Fisk, Robert and Elizabeth, House
Elizabeth Fisk made a mark in Helena, Montana. Helena became a settlement in 1862 due to a gold rush, then it became the capitol of the Territory and later the State of Montana. Connecticut native Elizabeth (Lizzie) Chester, born in February 1846, was the older of Isaac and Azubah Chester’s two daughters. It was after she married Colonel Robert Fisk (1839-1908) and agreed to move to Helena, Montana, that she made a name for herself by becoming involved in political associations, charity work, education, temperance and church organizations. During her husband’s trips east to secure supplies and advertising for the newspaper Lizzie enjoyed a level of independence uncommon for middle or upper class women on the frontier. Colonel Robert Fisk became involved as an editor of an early Montana newspaper, The Helena Herald. Here he wrote editorials supporting the Republican Party in Montana, advocating African American voting rights and suffrage in the territory. These were radical ideas among both Republicans and Democrats in the territory at the time.
Within five years of settling in Helena, Lizzie became an active member in church, politics and social groups including the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Poor Committee in the state. On several occasions she visited the “poor farm” to provide assistance to the indigent. One of the many tasks Elizabeth took on was tutoring children for $1.00 per week before public schools existed in Helena, sometimes in the company of one of her brother-in-laws, sometimes alone, and sometimes with bachelor physician William B. Bullard. She also was involved in the temperance movement there, writing to her mother after witnessing a neighbor making “a complete fool of himself” that “I cannot understand how any man can be as lost to every principle of manhood as to (seek) in intoxication relief from sorrow.”
The home that she and her husband lived in, now called the Robert and Elizabeth Fisk Residence in Helena, Montana, built on North Rodney Street and situated one block from the original Governor’s Mansion for the state of Montana, was one of the first buildings constructed in the Helena during the 1870s with an eye towards permanence and prosperity. The property remains today largely as it was following the Fisk’s expansion between 1892 and 1895. The home displays the massing, bays, large porch and complicated roofline frequently associated with Late Victorian architectural style. It is a two-story building with a large attic, rectangular with a wood frame residence with a sturdy stone foundation.
The couple moved into the new house, with their 2 year old daughter Grace, in 1871. The house soon became the social center of town, and the “Women’s Society” met there. In general, Lizzie was committed to improving the cultural life of Helena, and she won a contest being voted the most popular lady in Helena during January 1872. Robert L. Fisk, their second child, was born about this time. Two more sons, Rufus Clark and Asa Francis, were born in 1874 and 1876. As their family grew, Lizzie began to agitate for a larger house. By 1882, with the arrival of the twins Florence and James, action was needed and the following year the roof was raised above the kitchen, adding an extra room and closet upstairs.
Helena was prospering, and by 1888 fifty millionaires lived in the town, making their fortunes off gold and creating the greatest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world. Lizzie retained high standards even among them, refusing in March of 1886 to attend a millionaire mine owner’s wedding to a woman nearly 40 years his junior. She and her husband were very vocal in politics, being local leaders of the Republican Party, and she was upset when the Senate Democrats fled the state to keep the Republican majority from electing U.S. Senators. Lizzie compared the state Democrats to “the same old rebel element which was never whipped and never reconstructed both here and in Washington dictating to true and loyal men.” Helena’s boom eventually ended with the Panic of 1893, and because they could not sell the house in this environment, they undertook a major renovation of their home, giving them much needed room. The family stayed in the house until December 1902 when Robert sold the Helena Herald and took part of the family to Berkeley, California, where they spent the rest of their lives. Six years later he died there. Elizabeth outlasted him by 19 years, passing away at Berkeley in April 1927. Their last decade in Helena witnessed their children coming of age, marrying, leaving the family home, and returning again. The Robert and Elizabeth Fisk House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on January 17, 2007.
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