Marker Logo HMdb.org THE HISTORICAL
MARKER DATABASE
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Virginia City in Madison County, Montana — The American West (Mountains)
 

The Remarkable Sarah Bickford

 
 
The Remarkable Sarah Bickford Marker image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, July 17, 2016
1. The Remarkable Sarah Bickford Marker
Inscription.
Born a slave in 1852 near Jonesborough, Tennessee, Sarah Bickford would become an iconic Montana businesswoman. Separated from her parents during the Civil War, upon conclusion of the war Sarah then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1870, local lawyer and former Union officer John L. Murphy received an appointment as a territorial judge in Virginia City, Montana. In exchange for passage west, Sarah worked as a nanny for Murphy's adopted children. They arrived in Virginia City in January 1871, where Sarah soon found work as a domestic servant.

On October 20, 1872, Sarah married John L. Brown. They lived two miles west of Virginia City on Granite Creek with their three children – Eva, William, and Leonard. In 1879, Brown abandoned Sarah and their only surviving child, Eva, as William and Leonard perished earlier in a diphtheria epidemic. Sarah soon filed for divorce, stating that John was physically abusive and unwilling to support his family. Always resourceful, Sarah then started the New City Bakery & Restaurant in downtown Virginia City. Tragically, Eva died in 1881.

In 1883, prior to Montana's 1909 miscegenation law prohibiting interracial marriage, Sarah married Stephen Bickford, a white man originally from Maine. The Bickfords had four children, Elmer, Harriet, Helena, and Mabel. In
The Remarkable Sarah Bickford Marker (<i>wide view; west side of the "Hangman's Building"</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, July 17, 2016
2. The Remarkable Sarah Bickford Marker (wide view; west side of the "Hangman's Building")
1888, Stephen Bickford made a business decision that would ultimately change Sarah's life: he purchased two-thirds of the Virginia City Water Company. Bickford also owned various lots, mining claims, and a small farm on the east end of town where the couple lived.

Sadly, Stephen Bickford died of pneumonia on March 22, 1900 leaving Sarah his shares of the water company in his $9500 estate. After his death Sarah further honed her business skills through a correspondence course at a school in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1902, she purchased the "Hangman's Building” as the water company’s headquarters. She installed a trap door which she would open for a small fee, revealing the notorious beam from which the Vigilantes hanged five alleged criminals in January 1864. Additionally, she installed a restroom for the region's affluent tourists.

Remarkably, Sarah bought out her partner in the water company, running the business until her death in July 1931. Her inspiring life story left an indelible mark on Montana History. For more information on this remarkable woman please visit http://sarahbickford.org/

In 2009, with funding from the Ford Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Montana Heritage Commission (MHC) a Partnership in Scholarship Grant to conduct research into the lives of Virginia City’s African American
Virginia City Water Company Office, circa 1931 (<i>inside "Hangman's Building"</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, July 17, 2016
3. Virginia City Water Company Office, circa 1931 (inside "Hangman's Building")
The Virginia City Water Company Office occupied this space from 1900 to 1947. Depicted much as it looked in the 1930s, the Water Company was owned and operated by Sarah (Sallie) G. Bickford for over thirty years until her death in 1931. Thereafter, Sarah's son Elmer operated the business until it was purchased in 1947 by the Town of Virginia City.
residents. This research conducted by MHC staff, public history faculty and students from Washington State University and the University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire added great depth to the knowledge of Virginia City’s African American community.
 
Location. 45° 17.613′ N, 111° 56.73′ W. Marker is in Virginia City, Montana, in Madison County. Marker is at the intersection of Wallace Street (State Highway 287) and Van Buren Street, on the left when traveling east on Wallace Street. Touch for map. Marker is a composite plaque mounted on a wait-high post, at the southwest corner of the "Hangman's Building". Marker is in this post office area: Virginia City MT 59755, United States of America.
 
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Elling Bank (a few steps from this marker); Hangman’s Building (a few steps from this marker); Creighton Stone Block (a few steps from this marker); Barlett’s Blacksmith Shop (within shouting distance of this marker); Old Masonic Temple (within shouting distance of this marker); Pfouts and Russel (within shouting distance of this marker); Metropolitan Meat Market (within shouting distance of this marker); F.R. Merk Block (within shouting distance of this marker). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Virginia City.
 
