Come ‘Home for the Holidays’ at the Original Governor’s Mansion

November 23, 2017 GMT

Step into 1917 in the Original Governor’s Mansion at Thanksgiving — just seven months after the United States entered World War I.

A new interactive exhibit “Home for the Holidays” shares what it was like on the home front in Helena, particularly through Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Join MHS historical interpreter Bobi Harris Friday, Nov. 24, and Saturday, Nov. 25, to see and hear about contributions Montana women and children made to the war effort.

Free tours begin on the hour at noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m. at 304 N. Ewing.

Make sure to bring the kids.

There are hands-on activities to help them step back in time and imagine life here in Montana during World War I.

You couldn’t ask for a better tour guide than Harris, who easily breaks into rhymes and stories from WWI.

You’ll enter the gracious home of Montana Gov. Sam Stewart and his wife Stella, decorated for the holidays. The couple and their three daughters — Emily, Marjorie and Leah — were the first governor’s family to reside at the mansion, beginning in 1913.

Food tends to be on our minds at Thanksgiving, and making a holiday dinner during war years was a daunting culinary challenge.

Cooks had to cut back on wheat flour, sugar and meat.

And there was no alcohol, to boot, once Prohibition set in — a problem for Mrs. Stewart, no doubt, who liked to add sherry to her recipes.

In the kitchen, a wartime poster urges, “Save FOOD and defeat frightfulness.”

Not exactly catchy, but it seems to have worked.

Above the words is a picture of suffering women, some holding babies, who are bound by rope to an Iron Cross — a symbol of the German Empire.

The figures point to a quote: “America the hope of all who suffer — the dread of all who wrong.”

Another poster shows men harvesting ice and urges: “Ice is needed to Save Food for the Starving people of the World.”

You’ll learn about Hooverizing — the food rationing program named after Herbert Hoover, the federal Food Administrator during the war.

In the dining room, the wine glasses are absent from the dinner table — as a nod to propriety.

A Montana Prohibition referendum passed in November 1916, although the law didn’t go into effect until the end of 1918.

Upstairs, the Stewart girls would likely have played Red Cross nurse during the war years.

In one bedroom a doll in a nurse’s hat sits near another one on the floor in bandages. Even children were urged to learn to bandage, said Harris.

In the play room/sewing room, more dolls in Red Cross hats sip tea while their patients are lined up in miniature infirmary beds.

This weekend, kids can join in to make folded sanitary cups, which were used during the 1918 influenza epidemic to cut down on its spread.

There will also be paper dolls copied from that era and decorations to put on the tree.

Children also knit for the war effort, said Harris, usually squares that could be sewn together to make afghans.

A poster proclaims “Our Boys Need SOX — Knit Your Bit.”

Modern day Helena knitters gladly took up the challenge using WWI-era patterns to make items on display like those sent to the front, said Harris.

About 35,500 men from Montana served in the war effort, said Kirby Lambert, Montana Historical Society outreach and interpretation program manager.

“Montana sent a larger percentage of its men to war than almost any other state,” he said.

“After the United States declared war on Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire in April 1917, nearly 12,000 Montanans enthusiastically volunteered for service. After the passage of the Selective Service Act in May 1917, an additional 23,500 Montana men between the ages of 18 and 44 found themselves drafted into the military; this combined number represented roughly 17 percent of Montana’s draft-age male population.”

Montana women also served in the Red Cross, but no numbers are available.

Patriotism was strong in Montana, but history shows it could also be misguided.

During a special legislative session called by Stewart in February 1918, Montana passed a sedition law that “was possibly the harshest anti-speech law passed by any state in the history of the United States,” according to The Montana Sedition Project.

It resulted in the imprisonment of 79 people in Montana and became the model for a federal sedition law.

But these are just a few intriguing glimpses of what’s in store for visitors to the mansion.

“This has been the People’s House since 1913,” said Harris. “I like to see it used.”

She loves to welcome the public to the Victorian style mansion, which was built in 1888 and purchased by the state in 1913.

The free tours this weekend are “our holiday present for the citizens of Montana,” she said.

The free tours are also offered Saturdays at the same time through Christmas.

A very special tour is slated for Dec. 23, when kids can use the mansion’s historic crank phone as a hotline to Santa’s workshop.

Harris said that she hopes visitors gain “an understanding of the role that women and children had during the war.”

And it could even spark their curiosity to learn their own family’s stories.

For more information, call 444-3695.