George Eliot wrote “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” The Extreme History Project hopes to remember some of our dearly departed in Bozeman and surrounding region by sharing with you the stories of people buried in our local cemeteries. Watch this space to learn just who those people are in the cemetery. They all have lifetimes of stories to tell.
Florence Ballinger Hamilton – By Amy Katherine Talcott
The author would like to extend her sincere gratitude to Jane Davidson Klockman, granddaughter of Lulu Ballinger Davidson and grandniece of Florence Ballinger Hamilton, whose reminiscences and extensive collection of correspondence and photographs made this biography possible.
Much has been written in Bozeman history of James Hamilton, the third and much-admired president of Montana State College. We know that his first wife, Mary Shideler Hamilton, was made namesake for the college’s first female dormitory, Hamilton Hall, after her death in 1909.
But what of James’s second wife, Florence, a full-time faculty member at the college and fascinating figure in her own right? From her childhood journey by prairie schooner to a remote Paradise Valley homestead to her passing one year after the moon landing, Florence’s story is one of surprising independence spanning nearly a century of Montana history.
Florence Ballinger was born in 1873 in Troy, Missouri, the youngest of six surviving children born to Merrill Smith Ballinger and Jane Hardcastle Ballinger. Jane and Merrill hailed from nearby Illinois and had lived most of their lives in the region, raising five girls and one boy and enjoying a seemingly contented existence. And yet in 1880, when Florence was seven, the couple bundled up their three youngest daughters and boarded a wagon train bound for the mountains of Montana.
What would possess a couple well into middle age—Jane was then 48, Merrill almost 60— to abandon home and hearth for a rugged and isolated wilderness? Correspondence shows fond relations with family and friends in Missouri and Illinois, and there is no evidence of financial struggles. Jane was said to have been consumptive, providing one practical cause for the relocation, but the severity of her condition is uncertain considering she ultimately lived to the age of 90.
Could it have been adventure, not only illness, that drove the family forward? Merrill was no stranger to it, after all. In his twenties, drawn by the booming Gold Rush, he’d driven a herd of cattle from Illinois to California, only to be disappointed by his mining prospects. His trip home took the standard circuitous route, from San Francisco to Panama to New York and finally back home to Illinois. The ensuing years had brought him a wife and children and a career as a farmer and druggist. But perhaps his youthful travels had embedded in him a yearning for exploration that could not be suppressed.
Whatever their motivations, the Ballinger family set out overland in the spring of 1880. Space in the wagon was at a premium, and Florence—or “Torncy,” as her family knew her—was made to walk alongside the caravan with her sisters Lucy (“Lulu”), 10, and Eliza, 14. For the rest of her life Florence boasted a collection of rocks and artifacts picked up along the way. The two older sisters, Brunette (“Nettie”) and Julia, were older, at 24 and 23 respectively, and remained in Missouri with plans to relocate in the coming years.
The sole Ballinger boy, 21-year-old Joe, had made an early start for Montana to stake out a possible homestead. For scenery, he could have scarcely picked a better spot. The family settled on a rolling plot of 160 acres in the Paradise Valley, near present-day Livingston at the base of the Hogback Trail. A simple log cabin was raised to provide shelter until a more proper home could be built. Looking from the cabin to the east, the land sloped down to the banks of the Yellowstone River, over which the Absaroka Mountains loomed. The more distant Gallatin Range rose to the west.
In 1880 there was no town of Livingston, only a tiny trading post called Benson’s Landing about three miles downriver of the current city plot. Most supplies could be had only by making the 40-mile journey by wagon over the treacherous pass to Bozeman. Nonetheless, the family stuck it out. Merrill and Joe farmed and raised livestock, while Jane and her daughters gardened and cooked and swept and canned to fill the shelves of an outdoor root cellar that’s still intact today. The girls were homeschooled by their mother, herself a college graduate.
Those first winters, with bitter winds whipping snow across the valley and temperatures habitually plunging below zero, were surely made more bearable by knowledge of what was to come. West from North Dakota, crews from the Northern Pacific Railroad were steadily laying track along the path of the Yellowstone River. Finally, in late 1882, the first trains rolled into the valley and Livingston was chartered. The town grew from roughly 500 residents in 1882 to nearly 2,800 in 1900, making it the sixth largest in Montana.
By 1883 Nettie and Julia had joined the family in Livingston. Julia arrived with a new husband in tow, a prominent Missouri attorney who in 1889 became the first elected judge in the district that comprised Park, Gallatin, and Meagher Counties. The indomitable Nettie never married and became, in 1891, Park County’s first female superintendent of schools. Around that time Eliza wed E.H. Talcott, a wealthy son of the east and president of Livingston’s National Park Bank.
Whether forged by the sorority-like closeness of their clan or by the looser societal constraints of their Western town, the Ballinger sisters enjoyed lives that were remarkably independent and carefree. With two of their number comfortably installed in the homes of “Banker’s Row” (a cluster of large homes along S. Yellowstone and S. 5th Streets), the sisters and their coterie took up the mantle of “society folk” in a town that lacked any real society at all.
