“Saving Girls”: Montana State Vocational School for Girls


Catalog # PAc 96-9 3 [Montana State Vocational School for Girls.] 1920
Matrons put students at the Montana State Vocational School for Girls to work, believing that “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” The girls’ farm labor helped support the school. Photo c. 1920. Catalog # PAc 96-9 3 [Montana State Vocational School for Girls.] 1920
Imagine an eight-year-old child thrown into a prison cell with a hardened criminal. Until the late nineteenth century, any child over the age of seven who broke the law was normally sentenced to an adult penal institution. However, after psychologists realized that, for children especially, rehabilitation was more effective than punishment, states began to establish juvenile reformatories. Then, as women took up the cause of child labor laws, juvenile court systems, and separate women’s correctional institutions, they also began a campaign to separate delinquent girls and boys in reformatories.

In 1893 the Montana legislature established the Pine Hills Boys and Girls Industrial School at Miles City. The court could commit any boy or girl between the ages of eight and twenty-one to Pine Hills for any crime other than murder or manslaughter. Judges could also remand a child to the reform school who “is growing up in mendicancy, or vagrancy, or is incorrigible.” Girls were generally sentenced to reform school “to punish petty larceny; to supply a home; to effect moral salvation; to prevent further ‘lewd’ acts; and to provide protection from physical abuse.” Boys, on the other hand, were sentenced for more criminal behaviors.As women gained a voice in government, “saving girls” was one of their first concerns. Female reformers saw creating an all-girls reformatory as a moral issue, especially since many of the girls sentenced to the coeducational Pine Hills facility were simply homeless or orphans, not criminals. Women’s organizations, including the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Good Government Club, took up the cause. Jeannette Rankin, a trained social worker, joined in advocating for a separate girls’ facility. So did Helena physician and humanitarian Dr. Maria Dean, who tirelessly lobbied the Montana legislature to establish a girls’ reform school.

It took women’s suffrage—and the election of female legislators—to create the Montana State Vocational School for Girls. When Emma Ingalls joined Maggie Hathaway as Montana’s first female state representatives in 1917, she immediately proposed a bill to create a state industrial school for girls. Her first attempt failed, but when she reintroduced the bill in 1919, it passed. The primary function of the school was “the care, education, training, treatment and rehabilitation of girls ten (10) years of age or older and under twenty-one (21) years of age who [were] committed to the school by a court as provided by law.”

In April 1920, the first six girls were transferred from Miles City to the new facility seven miles north of Helena. Ten months later, twenty-eight girls occupied the new dormitory, aptly named the Maria Dean Cottage after Dr. Dean, who had died just weeks after the legislature authorized the school. Agriculture and hygiene were the only classes offered at first, and the girls spent much of their time helping the facility become a self-sustaining agricultural venture. By 1922, the campus was already overcrowded with sixty-six girls.

101WHM Montana_Vocational_School_for_Girls
Pictured here circa 1961, Stewart Hall, the main school and administration building, was constructed in 1922, two years after girls arrived at the institution. Photo courtesy of “State of Montana Vocational School for Girls,” Annual Report, 1961.

The school’s inmates varied markedly. Some of the girls were orphans, others had behavioral problems, and still others were labeled incorrigible because they had run away from home. No matter why girls were sentenced to the school, they all faced harsh discipline from the early matrons—despite reformers’ caring rhetoric. Until the 1950s, punishment included lockup or solitary confinement, deprivation of one of the three daily meals, loss of privileges such as letter writing, and physical chastisement. Matrons often made girls stand for long periods of time, sometimes with a piece of soap in their mouths.

Administrator Ruby Miller, who took over school management in 1950, instituted welcome changes—welcome as far as the girls were concerned. In 1951, the school’s four-year high school program was accredited. Miller brought in instructors to teach a variety of classes, including music, acting, and beauty culture, and she introduced swimming and softball, dances and other extracurricular activities. These reforms led some officials to criticize the facility as a finishing school rather than a detention facility.

Although the state added maximum security units after Miller died in 1960, her emphasis on education and rehabilitation rather than punishment remained the norm, at least for a time. In 1967, the name changed to Mountain View School for girls. In 1971, the school’s male administrator noted that a girl “would never be any good if she doesn’t like herself.” His policy of solitary confinement, however, hardly encouraged self-esteem. A 1993 investigation revealed violations of the girls’ rights under the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. The investigatory report noted inadequate staff training, excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and a facility “grossly deficient” in terms of environmental and fire safety. The school subsequently closed in 1996.

