From Independence Record, March 31, 2013    
Once upon a time ... at the Montana Historical Society

Remembering Lily Toole, Montana’s first first lady
By Ellen Baumler of the Montana Historical Society

First Home of the Tooles in Helena, Montana

Springtime in Helena always makes me think of first lady Lily Rosecrans Toole. Although few may remember her, she left this community with a lasting legacy
we all enjoy. When spring finally comes, during that brief time when lilacs perfume every breeze and the promise of rebirth is on our minds, Lily serves as a poignant example of nature’s cycle of loss and renewal.

Lily was a gentle soul. Born to the prominent family of Brigadier General William Stark Rosecrans of Civil War fame, Lily grew up in Ohio a devout Catholic. Her family home was a former convent, her uncle was a Catholic bishop, and three of her siblings entered the religious life. On May 5, 1890, Lily married Joseph Kemp Toole, first governor of the new state of Montana. She was 36; he was nearly 40.

The private, informal wedding took place in Washington, D.C., at the parsonage of St. Matthew’s Church. The New York Times explained that Gov. Toole was not a Roman Catholic, and there was not time to obtain the dispensation required for a wedding in the Catholic Church. Lily wore a dark green traveling dress. Her father and two friends were the only guests.

The newlyweds were at home in Helena at 102 S. Rodney St. Until 1913, when the state purchased the Original Governor’s Mansion, Montana governors supplied their own executive residences. Lily settled into her role as Montana’s first lady. A son, named Rosecrans after Lily’s famous father, was born in 1891. The couple had two more sons, Edwin Warren in 1892 and Joseph Porter in 1896. Lily was a gracious hostess and an avid gardener. In the yard of the Rodney Street house, she planted an apple tree for each boy and lilacs to remind her of Ohio. Her lilacs and two of the apple trees still live.

Lily saw that Joseph converted to Catholicism, and the children were raised Catholic. She was a devoted mother and also very close to her father and sister, Anita. In 1898, when Rosecrans was 7, Lily left the boy with his Aunt Anita in California, hoping that the climate would benefit his delicate health. Lily was en route back to Montana when Rosecrans died suddenly of diphtheria. Lily later wrote that Anita held the little boy in his last moments and heroically “sang to him softly until he waked to hear the angel choirs.” Three weeks after Rosecrans’ death, Lily’s father passed away from the shock of losing his favorite grandchild and namesake. Following the two deaths, Anita Rosecrans moved in with the Tooles in Helena.

Anna Dolores “Anita” Rosecrans, a former Ursuline nun, became Joseph Toole’s secretary when he was elected to a second term as governor in 1900. Anita was much beloved by the Helena community. A gifted musician, on Sundays she played the celebrated Barckhoff tracker organ at the First Baptist Church after attending her own Catholic services. In 1903, Anita’s sudden death from pneumonia devastated Lily and the community. Hundreds attended a memorial at the First Baptist Church. In his eulogy, the Rev. James McNamee called Anita Rosecrans’ passing “a public loss.” Lily never lost her composure.

The Tooles moved into their second executive residence at 203 N. Ewing in March 1904, hoping to leave painful memories behind. But six months later, criminal Isaac Gravelle escaped from the Lewis and Clark County jail, took refuge in the Tooles’ basement stairwell, and ended his own life. Lily was alone in the house with her two boys. She rose above this terrible event as she had from other tragedies, always striving to be a good mother to her children and a gracious hostess.

In 1903, as the Capitol grounds were landscaped, first lady Lily Toole personally planted many lilacs, perhaps partly in memory of her sister so recently lost. These lilacs graced the Capitol’s back lawn until the 1980s. But many of the lilacs Lily brought from the East, and cuttings from those she planted, still bloom all over town. For that week of renewal when every breeze brings the rich scent of lilacs, think of Lily Toole and her gift to the community.

203 North Ewing Street


Ellen Baumler is the interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society.
Used with permission from Ms. Baumler

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