In high-collared Victorian dresses and ribboned hats, they held court on the generous front porch of the Henry House and the sprawling lawn of the Talcott House. The men donned three-piece suits and top hats for wagon rides up Mission Creek. The women strolled alongside the Yellowstone River with lacy parasols and lace-up boots. They rode horse-drawn carriages through the snowy streets and staged photographic tableaux in the richly appointed parlors and libraries of Banker’s Row.
Near the turn of the century, it came time for Florence to leave home. Like her mother and at least one sister before her, she sought out a formal education—a remarkable endeavor for a woman of her time. Florence first earned her teacher’s certificate from colleges in Kansas and Missouri and then returned home to study art and domestic science at Montana State College (now MSU). While a student there, she reportedly played on the women’s basketball team, sporting the standard uniform of bloomers, midi-blouse, stockings, and tennis shoes. After graduating she traveled to New York and Chicago to complete domestic arts and teaching courses at Columbia and New York University.
Finally, around 1906, Florence was hired as an instructor in the home economics faculty at Montana State College. Her specialty was textiles, and she eventually rose to the position of assistant professor of domestic art. The classes she taught ranged from beginning sewing to advanced dressmaking, as well as decorative needlework and millinery. In the 1914-15 Montana State Catalog, the description for one of her classes, titled simply “Textiles,” lists Chemistry I as a prerequisite and promises a “study of fabrics beginning with their place in primitive life and tracing their development, manufacture and economic value up to the present time.”
It was customary then for single women to board with family, and Florence lived most of the first two decades of the twentieth century with her sister Lulu, who in 1895 had married Bozeman banker Wells Davidson and moved into a home on S. Willson. Though the rest of the Ballinger family remained in Livingston, the sisters and their mother made frequent trips back and forth, continuing their porch parties, picnics, and photo shoots, now often with young children in tow. Merrill died in 1907 at the age of 86, while Jane lived on until the age of 90, passing away in 1922. The mountain air, evidently, had agreed with them both.
In 1914 Florence traveled to Europe with a group of faculty from the college. The travelers took a grand tour of sorts until the outbreak of World War I necessitated their hasty exit by way of Italy. When commenced Florence’s romance with James Hamilton we do not know, but the two had been acquainted for many years by 1918, when they were wed in a small ceremony. Florence was 45 and had never before seen fit to marry, despite (or perhaps owing to) her beauty and acumen. James, 57, was widowed with no surviving children and had by then served as president of MSU for 14 years.
By all accounts the marriage was a happy one. The couple lived first at the Evergreen Apartments and then bought a home at 713 S. Willson Avenue. They were members of the local Unitarian Church. Their union necessitated Florence’s resignation from the college—it was apparently unseemly for “proper” married women to work outside the home—but as a woman of broad interests, she contentedly busied herself with social visits, the support of her husband’s scholarship, various hobbies, and occasional travels.
James suffered a stroke in 1940 and died soon after. Blessed with the longevity of her parents, Florence would live on another 30 years, most of it spent independently in her home. While continuing with her sewing and needlework, she took up gardening, planting wild hollyhocks, lilacs, poppies, peonies, sweet peas, and plum and apple trees in the yard of the Willson Street house. She read voraciously and had a love of games and storytelling, often regaling her sisters’ children and grandchildren with tales from their overland journey to Montana. She collected handmade dolls and textiles and had a particular fondness for fine lace. Birds were another favorite. Larry Merkel, who lived next door to “Mrs. Hamilton” in the mid-1950s, recalls her teaching him to identify the songs of pine siskins, chickadees, and rosy-finches. And she of course continued to enjoy a close relationship with her sisters and their families, Lulu especially.
Toward the end of her life, as age was taking more of a physical toll, Florence moved to the senior-care facility of Hillcrest, where letters would arrive from two Montana governors congratulating her on her 96th and 97th birthdays. Recalling her journey to Montana by prairie schooner, Florence in her final year of life spoke of the wonder of living to see a man walk on the moon. She died at Hillcrest in 1970 at the age of 97. Ever committed to the betterment of Bozeman, she requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations in her memory be made to the newly established Museum of the Rockies.
Florence’s nephew Paul Davidson, with whom she was close, and his wife, Marie, purchased her home on S. Willson prior to her death. The house is occupied today, fittingly, by 92-year-old Jane Davidson Klockman, Paul’s daughter and Florence’s grandniece, a similarly intrepid, independent woman who has dedicated herself to the historic preservation of Bozeman.
Florence is buried in Bozeman’s Sunset Hills Cemetery.
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I used to mow mrs, hamilton’s lawn during the mid 50’s. It’s interesting to learn about her life.
Hi Rob, you are lucky to have met her, what an amazing woman!