What's the story behind Montana's old state orphanage?
Austin Amestoy: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans for Montana, this is the Big Why.
This week, a listener’s question sent me on a trip to the southwest Montana town of Twin Bridges, population 330. Joining me for the ride is MTPR producer Nick Mott — hi Nick!
Nick Mott: Hey Austin! So, Twin Bridges — what were you doing there?
Austin: Well, Helena listener Pat Helvey had a long-simmering curiosity about a relic of Montana history that still sits just across the Beaverhead River from the town.
Pat Helvey: Well, the question is, why did Montana have to set up an orphanage?
Nick: Whoa, an orphanage?
Austin: Oh yes — the former Montana State Orphanage, to be exact. Some may know it by its more recent name.
Inez Keith: “This was the main entrance — well, it still even has, ‘Montana Children’s Center.”
Austin: That’s 70-year-old Inez Keith. She and I were able to check out the remains of the Montana Children’s Center on a cloudless day in late August. Inez lived there for a decade before it shut down in the 70s. Back then, the brick-and-wood buildings spread across a grassy field were home to hundreds of kids. Today, those buildings are abandoned and decaying — ceilings caving in, gaping holes in wooden walls and floors.
As we walked from building to building, that transformation weighed pretty heavily on Inez.
Keith: “Oh, it’s just … it’s hard to describe. It’s just like, a lot of different things going through my memory, and stuff, but, it’s just like, oh, it’s sad to see it closed down. Just breaks my heart.”
Nick: Wow. I can’t imagine what that must be like for her.
Austin: Yeah, it was pretty incredible to watch her filter through so many memories.
But, Nick, I want to come back to Inez in a minute. Pat Helvey wanted to know why Montana built that orphanage back in the late 1800s. And, that question took me back across the Beaverhead River to the Twin Bridges Historical Association Museum.
Austin: That’s where I met Joy Day. She’s spent the last 25 years collecting every scrap of Twin Bridges history she can find — and a lot of that history revolves around the orphanage.
Nick: Sounds like a promising place to dig up some history!
Austin: Yeah, I knew I was in the right place when Day and other museum volunteers busted out these massive black binders filled with annual reports and newspaper clippings about the orphanage.
Nick: So, what did you find out?
Austin: Well, as a “state” orphanage, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the third Montana Legislature back in 1893 approved the construction of the facility in Madison County. They shelled out $15,000 — about half a million in today’s money — to construct this huge, Victorian-style house where the orphanage’s first kids lived.
Lawmakers would dole out more funding to expand the facility over the next 80 years with new dormitories, an elementary school, a state-of-the-art indoor pool and gymnasium, and more.
Nick: Wow, that sounds like a small city on its own!
Austin: It really was, Nick. It had to be, because when its resident population peaked during the Great Depression, more than 300 kids called it home.
The Twin Bridges museum didn’t have records of the discussions that led to the decision to build an orphanage, but Joy Day told me her most educated guess: life in Montana’s frontier days was just plain difficult, and the state had to do something if families were going to have a place to land when they fell on hard times.
Day: “You know, they always said over here, and I’ve always heard that all along: ‘very few true orphans.’ They were families that couldn’t take care of their children.”
Nick: Wait — “very few true orphans.” What did she mean by that?
Austin: Day is getting at something that surprised me as I researched this story. It’s important to know that, when the Montana State Orphanage opened in 1895, the foster care system didn’t exist in the state. Kids without caretakers would often wind up on the streets, especially in the bigger cities out East.
Orphanages were created to keep that from happening, but the name is kind of a misnomer. Most of the kids at the Montana Children’s Center had one or sometimes both parents still living — just unable to care for their kids.
And that brings me back to Inez Keith.
Nick: Right, you said she lived at the Children’s Center before it closed down?
Austin: She did. I found Inez through a Facebook group where folks who lived at the orphanage chat and share memories and connections with each other. The page includes more than 350 former residents and their families. Inez says her parents sent her and her five siblings there in 1963 after a difficult divorce. Inez was 10 years old, but still recalls what that first day at the Children’s Center was like.
Keith: “But, it was raining the day that we went into the cottage, which was called ‘Cinderella,’ because that’s where the little girls stayed in. I remember, my sisters and I, we walked in and there were heads popping out of every door there was. And it was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ But, it didn’t take long, and they had brushes and they were combing our hair.”
Austin: Inez remembers a pretty amazing array of details from her time at the Children’s Center, from the main office:
Keith: “... which looked just like Cinderella’s castle.”
Austin: to the kids’ Sunday routine:
Keith: “... we would get to go down, and there was a Catholic church on the left and a Protestant church on the right.”
Austin: to the way the radiators in the buildings sounded during cold winters.
Keith: “I remember just getting real close to it, and stuff — the cracking and the popping.”
Austin: By all accounts, the Children’s Center was in pretty good shape in its latter years.
Nick: Obviously that didn’t stay the case for long.
Austin: It sure didn’t. The facility closed in 1975 as foster care became a more popular alternative to children’s orphanages, and it was eventually sold to a series of private owners. Some did a bit of upkeep, but the buildings began to fall apart. Their newest owner bought the property earlier this year, and allowed Inez and me to see what remains.
Keith: “Look at these books. That is amazing!”
Austin: We stopped in the dining hall first — this big, echoey building that looked just like an old school cafeteria — and we found some kids story books piled up in a dusty pantry in the back.
Keith: “Oh, ‘Henry the–’ oh, my gosh. I remember reading these kind of books to my son. ‘State of Montana Children’s Center.’”
Austin: Inez traced the pages with her fingers and flipped a few of them.
Keith: “Ah. You guys, you just don’t know what this is doing to my heart.”
Austin: The contractor who showed us around let Inez keep a couple mementos from our visit, including that book.
Nick: Wow. I’m really struck by how important that place seems to be to Inez.
Austin: Yeah, it was honestly pretty moving to see her take it all in. It was clear that the Children’s Center had been her home, and that she’d made a lot of fond memories there. She said she loved her house parents like family.
But, it wasn’t all good. Inez told me her late brother suffered sexual abuse from some of the staff there. Many kids would make attempts to run away, and punishments for misbehaving could be pretty cruel. Inez says employees would sometimes lock kids alone in utility closets or small rooms and only visit to bring them meals. Spankings and other beatings were also common for a time.
Nick: Hmm. Inez really paints a complicated picture of the place. Some good, definitely some bad. What does she think about the Children’s Center today?
Austin: It’s such a good question, Nick. I was having a hard time trying to figure out if the state’s plan to give a home to its “destitute” children, as it called them, was a success or not. Was it good? Was it bad? Inez had a really interesting answer to that question.
Keith: "My thinking is it was a good thing that there was something like that back then, because where would those kids have gone?”
Austin: My takeaway is that orphanages like the one in Twin Bridges had plenty of good and bad aspects. But, for kids like Inez, they were a home, when they might have not had one otherwise.
Nick: Austin, thanks for the history lesson.
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