS Photo Archives PAc 2003-48 Box 41 1957 YWCA women + piano

During the Victorian era, strict social rules constrained women’s lives. It was scandalous for a woman to go out alone, eat in a restaurant without a companion, or travel without a chaperone. Women were expected to stay at home and attend to domestic duties. Thus, those who left their homes for employment or educational opportunities in urban areas faced major obstacles. A young woman in an unfamiliar city often had nowhere to turn for housing, support, or advice. In the early twentieth century, YWCAs began to fill this need in Montana, where Billings, Missoula, Great Falls, and Helena all had YWCA chapters. Continue reading Empowering Women: The Helena YWCA

Progressive Reform and Women’s Advocacy for Public Libraries in Montana

Author Unknown  Postcard from Union Circle of the King's Daughters, requesting book donations for a Public Library Virginia City, Montana 1901
MC 261 B13 f8, Montana Historical Society Archives

At the January 24, 1914, meeting of the Hamilton Woman’s Club, the club president “presented the idea of the Club boosting for [a] Carnegie Library building here.” Club members concurred and appointed a committee to urge city officials to act. Mrs. J. F. Sullivan, head of the club’s newly formed library committee, approached Hamilton’s city council about asking industrialist and library benefactor Andrew Carnegie for funds. After Marcus Daly’s widow, Margaret, donated the land for the building site, Carnegie’s secretary approved the city’s request. Two years later, the Hamilton Woman’s Club moved its meetings to a specially designated room in the town’s new Carnegie Library, an institution that owed its existence to the clubwomen’s hard work.

The Hamilton Woman’s Club’s instrumental role in the library’s construction is not an isolated case. During the Progressive Era, women’s voluntary organizations frequently led community efforts to build public libraries. In 1933, the American Library Association estimated that three-quarters of the country’s public libraries “owed their creation to women.” More recently, scholars Kay Ann Cassell and Kathleen Weibel have argued that “women’s organizations may well have been as influential in the development of public libraries as Andrew Carnegie,” whose name is carved into thousands of library transoms across the United States.

Since the time of white settlement, Montanans seem to have been unusually passionate about books and libraries. In an 1877 edition of the Butte Miner, one writer noted, “The need for a library was felt here last winter, when aside from dancing there was no amusement whatever to help pass the long, dreary evenings. Dancing, in moderation, will do very well, but it is generally allowed to have been somewhat overdone last winter . . . this library scheme . . . will furnish a means of recreation . . . that is more intellectual and more to be desired in every respect.”

Rising to the call, women’s clubs founded libraries in communities across Montana. Most of these libraries started small: club members donated books, and a local milliner, dressmaker, or hotelier would offer shelf space. As the library (and the community) grew, it often moved to a room in city hall before, finally, opening in a separate building. By 1896 Montana could boast seven public libraries with collections of a thousand volumes or more, and the State Federation of Women’s Clubs maintained a system of traveling libraries. Continue reading Progressive Reform and Women’s Advocacy for Public Libraries in Montana