The Fenton House
Backstory and Context
The ranch property was originally owned by a man named John Barber who, in 1864, claimed it using preemption. It seems it was part of a larger property he owned. Jane Ferris, who was born in Scotland, and her two children (a son and daughter) settled on the property in 1866 after arriving from Colorado. By then, Ferris was widowed; her husband, Henry, had died in a mining accident in Montana in 1864. It is believed that Ferris learned of his death when she and the children were on their way to be with him. They returned to Colorado for a time then relocated to Virginia City, Montana the next year, before settling on the ranch in 1866. Apparently, Ferris worked as a housekeeper for Barber until he died in 1872.
Congress passed the Preemption Act in 1841. It allowed squatters in Western states to secure ownership of 160 acres of land. Temporary preemption laws were passed in the 1830s but Eastern states opposed them. They believed the laws would encourage immigrants to move west and therefore decrease the labor supply. In response, the federal government agreed to allow the profits from land sales to be distributed to Eastern states (distribution ended in 1842 and preemption in 1891). Sadly, Ferris passed away in 1873. However, she is representative of the many women in the West who were heads of households and claimed land.
The next owner of the ranch was German immigrant Fred Hermsmeyer, who bought it in 1883 using money he earned as a miner and sawmill owner. The family owned the ranch until 1917. After a series of owners, Stanley and Helena Fenton bought it in 1937. Beginning in 1943, the Fentons began hosting birthday parties to children living in a state orphanage in Twin Bridges. They bought the furniture still located in the living room to give the children a sense of home. Stanley died in 1959 but Helena lived in the house until she passed away in 2000. She became an award-winning reporter working for Montana newspapers and the Associated Press. It is not readily apparent when the ranch house opened up for ministers.
"History." The Fenton House. Accessed June 29, 2020. http://www.thefentonhousemt.com/history.
Jenks, Jim. "Ferris/Hermsmeyer/Fenton Ranch." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. January 9, 2008. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/07001364_text.
The Montana National Register Sign Program. “Ferris / Hermsmeyer / Fenton Ranch.” Montana Historical Society - Digital Vault. Accessed June 29, 2020, http://digitalvault.mhs.mt.gov/items/show/20296.
The Fenton House