Also see . . .
Sarah Bickford Interpretive Plaque (<i>inside "Hangman's Building"</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, July 17, 2016
4. Sarah Bickford Interpretive Plaque (inside "Hangman's Building")
Sarah's story is truly remarkable...

A black woman born into slavery in North Carolina in 1855; after the Civil War she moved West by covered wagon to start a new life in Virginia City, Montana in 1871. In 1884, Sarah married Stephen E. Bickford, a prominent local businessman, who in 1888 purchased a controlling interest in the Virginia City Water Company. After Stephen's untimely death in 1900, Sarah assumed control of the Water Company and enrolled in correspondence courses in business management from a school in Scranton, Pennsylvania. During this same period Sarah purchased the Hangman's Building and established this convenient office location. Over the next several years she improved and expanded the water system and ultimately bought out her only partner, Harry Gohn, for $2500. Although Sarah was known as a likeable person, she was also a shrewd business woman, who did not miss the opportunity to collect a few dimes from curious visitors wishing to see the Hangman's beam. In 1917, she created quite a ruckus as indicated by a local newspaper article entitled: "Woman of Color Water Magnate - Mrs. Sallie Bickford stirs up Ancient Capital by Advancing Rates".
Sarah's longtime, local friend Evelyn Duncan Troglia remembers her by saying, "She deserves to be commemorated for she was an unusual woman, being black in an all white community. I, like you, would love to have learned more about her early life, but she more or less lived for the day, and didn't worry about the past."

1. Finding Sarah Gammon Bickford.
(This link presents a complete biography of Sarah Bickford's life, the result of decades of research.)
Searching the past for the history of a teenage slave is like searching through the fog for a ghost. That is, however, precisely what Washington State University Ph.D. student Laura Arata and I have been engaged in during the 2010/2011 academic year. In November of 2009, the Montana Heritage Commission, WSU Professor Orlan Svingen, WSU PhD student Laura Arata, and I received a Partnership in Scholarship Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The goal of the grant, when the project is complete in 2011, is for our work to serve as a national model for researching and interpreting African Americans in places where they have been largely overlooked, especially in the west. (Submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 

2. Sarah Bickford, from slave to owner of a water company.
In 1917, Bickford purchased the remaining third of the Water Company from longtime partner Philip Harry Gohn, the second investor when it was originally purchased in 1888. At this point, she became the only African American woman in Montana and possibly in the United States, to own a utility company. Known as “Montana’s First Career Woman,” Sarah Gammon Bickford managed the Virginia City Water Company until she died of
Location of Sarah's Trap Door to View Hangman's Beam (<i>inside "Hangman's Building"</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, July 17, 2016
5. Location of Sarah's Trap Door to View Hangman's Beam (inside "Hangman's Building")
She installed a trap door which she would open for a small fee, revealing the notorious beam from which the Vigilantes hanged five alleged criminals in January 1864.
a heart attack on March 22, 1931. (Submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 

3. Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford.
On April 10, 2012, Montana honored Sarah Bickford by inducting her into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. A former slave who became one of Montana’s most prominent businesswomen, Bickford richly deserved this honor. She was the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility. Yet despite her public success, Sarah Bickford’s life is difficult to piece together. Like most African Americans who came west, she carried the burden of slavery, making her past especially difficult to trace. (Submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.) 
 
Categories. African AmericansIndustry & CommerceWomen
 
Model of Vigilantes Hanging Five Alleged Criminals in 1864 (<i>inside "Hangman's Building"</i>) image. Click for full size.
By Cosmos Mariner, July 17, 2016
6. Model of Vigilantes Hanging Five Alleged Criminals in 1864 (inside "Hangman's Building")
 
 
Credits. This page was last revised on May 3, 2018. This page originally submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. This page has been viewed 69 times since then. Photos:   1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. • Andrew Ruppenstein was the editor who published this page.
Paid Advertisement