The Mountain View campus now houses the Montana Law Enforcement Academy, but poignant traces of the girls remain in the graffiti, much of it dated to the 1930s, scrawled on the walls of a forgotten attic with sealed windows and a door with triple locks. Messages and doodles on the peeling plaster tell of the misery some girls endured at Mountain View. Tick marks count days of confinement, looping hearts symbolize a girl’s wishful dream, and sassy quips speak to the insolence of youthful offenders.

Mountain View was a vision whose time ran its course. Today, judges have options such as treatment facilities, group homes, and alternatives to lockup. The system was never, and still is not, perfect. However, contemporary services would not have evolved without the actions of the women of the Progressive Era who advocated for the troubled girls of their time. EB

You can learn more about state representative Emma Ingalls in another entry in this series,  “After Suffrage: Women Politicians at the Montana Capitol,” and more about women’s experiences with Montana’s penal system in “Biased Justice: Women in Prison.”


Baumler, Ellen. “Mountain View School for Girls.”

Holmes, J. D. “Girls’ Vocational School Now in Its 40th Year.” Independent Record, September 29, 1960.

Juvenile Justice in Montana: Department of Family Services, Montana Youth Courts, 1 Montana Board of Crime Control 1993. Performance audit Report.

Kidston, Martin. “Scrawlings in Solitary,” Independent Record, September 19, 2004. “Montana State School for Girls.”

Montana Historical Society Research Center vertical files, Helena.

Westenberg, John. “State Vocational School for Girls.”National Register nomination, 1980. State Historic Preservation Office, Helena, Mont.

64 thoughts on ““Saving Girls”: Montana State Vocational School for Girls

  1. I was a resident t this school in the 60’s and 70’s. I think of it often. and wonder where all those other girls are now. I also wonder about the counselor and the housemother are they still alive and if so where are they these days?

    1. I was also there in 1972..Mr Roble was administrator..My sister was also there..Did you know Mary(Susie Ray) Mary Lou Crazy Mule?

  2. I was at GVS for the 1963 – 1964 school year. I also think about it and wonder about the friends I met there. Mrs Lora Hartz, our History and PE teacher died last year. She was in her 90’s. Her Obituary never mentioned her time at the school. And of course you can’t forget Gutsa and her wooden spoon..what a sweetie. 🙂

    1. Did you know Miss Mary and Ballace. MR. AL Davis, Mr. Robel, I was one of their greatest runaway ‘ s (runner). The last time I ran they told my Parents that I had run so much that they were tired of chasing. They said if you find her Keep her.

      1. I was there in the 1973. I have wonder what happened to AL Davis. HE WAS GOOD TO ME. I HAVE WANTED TELL HIM THANK YOU.

  3. My Mama was there in the late 30s and possibly 40. She had some stories to tell. She was defiant and got all kinds of punishment. How sad!

    1. Hello I read your mother was there about the time my grandmother worked there as a clerk in the office . I recently found her diary of the year the worked there and it was an eye opener ! My grandma worked there the year 1927 her name was Gertrude Rathbun, the head (administrator or principal) was Miss Kassing other names were mrs Black, mrs Hayes among others. In this diary wich she typed and is 349 pages long it sounds like there was a turn over in the employment there. It would be interesting to exchange stories yet sad at the same time. you see my grandma was single for a long time and did not have my father till the age of 40, very late to be mothering a child and especially for that time (1934) my grandma ruled with a very strict hand and was abusive to my father wich in turn was carried down as you can imagine. My interest is tying to understand and come full circle with it all. I would like to visit this building and perhaps see the attic although I know I will experience great sorrow in doing so. If you are interested in communicating
      My email address Is runin4tand@yahoo.com
      Thank you, Karen

  4. Is there any way to look up or obtain copies of records for people who were there? I would love to find something about my Mother’s time there.

    Thank you,

  5. I was a resident there in the 80’s. I was sent there due to running away from home. My stay there wasn’t a long one, but my experience there wasn’t pleasant, not the worse either. Some of the staff were kind and treated us girls with respect, some were cruel and mean. Meaning they were “lock up happy” and were just down right mean. Some of the girls including myself would do something petty then the next thing we knew we were put in solitary confinement for days. The reports were over exaggerated about our so called actions. Some of us are still in touch with each other on FB. We talk about our experiences there, but even now we’re encouraged to only discuss the “positive” verses the negative about the school within the group. Personally I think the negative should be discussed as well and not “sugar coat” our experiences there by sweeping them under the rug. I knew of the attic, and the obvious Cottonwood solitary rooms and also the more extreme solitary next to Aspen. A small building next to the flag pole. I knew of two girls that were put in that one. Rumors that they were put in restraints, and it was cold and damp. Whenever it was brought up it was dismissed and not to be talked about. On an upside of Mountain View School was I did like the actual school part of it. The teachers were very patient and kind. I liked the security guards as well. It was some of the “house parents” that should’ve never been working there in the first place.
    Like I said I was in there as a runaway, just prior to me being released one of the house parents was due to take a new job at a Montana women’s prison. I was not a bad kid and her last words to me were “I’ll be seeing you at my new job”. Well, I never seen me again. She was one of the cruel employees there and still to this day not one of us girls have a single good memory of her. I was pleased to hear that it was shut down.

