The 1918 Y.W.C.A.
501 North Park Avenue

An early postcard view of the 1918 Y.W.C.A., seen from Park Ave. It's still standing and still in business -- but it needs your help!


Y.W.C.A. from the Federal Building, probably 1924


Y.W.C.A. from Fuller Ave., 1951



Helena YWCA, Independent - A Brief History of the Helena YWCA
by Historian Ellen Baumler

In 1972, Margaret Freeman, past Executive Director of the YWCA Independent, Helena, prepared a report tracing the history of both the international and local organizations. She urged present and future Helenans to remember that the building the pioneer members contributed to the community should be considered an endowment from them to the Helena YWCA.

Margaret Freeman rightly charged future generations of the Helena YWCA, local businessmen and women, residents of the facility, and board members to periodically review the beginnings of the local organization and be reminded of the sacrifices that its founders made. So it's my job today to follow this charge, keeping the history of the Helena YWCA alive in the hearts and minds of our community.

The Young Women's Christian Association began in London in 1855. Although Christian, it was inter-denominational. Its membership was open to all - even men could become members. But since it was a Christian organization, only Christian could serve on the administrative boards and hold offices. Its purpose was, and is today, "to draw together women and girls of diverse experience and faiths to open their lives to new understanding and deeper relationships in order that they may struggle for peace and justice, freedom and dignity for all people."

The YWCA movement came to New York City and Boston where women's residences opened in 1858. The first female boarding houses for students, teachers, and factory opened workers in NYC in 1860. This was the beginning of the industrial revolution when and a time women's roles were changing. Factories began baking bread, processing food, making clothes, and even laundry services were becoming industrialized. These were formerly women's activities, and with the rise of factories, women began to move from home to the cities to work in these new industries. Young women who left their families to work in cities needed decent, safe places to stay and wholesome but inexpensive meals. The Y provided this, filling an important niche. By the 1870s and 1880s, Y's had expanded their concerns for young women and offered occupational classes.

In 1890s, the first African-American branch opened in Dayton Ohio, and the YWCA established Traveler's Aid, and saw that chaperones on ocean liners were in place to protect women passengers in steerage.

In 1909 YWCA's International Institutes featured bilingual instruction to help immigrant women learn English and better adjust.

Throughout its history, the YWCA has been at the forefront in major pioneer movements in the US, including race relations, labor union representation, and the empowerment of women.

Now, for the more local story….. There is a certificate - from the YWCA, signed by the National Board President, dated October1906. This document notes that the University of Helena is a charter member of the YWCA. I am not sure what that means, nor what the Univ. of Helena was, but it is clear to me that there was some movement toward the establishment of a local YWCA well before the accepted founding date of 1911.

There was at this time in Helena no social agency to which a girl from out of town could apply for help in finding housing, information, or advice. This came to the attention of Dr, Maria Dean. She was the 27th physician licensed to practice in MT upon statehood in 1889 and the first woman to receive a medical license. She took her medical training at a time when there was blatant prejudice against women and overcame the tremendous odds graduating from medical school. It's important for us to remember today that by 1900, the average lifespan was 50 years, and one-fourth of all children born died before age 5. Medicine was not so much a practice of science as a practice of healing and compassion. And at this Dr. Dean excelled. During her lifetime she was an advocate and spokesperson for all women. Her medical practice was devoted to the diseases of women and children. She was on the original board of St. Peters hospital back in the 1880s and tirelessly worked for better medical facilities and funding. She was a proponent and a founder of the Mountain View School for Girls, making sure that young delinquent girls were moved from the industrial school at Miles City - which was originally for both girls and boys. And she was the driving force behind the early membership in Helena YWCA.

So there must have been some activity prior to 1911, but we do know for certain that in Jan. 1911, the first members elected officers, adopted a constitution, and appointed standing committees. The aim of the local organization was "to promote the moral, spiritual, intellectual, and temporal welfare of young women and to provide them with a home." Two young women from every church in Helena, including the Temple Emanu-El, were appointed to solicit members. By the end of March, 300 members had paid their dues. The Finance Committee raised funds and in May rented space in the Electric Block - which stood across from the Montana Club where the parking garage is today. The one rented room served as an office, lounge and reading room. Dr, Dean hired the first secretary-Frieda Fligelman-some of you may remember her and for those of you who don't, she was one of Helena's most beloved characters and a prominent member of the Jewish community. It was Frieda's job to find safe lodgings for girls and women, collect information, and counsel girls away from home. Clientele included working women such as teachers, stenographers, telegraph operators, women seeking employment, particularly students at the business college, and young girls who came from rural areas to attend high school. The Y quickly outgrew this temporary space. On Aug 10, just a few months later, the Y moved to the large house at 220 5th Avenue, a large Second Empire-style house off courthouse square.

