Phoebe Appersom Hearst, mother of successful newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, established the Phoebe Hearst Foundation in 1901. Her foundation built and ran some of the first public libraries in western mining towns, including the Hearst Free Library in Anaconda, Montana. Phoebe’s husband, George Hearst, cofounded Anaconda and invested in the nearby copper mines. After he died, Phoebe decided to build and finance libraries in Anaconda and other mining towns George had invested in to show her affection and gratitude to local communities.
Construction of the Anaconda Free Library began in 1894 with San Francisco architect F. S. Van Trees as the designer. Local builder J. C. Twohy completed it four years later, and the library opened on June 1, 1898. The building resembles grand classical architecture and features a red brick exterior, granite columns, arched windows, copper molding, chandeliers, craftsmen woodwork, and a brick fireplace. Among the library’s best features are pieces of valuable and original artwork Phoebe selected for display.
Phoebe Hearst hoped the library would provide a public space where locals could achieve self-improvement through reading and self-fulfillment through culture and community. That dream found fulfillment in 1903 when wives of Anaconda miners founded the Women’s Club, a community of women who shared similar anxieties about their partners working in dangerous mining conditions and hardships integrating into a new town. The club met in the women’s reading room just off the second-floor hall of the library. Records of early library board minutes show that the Women’s Book Club was infamous for brewing coffee, talking loudly, playing piano music, and dancing, but they also discussed books and research subjects like mining, politics, economics, American and European history, art, and culture. In this room, members cultivated and empowered themselves. They finetuned their public speaking, critical thinking, and writing, and they created a strong sense of belonging, culture, and identity.
Hearst Free Library and the Women’s Club continue to actively operate. Phoebe Hearst managed the library until 1903 when she transferred ownership to the town of Anaconda, which has maintained its original physical and symbolic character for over 100 years. This landmark is now a focal point of Anaconda’s historic district, and in 1973, librarians procured funding for restoration efforts and a spot for the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The Women’s Club made a plaque in honor of that listing.