    1. What Year was you there?
      I was there 1983.
      I ask because I remember a Sherry and she put her make up on so pretty, I allowed her to do mine.

    2. I was placed in my. View at 15. My social worker was Sue Bennett. Jackie DePriest was the security guard on night shift. Jackie got her B.A. in Social work. My name Juana.

    3. Sherry I to was a commit in the 80’s..took a 45 evaluation in 1984 and committed agian in1986,87…I also remember these two tiny girls going to cells…not security in cottonwood…We held a coo for these girls one night,refusing to allow them to be sent until we had been heard…I remember well it was in the smoke room in Maple…they still took them…dragging and screaming for something they haven’t done.the next day I was called to administration and immediately put into solitary for my lead role.I have nothing good to say about MVS…But have many fond memories of the girls I was there with!I haven’t been in touch with any of them…I feel like we no each other…

  6. Wow I think I was the one in the Attic my name was Lisa Fox I loved miss Ann but hated that place

  7. I work at the former school as a Training Officer for the Montana Law Enforcement Academy. I take students up to the attic room in Maple and show them the graffitti. I’d love to hear from former students/faculty about the history. I have many questions.

    1. Best place for me in 1972. I loved it there. Stayed in Maple cottage and of course I was a night rider so I had canteen privileges. Worked in the kitchen a lot and was on the speech team, made it all the way to state competition. I think without the intervention at the rate I was going I would have been found dead in some alley somewhere.

    2. I was there.1984 as an evaluation then a commit in 86,87…I remember alot about Maple,Cottonwood,Security,the cold finger….ummmhummm….

  8. My name was Katy Frize I came to Mtn view when I was 13 and the 2nd youngest, Robyn Cain was the youngest and we weren’t old enough to smoke so when the big sisters would smoke they would put there cigg through the double doors in livingroom of Maple so we could get a few drags, over150 young girls from 13-17. Cottonwood was for the bad bad girls, Maple was the receiving cottage and ages varied. And Spruce was for the girls who were older and ready for Release! I could go on and on! I graduated in1978 a year before my graduating class and Mrs. Hartz’s was a great help in that, plus I liked to argue with her. Ms. Becky was the typing teacher, I loved her so much! I always ran when I was leave, then when I got caught the Red head lady with her dog Boo would come get me and then cottonwood and back to my cottage! Been looking for some of my sisters from there as well as staff! I was pretty spoiled by both!

    1. Katy, this is Lea Ann – I was in Maple – Cottonw4 for awhile ’cause I od’d…I was there ’76 – ’78.

  9. Hello I just found my grandmas Diary written about this here reform school facility back in 1927. We never knew she worked here as our father never told us of it. Only that she was a teacher for a school. In this Diary she Sounds to be the office clerk and stated that the Diary was kept in a locked safe. Only one other woman had access to the diary beside herself. Some of the punishments such as solitary confinement for hitting a guard or officer. Then standing on a line for a period of time is another. (Note this Dorsey started January of 1927 my grandmother was 33 at the time and I’m only in the middle of February as I write this) all happening before the birth of my father.my father lived a abusive life and carried it down the line he has since passed away. Anyhow I really wanted to find out what “the Cottage” was and where when I came across the name Maria Dean Cottage and so I googled it with Montana and up popes this link! I so would like to come to this building and crawl up to the attic to see the graffiti. My grandmothers name was Gertrude Alice Rathbun

      1. Interesting the “Cottages” are named after trees. Wanted to apologize for all my miss spellings in my original message (was on a road trip and the bumpy ride was not much help) I leaned a lot more from this diary as I did compleate all 300+ pages and all typed! So so interesting.

      2. It was cottonwood off of admin and maple right next to it then it was medical and the school and dining hall then an unused which was probably Aspen and then spruce when I was there in 86 and in 87-88

        1. There was one girl in Spruce when I was there in 86,87…she was up from texas.Its only rumored what she did so I won’t say…but she was only with the rest of us at meals in the caf.

    1. Thank you for this interesting reply. What am amazing record of your grandmother’s experiences. If you would be interested in finding out more about the Vocational School, or in sharing any more information from the diary, please contact the research center at the Montana Historical Society.