At the time it was owned by the widow of dentist Frank Norris. Mrs. Norris operated it as a boarding house. It was partially furnished - two parlors, dining room, kitchen, pantries, bathroom, 9 sleeping rooms. The next month, in Sept. 1911, a cafeteria opened in the house. It was open to the public and quickly became a mainstay among many in the community.

The organization incorporated in 1912 and when it came time to affiliate with the national organization, the members chose to be an independent organization because at that time, the YWCA specified only Christian members could participate in the management of the chapter. Some of the pioneer women involved in the inception of the Helena YWCA were of divergent faiths, in particular Frieda Fligelman, who, as secretary, had already done tremendous work for the Helena Y. Although the rules have since changed and the YWCA boards now welcome all faiths, according to a visiting National Advisor in 1972, Helena remains the nations' only YWCA Independent. However, Helena has always been on good terms with the national organization.

In 1916 the Y moved from Fifth Avenue to 417 N Benton, a large house owned by John Sanford and Christmas Gift Evans. This became the new quarters The cafeteria also operated in this building and there were an average of 19 women and girls in residence. The house no longer stands. During this period when the Y was on Benton Avenue, Denver capitalist John H. Empson-who had considerable Helena investments-became a regular customer at the cafeteria and became very interested in the Helena YWCA. His wife was also involved in the Helena Y.

In 1918, Empson donated the corner lot at Placer and N. Park along with $25,000. But he stipulated that he would withdraw his offer if an equal amount could not be raised in 30 days. Businessman J. E. Bower, whose wife was very involved in the YWCA, took up the challenge and personally visited Helenans who he thought had an interest in the project. He secured $37,000 in one day, and rancher A. B. Cook donated at 8-foot strip of land adjoining Empson's property on the north, making room for a large structure. Under the leadership of the association president Mrs. A. K. Prescott, (Mary), ground was broken in May of 1918, and the present building was completed Feb. 19, 1919. Dr. Dean lived to see this dream come to fruition, but she died a few months later in May of that same year. The cafeteria operated on the ground floor for many years, and throughout its long history, the home has provided shelter for hundreds of women. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

So many women-and men-over the years have contributed time, hard work, and funds to keep the organization viable. The first board members rolled up their sleeves and scrubbed floors and painted woodwork to make a comfortable homey place for the first residents. That energy continues to transcend the century, and extends to the no less energetic women of today who recently rescued the historic facility from passing out of the organization's ownership, thus preserving its original function.

Among all the impressive, vital members who have contributed to the Helena YWCA, it seems necessary to mention Mrs. Harry(Adelaide) Child-the former Adelaide Dean was Maria Dean's sister-who was chairman of the Finance Committee during all the early fund-raising years. When John Empson made his generous donation in 1918, he also stipulated that the when the building was finished and furnished, there was to be no debt remaining. Of course, there was. Adelaide Child was the financial rescuer during this challenge and during other trying times when the Y ended up in the red. Her personal contributions offset the deficits many times over, and they amount to the largest made to the YWCA Independent.

Finally, I'd like close with a word about Mary Prescott, who was one of the founding members and president during the building of the current home. But you may not know that she was the wife of Alonzo Prescott, Montana's first tombstone maker. That is a story in itself….

Mary Prescott was a beautiful, soft-spoken woman who hardly ever raised her voice in anger. She raised five children, and during those busy years, she was always active in the community. She held her own as the first woman to serve on the Helena Public School Board and was on the first board of the Montana Children's Home, today Shodair Hopsital, and for thirty years one of her jobs was to sign adoption papers for children of the home. She and her husband gave the land upon which the old Shodair Hospital on Helena Avenue sits. Mary Prescott was a treasure to the community and when she passed away in 1934, the entire community mourned her death.
Among the clippings and personal items her daughters found is one saying that I want to leave you with today. This seems to apply very well to the long history of the YWCA and to all those whose well directed energy have made a difference, past and present. It reads:

"One ship sails east, another west, propelled by the selfsame blow
It's the set of the sails and not the gales that bids them where to go."

Keep up the good work!


Recent Interior Photos of the Y. W. C. A.
Courtesy of Ellen Baumler

Living room


Living room fireplace



One of 40 bedrooms.



A special toothbrushing sink, in vogue between World Wars I and II.