Montana celebrates the sesquicentennial of Montana Territory in 2014. This week the Montana Historical Society announced that one of its key themes would be women’s history and then pinpointed key individuals and places, including the East Glacier Women’s Club. I could not agree more that new attention needs to be given to community institutions, established by and operated for women. In my 1984-85 work on the Montana historic preservation plan, I did not ignore women’s clubs–the Deer Lodge club house, an attractive Bungalow from 1904 was included in the survey–but I did not systematically look for these buildings and think about what they meant to local women and to the community at large.
Woman’s Club in Deer Lodge, 1904
The General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Montana organized that same year, 1904, and the federation’s magazine, The Montana Woman, is a great way to trace the creation and expansion of clubs across the state, from the major cities to places as small as Sula in the southwest corner of Montana. Once you make a commitment to locate extant historic club buildings, you find a range of building types.
The Moore Woman’s Club and Community Center in Fergus County dates to 1915, and so many existing rural club buildings belong to that decade of the homesteading boom of the early 20th century. In 2012 I spent two days is Wisdom, where the old woman’s club building of the 1910s has been converted into a lodge, one of the best examples I have encountered in rural America of finding a new, effective use for a community building.
The Wisdom club house is a small frame building, seemingly too small to be a community building but when placed into the overall context of the emerging built environment of the homesteading landscape, it was a substantial building–compared to the typical homesteading tar-paper shack.
Women’s organizations also proved adept at adapting older buildings for their use. The Coalwood Ladies Aid Society, established 1915 in Powder River County north of Broadus, meets at the Coalwood School, built c. 1945. A small rural population does not deter 21st century Montana club women from keeping the institution alive, witness the earlier post on the Wise River Women’s Club, dated to 1958, but with a recent expansion of the club house/community building.
The Malta Woman’s Club organized in 1903 but the clubhouse dates to the New Deal era of 1937. Construction of the building was part of a $40,000 Works Progress Administration project in Malta that included the construction of a new city hall, a resettlement administration building, and a “ladies community center.” (Phillips County News, January 24, 2001). As in other Montana towns, the clubhouse served as a town’s de facto library, using books donated by club members, and the club undertook such community improvement projects as erecting a fence around the Malta cemetery and supporting the town’s first blood mobile.
There’s more to come in this discussion of women’s club and Montana’s landscape, but this initial post certainly agrees with the MHS announcement that there’s a big, significant women’s history story to be found in the Treasure State–club buildings are a good place to start.