By Kevin S. Giles
When I began researching the life of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, I went to the law offices of Louise Rankin Galt. She was a block off Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana, continuing the practice she once shared with her late husband, Wellington Rankin.
In the years after Wellington’s death, Louise had married rancher Jack Galt, but she very much remained a link to the famous Rankin family.
Louise gave me a withering look – or so I thought. She was stern, both in appearance and by reputation as Montana’s first female county attorney, and it was plain she meant business. What was I writing? Why was I writing it? What did I expect people would learn from my research? I didn’t have much experience with aggressive attorneys back then. I realize now that Louise was showing me her softer side. She would tell me years later that she approved of me on sight.
That very day, she led me to a massive black desk in the back room. It was of a style like no other I had seen, made for one person to work on either side.
“This was Wellington’s desk,” Louise told me. “You can work here when you do your research and writing.”
In his heyday, Wellington Rankin ruled over a staggering land and legal empire. He was one of the most influential attorneys in Montana. He was also the state’s largest landowner, owning vast cattle ranches that stretched to the horizon on the state’s central plains. He was Montana’s attorney general, a state Supreme Court justice, and architect of his sister Jeannette’s two pioneering elections to Congress.
Wellington also was a character, known for intimidation in the courtroom and eccentric behavior on the streets. People often told me I should write about him instead of Jeannette.
I sat down at his desk. It breathed history, much as all of Helena. The city was a writers’ paradise, especially for writers interested in power brokers who had ruled over Montana from Helena’s big mansions and the towering stone buildings downtown.
I lived in that “Queen City of the Rockies” for seven years, a short time in retrospect, drinking up its past at local watering holes such as Big Dorothy’s Saloon. Helena was the place where I genuinely settled on the notion of becoming a writer, although when I lived in Australia before that, I wrote a western novel that never saw the outside of a filing cabinet.
Wellington and Jeannette Rankin were dead and gone before I moved to Helena. It still was a place to meet characters. Thanks to my job as a writer for the local Independent Record newspaper I ate a steak dinner with the cowboy actor Ben Johnson, an Oscar winner for “The Last Picture Show,” at the Placer Hotel. I rode
around in a limousine on Helena’s east side with Jack Elam, another Hollywood character actor, after he inhaled a bellyful of whiskey. I attempted to interview Army Gen. Omar Bradley, who commanded 1.3 million American troops at the time of D-Day, when he was underground in a radon mine seeking relief from arthritic knees. (The major and captain who were guarding him kept me away but I still managed a story about the famous infantry general sitting under a bare light bulb in the cold mine, an orange blanket covering his legs.)
All of this excitement had little to do with the actual task of researching and writing a book, where a person can spend hundreds of hours in solitude. And so I toiled away at Wellington’s desk, opening the office on weekends with a key Louise provided, carefully making notes on a legal pad and stopping occasionally to inspect deep scratches in the polished wood. Only many years later did I come across a photograph of Wellington working at that desk about 1920. He was a young attorney then – and I doubt Louise was yet born. They were a generation apart in age but shared a zeal for the law and fast horses.
The next time I saw Louise she was very old and preparing to die. I drove to central Montana to the sprawling 71 Ranch that Wellington owned when he was living. She was thin and tired. An oxygen tube at least fifty feet long snaked to a tank I couldn’t see. We sat in the great room of the big house where she talked of elk in the yard, of the foothills full of deer, of her law career and adoration for the Republican Party, of her family’s love for wide open spaces. We talked of that day we met at her law office. I confessed that I was somewhat afraid of her back then.
To that, Louise shot back: “Aren’t you still?”
She is gone now, too. She was the last of the Montana Rankins, at least the last of them who remembered Jeannette and Wellington living in Helena and commanding a fair bit of political influence even in their golden years.
I wrote on a typewriter in those days, clicking away in hopes of making something of myself while the city slept and the cavernous old buildings where the Rankins once tread went dark in the night. It was there, in Helena, where I came to know so many stories waiting for someone like me to put them to words. I thank Helena for that, and I thank Louise.
Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books are set in his native western Montana. Two of his books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)