Many folks were disappointed when Rep. Jessica Karjala’s (D-HD 48) bill, HB 662, Establish the Mary Fields Memorial Highway, was heard in the House Transportation Committee during the 2021 Montana legislative session, and was promptly tabled. The Board of Great Falls Rising wanted recognition for Mary Fields, better known as Stagecoach Mary, and adopted a section of highway near Cascade in her memory. The section is two to four miles north of Cascade on I-15, from Milepost 260 to 262. Signs honoring Stagecoach Mary will be put up in the next few weeks, but we will be having a cleanup event there on the weekend of Juneteenth along the road. It will not be a big job, it is fairly level and not much trash in the area.
Events in the area for Juneteenth:
1. On Saturday, June 19th, from 1 – 5 p.m., Great Falls will celebrate its first-ever Juneteenth. The formal program will being in the bandshell area of Gibson Park and include a proclamation from the Mayor; a historical overview; welcoming speakers from the YWCA, the Great Falls Public Library, and Malmstrom Air Force Base’s Diversity and Inclusion Team; and the beautiful sound of The Alexander Temple’s New Birth Choir.
Mostly, though, the event is an informal one, just as it was from the start. It’s a block party at the park, free and open to the public, with a DJ from the Base playing popular tunes and the Voyageurs’ Orbit there for the kids. It’s a time to enjoy great food, good music, and fun games as families, friends, and community members.
If one single value defines our nation, it is the love of freedom, a love that cannot be restricted by artificial barriers. It is this love that Juneteenth celebrates, the tie that binds us all. As the old hymn reminds us, “Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one.” Please join us for this community’s first-ever Juneteenth and celebrate the tie that binds us even more firmly to the independence we all treasure as Americans.
2. On Sunday, June 20th, 1 pm, Great Falls Rising invites members of the surrounding communities to join us with the highway cleanup on I-15 near Cascade, Milepost 260 to 262, to honor the memory of Stagecoach Mary. Safety vests and trash bags are being provided by the Montana Department of Transportation. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday, June 17th, so we can plan for how many supplies we will need and coordinate transportation to the area.
We hope in the next legislative session a section of the highway near Cascade will be named for Mary Fields. Meanwhile, here is some information on this independent pioneer woman who made a difference.
|Mary Fields (circa 1832–1914), also known as Stagecoach Mary and Black Mary, was the first African-American female star-route (contract) mail carrier in the United States. She was not an employee of the United States Post Office Department, which did not hire or employ mail carriers for star routes, but rather awarded star route contracts to persons who proposed the lowest qualified bids, and who, in accordance with the department’s application process, posted bonds and sureties to substantiate their ability to finance the route.|
Fields had the star route contract for the delivery of U.S. mail from Cascade, Montana, to Saint Peter’s Mission in 1885. She drove the route for two four-year contracts, from 1895 to 1899 and from 1899 to 1903.
Fields was born into slavery in Hickman County, Tennessee, in around 1832. After the Civil War ended, she was emancipated and found work as a chambermaid onboard the Robert E. Lee, a Mississippi River steamboat. There, she encountered Judge Edmund Dunne and ultimately worked in his household as a servant. After Dunne’s wife died, he sent Fields and his late wife’s five children to live with his sister Mother Mary Amadeus in Toledo, Ohio where she was Mother Superior of an Ursuline convent.
In 1884, Mother Amadeus was sent to Montana Territory to establish a school for Native American girls at St. