The keepers of the Norton House

MIkaela Koski
Thursday, July 18, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

SCN photo by photo by Mikaela Koski

The Norton House.

Article Image Alt Text

Photo courtesy of MOB

Article Image Alt Text

Photo courtesy of MOB


The sandstone Jacobs house, the bustling, commercial Atlas block, and the monument-filled Mountain View Cemetery are all sites in Columbus listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first local site on that register (listed in 1982) is probably familiar to many residents by sight, but the building’s significance may be less well-known.

The Norton House – the small, two-story home that has stood alongside the county courthouse since its inception – represents a significant piece of local history. A group, the Norton House Keepers, is working to preserve that history and ensure the building plays a role in the community’s future as well.


“Colonel” William H. Norton was born in Illinois in 1847. He ran away from home at the age of 16 to fight in the Civil War, most notably taking part in Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia in 1864.

Following the war, Norton and almost a dozen of his soldier comrades set off for Montana with a wagon train created by a couple firms transporting goods west. After facing hardships along the trip, including skirmishes with the native people, Norton’s group arrived in Virginia City in October 1866, according to Norton’s obituary.

Once in the state he would call his new home, Norton tried his hand at numerous professions including prospecting, farming, and hauling freight. In 1875, he started a trading post with Horace Countryman named “Still-water” slightly west of where Columbus is currently located. It is in Stillwater that Norton played an important role in not only local, but state and national history as well.

On June 25, 1876, the Battle of the Little Bighorn took place near present-day Crow Agency; the troops of Lieutenant Colonel George Custer faced overwhelming defeat to Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

U.S. soldier “Muggins” Taylor came upon the battlefield the following day, and on July 1 began the journey west to Fort Ellis near Bozeman, the closest telegraph station, to relay the message to the War Department, according to a 1978 article written by local historian Jim Annin.

Taylor stopped in Stillwater on the way and relayed the message to Norton, who was a correspondent for the Helena Herald at the time. According to Annin, Norton wrote down Taylor’s account “into the words of the message that was to be first to reach the nation’s news media.” Norton’s article was sent west, first published in the Bozeman Times on July 3.

The land on which Stillwater was located was closed to settlement soon after, and Norton and his new wife Eliza Labey (from Jersey, England) worked for the government through the Crow Indian Agency for a couple years, according to Norton’s obituary.

When the land was once again opened for settlement in 1883, Norton homesteaded on much of what is current-day Columbus. He opened a mercantile store, took part in sheep ranching, and was an influential force in creating the town of Columbus.

“Norton helped to finance a large number of local business endeavors: the development of the stone quarry near Columbus (source of the building material for the Montana State Capitol Building); the construction of the local opera house, the creamery, the flour mill, and the hospital,” according to the history included in the National Register application.

In addition to his important involvement in business, Norton was also an influential local politician. He was elected to serve as the first representative of Yellowstone County (Stillwater County had not yet been created) during the Montana territorial legislature in 1885, and when Montana became a state, he served in both the first and second state legislatures.

Stillwater County was created from Yellowstone, Carbon, and Sweet Grass counties in 1913, at which time Norton sold the land, including his house, to the county at half-price for the creation of the county courthouse, according to information from the Museum of the Beartooths. The courthouse was completed in 1919.

Norton passed away in November 1915; he and Eliza never had any children.


The Norton House was built in 1899 after Norton semi-retired. The house was occupied from that time until 1960.

William and Eliza Norton lived in the house until it was sold to the county, after which time the house was occupied by the family of the current sheriff. Over time, use of the house shifted slightly so the jailer’s family occupied the home. Eventually, the house was rented out to Columbus residents. In recent years, the county stored documents in the Norton House.

In a discussion with the News last week, cousins Charlotte Shackleford and Tom Blankenship discussed their family’s connection to the house. Their mothers had grown up in the Norton House because Shackleford and Blankenship’s grandfather Tom Boulton had been sheriff in the 1920s and lived in the house during his tenure.

They remembered stories of their grandmother serving home-cooked meals to the prisoners held in the jail, prompting intentional bad behavior from some to ensure they had a warm place to stay and food to eat. Blankenship can imagine the children running around the house, playing and sliding down the banister.

A number of years later, Blankenship followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and served as Stillwater County sheriff.

The Norton House is not only significant because of the people who lived within its walls.

Bill Hagen, a founding member of the Norton House Keepers, explained to the News how the house is architecturally unique. The exterior walls were created with a technique known as “cavity wall construction.” In the case of the Norton House, the exterior walls are four brick layers deep, interwoven at points; typically such buildings are two layers deep.

A method used in humid European climates during the 1800s, Hagen believes the Norton House was created in such a way to ensure better insulation. After reaching out to a regional masonry group, Hagen learned the technique was rarely used in the northern Rocky Mountain area – the Norton House is one of only a handful of buildings created with cavity wall construction in the northwest U.S.

The inside was also constructed in a unique manner. A staircase on the main level leads to a landing half-way up to the second floor. From the landing, there are two sets of stairs – one that leads to the front of the building and one that leads to the back.

Originally housing four bedrooms, the second floor of the home was remodeled to house an apartment after the county gained control of the building.

In 1997, the county performed restoration work on the house after receiving grant money. Included in the restoration were the south and front porch, the roof, and the chimneys, according to a 2014 structural assessment.

Hagen personally paid for the structural and architectural assessment five years ago.

“The building in general is in remarkably good condition – in spite of the settlement of the foundation,” according to the report. “By far the most pressing concern affecting the continued existence and long term viability of the building is the foundation. … If the foundation is stabilized, the building will be structurally viable.”

The foundational and structural issues found by the architect and structural engineer mainly have stemmed from the “direct or indirect result of water management.” Throughout the past 120 years, water has seeped into the foundation and walls, causing damage that can be repaired.


Hagen, originally from Carbon and Yellowstone counties, retired to Columbus in 1997.

Having an interest in history, he jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the house after a fellow Stillwater County resident raised the possibility of preserving it in 2013. The other resident left the area, but Hagen continued with the project.

He has delved into archives across the country and searched online databases to learn more about Norton, Eliza, and their house. Hagen “got to know” the Nortons through the documents; eventually he complied all his research into a book that can be found at the Museum of the Beartooths.

The Norton House Keepers has had a recent revival, with new members joining the work to preserve and revive the house.

According to member Kathleen Ralph, the county commissioners have agreed to the idea of a long-term lease of the Norton House to the House Keepers for a nominal fee. The group would then be in charge of the building’s restoration and upkeep.

The group is currently brainstorming ideas for uses of the house. Several members raised the possibility of turning the Norton House into an art gallery where local artists could sell their works. Meeting rooms and office space have been other ideas offered for the second story.

After the operating costs are determined, the fundraising and grant writing processes can begin. The Museum of the Beartooths has agreed to be a nonprofit sponsor for the House Keepers.

The group is anticipating a renovation project that would update the house’s exterior and interior. Stability concerns would have to be addressed, and the interior would have to be updated so as to be usable.

In 2014, the architectural report anticipated maximum restoration costs at $300,000 to $400,000. Ralph anticipates those costs will now be closer to $500,000.

The Norton House Keepers are looking for more people to help preserve the building or share personal stories they have of the home. Those interested should call Ralph at 322-1117 or Mary Kuehn at 322-5912.