      1. Thank you Jodie I want to do both! I finished the diary and oh so interesting indeed. My original post was a bit messy with several typos, was on a road trip and using a cell phone when posting it. My apologies
        Thanks for your reply.

  10. I was here in 69-70. I started out in Maple cottage. I remember Mr. Robles Robles administrator, Al Davis was my councilor, it was actually not a bad place, better than my home. I wonder about some of the girls I was there with.. I wasn’t there very long, maybe 8 months.

  11. My Dad, Don Robel, was Superintendent of MVS from 1966 through 1980. I take great exception to your article indicating that under his watch, there was the following:
    “In 1967, the name changed to Mountain View School for girls. In 1971, the school’s male administrator noted that a girl “would never be any good if she doesn’t like herself.” His policy of solitary confinement, however, hardly encouraged self-esteem. A 1993 investigation revealed violations of the girls’ rights under the 1980 Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. The investigatory report noted inadequate staff training, excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and a facility “grossly deficient” in terms of environmental and fire safety. The school subsequently closed in 1996.”

    If you actually took the time to investigate, perhaps trough the archives of the Helena Independent Record newspaper records you will find the opposite under his charge. You will find numerous articles over those years about how he, and his staff, changed the whole environment of MVS. The 1993 investigation was well past his time, and he was not linked to that investigation AT ALL. That all came with those who came AFTER him. Do not link him to those men. It’s great you give such attention to Miss Ruby but I believe you are very uninformed and biased in regards to what my Dad did for MVS. He was at the legislature always trying to get more funding. He did not allow guns on campus by staff. Girls no longer were there to serve meals to the staff. He provided education, vocational skills, an open campus, recreation (building the little Cantina among other things) and compassion. My mother helped to put on “dinner dances” to fundraise for MVS. I spent alot of time there growing up. Your article is simply wrong. He was not perfect but he was an educated, insightful, dedicated, ethical man who did more for MVS and for the girls there than anyone. I still have his plaque/pen holder from the MVS girls that reads “To Mr. Robel, The best dad we ever had. With all our love, MVS girls 10-28-80.” I don’t believe anyone gets plaques like that anymore. He and Al Davis did more for MVS than you could ever understand. He also went on to help start the first group homes in Montana, in Billings. I have the tape of his speech. I highly suggest you do your research if you are going to write a well written article .

  12. I w
    Irked under the leadership of Superintendent Don Robel for 12 years from 1966 to 1978. This led to a 40 yeaR career in corrections. Had it not been for Supt Robel’s vision desire and struggle to reform a traditionally broken and ineffective juvenile justice system, I would have redirected my career. He saw those kids as who they were and what their potential was rather than simply responding to a “teach them a lesson” response. He was a fighter not afraud to take on judges. Bureocrats, polatitions, or parents. He performed his job with intelligence, hard work, persistence, experience, and, most of all a terrific Sens of humor. For the first time in the schools history, his vision was directed towards needs of kids rather than others. Working with Don Rebel was hard work but fun and rewarding! I continue to run into girls (ladies) that I crossed paths with at MVS and their first inquiry is about Don. I have fond memories of the girls and most of those working there during my tenure. It was the beginning of a reform movement that continues ( and struggles) today.

  13. Mr. Robel your dad taught me to whistle blowing into my hands… I still whistle like that remember when the boys were in aspen? My counselor was Dr. Leonard’s. We had a cigarette board 6 smokes on weekdays 8 on weekends. I learned how to be a CNA during my time there. …. so many memories.

  14. I would love to find out what happened to some of the girls I met there.I don’t remember all the names except one I still have a picture of me and her there.Her name was Sherry Walraven.z I was there in 1966 and 1967 Had my first fist fight with a girl there and we wound up being the best of friends.

  15. My great grandma, Ione (Conradson) Jackson was there according to the 1930 census records. She had already been married at 15 and divorced by the time she was there. I’m trying to find out if she had any children she gave up. I only know of my grandma and her sister.

  16. All you ladies that were there in 1984 and then 1986,87…I feel we no one another…Molly Paananen…have always wanted to no about the girls I spent time with in Cottonwood,Maple…

  17. There was one girl in Spruce when I was there in 86,87…she was up from texas.Its only rumored what she did so I won’t say…but she was only with the rest of us at meals in the caf.

  18. Im looking for a girl that was there around 1978-1980 named Shirley tall dark hair . Tough girl type. Anyone know her.

  19. I was there in the 70s. Just wondering where all the girls are and staff. I remember Mary my councilor and Steave & Al. I was one of the 2 girls who ran and was picked up and taken back from Florida!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *