First women to…remember
Part one in Women’s History Mont series
This month, a little pop-up under the Google search bar included a link to a video commemorating Women’s History Month. Its caption stated that in the past year the phrase ‘the first woman’ was searched more than ever before. The video went on to highlight some feminine firsts, ranging from coronavirus vaccination research to scaling peaks. This month, the Lookout honors a few of Big Sky’s firsts.
Anne Marie Mistretta lives right next to the Crail Ranch Homestead Museum. She has an English degree, but history has always been her passion.
Mistretta started volunteering at the Historic Crail Ranch (HCR) Museum in 2003. While superintendent of the Big Sky School District from 2005-2010, she took a brief hiatus, but the moment she retired, she came right back to the museum.
Between 2012-2015, a team of volunteers, the Historical Collections Committee led by Mistretta, were working on a plan for establishing exhibit goals at the museum. Before, exhibits really just consisted of objects—some collected by Mistretta and her husband who drove to meet the ‘lone grandchild’ of the Crail family who donated quite a few family objects.
“When we tried to set a path for exhibits and what we needed to exhibit, we started focusing in on the women because, yes, it was a homestead, but the women were oh so important in these homesteads,” Mistretta said. “It was at that point when I started researching the women that I really focused in on Annie Breneman because she had one foot in the homesteading and one foot in the cities, and she was incredibly accomplished for a woman of that time period.”
More on Breneman later.
Mistretta started creating these document drawers out archival flat file drawers in the Crail family’s old home. Not only did she create each drawer display herself, but she put together a sliding panel display and made all the labels for the exhibits. As she finished research for one drawer, she got a call from none other than a relative of Annie Breneman, her favorite early Montana heroine.
“The timing couldn’t have been better,” Mistretta said.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu, Breneman became guardian of her niece and nephew after Breneman’s brother and his wife died from the flu. The relative that contacted Mistretta in 2019 was a daughter of Glen Louise, Breneman’s niece.
More on that story in the Gallatin History Quarterly, likely to hit press at the end of the month.
In 2012, a different distant relative of Breneman’s adopted children contacted the Crail Ranch. Mistretta said this relative showed up with her grandparent’s marriage license to prove she was who she said she was.
“In those days, they were big. They were 17x11,” she said.
Breneman, like Mistretta, was an educator, and both women cared about their families and communities.
Mistretta is also concerned with the legacy of history.
“Local history is very accessible,” she said. What prompted so much of her devotion to the Crail Ranch was that others also passionate about local history were growing older.
“All of these people passing on made me do this stuff,” Mistretta, in her seventies but not looking a day over mid-fifties, said.
The Gallatin Canyon Women’s Club was instrumental in preserving the Crail Ranch, too, likely and arguably concerned about memory.
The club was the first philanthropic organization in the area. From 1953-2003, the club raised money by selling cookbooks created and compiled by women in the club. Money from this fundraiser usually went to school projects and eventually, to restoring the Crail Ranch after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.
In the early 1900s, the women’s club was headed by Dorothy Vick, another woman we will explore in the following weeks. The club received a sum of money from Caroline McGill, more on her, too, later, and Vick insisted this money be used for the school.
“The schoolhouse that actually had been built in 1929 by Eugene Crail was pretty disastrous by the late fifties. It was just a log house,” MIstretta said.
“Dorothy Vick led the community and the women’s club and the school board to ensure that that money would go to the school and there was a caveat that the school had to have a community room,” Mistretta continued.
In the high school today, she explained, if one walks past the front office there is a different sound the floor makes underneath your feet. Below, which is now storage, was the community room. The footfalls are hollower in this part of the school due to the forgotten room underneath.
There was a 15–20-year stint where the women’s club was the sole group restoring the Crail Ranch. They brought back the cookbooks to raise money for restoration and got the area cleaned up in the late nineties after a period of decline that followed the Crail Ranch’s placement on the historic register.
“It’s all intertwined,” MIstretta said.
The women’s club does still exist today. “It’s different now,” Mistretta said.
What has not changed, though, are the pillars that really define the Big Sky community, in large part set by some of the women we will learn more about in the coming weeks—education, resilience, community and legacy.