Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Hamilton Hall: Where Young Ladies and Romance Blossomed November 27, 2007 by Marjorie Smith • Published 11/27/07

Hamilton Hall, 2007. (Photo: Stephen Hunts)
Hamilton Hall, 2007.

The ROTC officers and cadets tromping on the two top floors of Hamilton Hall in their fatigues and combat boots seem unaware that their offices and meeting rooms were once the bedrooms of bevies of Montana State College coeds. People working in the admissions and internal audit offices, the Women's Center or the Writing Center might be surprised to hear of the romances spawned in the music room and library just off the parlor that once occupied the main floor.

"We called them the mush rooms," confesses Helen Rae McDermott Uhlrich who lived in "Ham" Hall from 1940 to 1942.

Hamilton Hall, four and a half stories high and with distinctive mission revival-style parapets (a frilly, feminine architectural detail among all the triangular gables on campus), was one of the first buildings designed by Bozeman's homegrown architect, Fred F. Willson. It was dedicated in 1910 in honor of Emma Hamilton, wife of then-MSC President James Hamilton, after she died a year before. For many years it was the only student residence on campus. All female students from outside the Bozeman area in the 1930s and 1940s were required to room there, unless they joined a sorority. The residents lived under close supervision of the housemother and other female officials, who also lived in apartments in the building.

It's been 70 years since Menga Herzog Huffman took the train to Bozeman from drought-parched eastern Montana and climbed the staircase into Hamilton Hall.

"They had white tablecloths for every meal," she recalls from her home in Bozeman. "I thought that was the height of sophistication."

Menga was just 17, the eldest of eight children growing up on a dairy farm outside Miles City, when she moved into Ham Hall in September 1937. After the chaos of meals at home, she thrived on the strict decorum insisted upon by the staff: director Mildred Leigh, her assistant, Agnes Wiggenhorn, and especially, Winifred Bennett, the housemother.

"We had a lot of fun at Ham Hall," says Uhlrich, formerly of Power and now of Bozeman, who worked first as a cleaner and eventually as head waitress, earning both room and board at Hamilton Hall. "But I want to stress how much we learned about respect and etiquette and how to dress from Ma Bennett and the others on the staff."

Huffman also remembers Mrs. Bennett.

"We called her Emily because she was so strict about manners, like Emily Post. They were also stern about how we should dress. It was unthinkable that you would go downtown without a girdle on."

Instead of numbers, the dorm rooms all bore the names of the first female residents, said Bob Ross of Bozeman, who worked as a houseboy in Ham Hall during the summer of 1943, just before entering the military.

"Go change the light bulb in Molly Strand, they'd tell us," Ross said.

Working at Ham Hall became a family tradition for Ross and his two brothers, who came from a ranch south of the tiny town of Musselshell, east of Roundup.

"The houseboys were always AGRs (from Alpha Gamma Rho, MSU's ag fraternity)," says Ross, who graduated in range science in 1949 after returning from the war. His professional career was with the Soil Conservation Service, but he is best known in some circles as the author of several volumes of light-hearted "cowboy" poetry. "When a houseboy graduated, he made sure to pass the job to a brother AGR. And Miss Leigh made getting the Ross boys through school a kind of personal project."

Hamilton Hall interior. (Photo: Courtesy of MSU Facilities)
Hamilton Hall interior.

Everyone remembers that if a houseboy was sent up to unclog a sink, he'd shout "Man on second!" or "Man on third!" to warn the young ladies. "Of course, sometimes we may have been a little late in shouting it," Ross admits.

In addition to instructions in etiquette, Ham Hall provided social development. "One girl would play the piano and we'd practice dancing with each other after dinner," Uhlrich remembers. She graduated in 1944 with a degree in home economics and worked as a nutritionist in the college's food services until she quit to raise a family.

"Sometimes boys from one of the fraternities would come to Ham Hall to dance with us," Huffman recalls. "One night the AGRs were there and I was dancing with this fellow named Roy and he was telling his friend a joke over his shoulder, while we danced. I laughed and laughed. A few days later, he called and invited me to a movie."

She really couldn't remember which young man had told the funny joke. "When they rang the bell on the second floor to tell me my date had arrived, I wasn't sure who I'd find waiting in the parlor." Apparently she was not disappointed. Roy and Menga were engaged before her freshman year was over. She dropped out of school to get married after that momentous freshman year but later, as a faculty wife, she went back to school and earned her B.S. in general studies in 1964.

As for those ROTC students currently on the upper floors of Ham Hall, there is a precedent. During the summer of 1943, more than 100 young women receiving accelerated nursing training were crammed into the building. That fall, the coeds were moved to fraternity houses that had been emptied by the war and young male air corps trainees filled Hamilton Hall.

Ham Hall completed its career as a dormitory in 1967 and was converted to offices. As it approaches its 100th birthday, it remains a favorite campus landmark, although it's had some narrow escapes according to Terry Sutherland, who presides over the architectural archives in MSU Facilities Services.

"At one time there was a proposal to build an underground museum topped by an office tower right where Hamilton Hall stands," he says. Now, MSU plans to spend about $1 million on structural stabilization work for the building.

"The evolving campus master plan envisions preserving Hamilton Hall for the long term," promises Robert Lashaway, MSU's associate vice president of university services.

-marjorie smith

Marjorie Smith is a Bozeman writer who is thankful for the dances held in Hamilton Hall during its heyday. She is one of three children of Menga Herzog Huffman and the late Roy Huffman, MSU's first vice president for research, whose romance began in Hamilton Hall.