This historic institution had an early beginning as a library when the Hook and Ladder Company, a volunteer fire department, started lending books and newspapers from the reading and game room on the second floor of their Perry Street headquarters in 1874.
In 1878, the Helena Library Association was formed and the modest collection of books was moved to a new two-room building on Ohio Street. This association disbanded after only a few years and the Women's Library Association (WLA) was formed in 1888. They obtained permission to use a single room in the Opera House as a library and reading room that was opened on Fridays and was staffed by volunteers.
Within one year, the WLA obtained lot 273 of Old Helena as a donation and they were successful in raising money for a permanent facility. The 2,200 square foot library was completed in 1891 by Helena contractors Raenhart & Simon for $6,000.
A photograph of the museum taken in 1910 and as it appears today.
In its early years, the library was more of a civic center than a library and served many functions. With an increasing collection of books, the library expanded to occupy a larger portion of the building and in 1920, the Women's Library Association became the Helena Public Library Association.
The library then began to accept many donations of historic artifacts from the community and that spawned the need for a separate and dedicated museum space in the late 1920s. A capital campaign was launched to raise funds for the Museum Addition with Mrs. E. S. Ready offering a 1:1 match as a challenge to the community. Numerous fund-raising events were held and the Phillips County Museum Annex was completed in 1930 at a cost of $21,000. The addition was designed by architect Andrew P. Coolidge, a Helena native.
Every museum is filled with old and historical artifacts. But how many museums can boast about having a genuine ghost?
According to historical records, the restless spirit of Ms. Maybelle Thatcher roams the museum on nights when the moon is full. She is apparently looking for her lost love, Mr. Ralph Mooney, who drowned when the ferry boat he was on ran into a violent storm and he was thrown overboard into the Mississippi River.
Maybelle was inconsolable. She would not leave her room nor would she eat the food her mother prepared for her. Several weeks after Ralph's death her mother discovered her daughter's dead body. Most say she died of a broken heart. So the next time you see a full moon ask yourself if Maybelle has left her glass case, walking around the balcony of the museum in search of her long lost love, Ralph Mooney. Yes, there are some that say you can even see her in the windows on these nights!
A statue of Maybelle Thatcher in the museum.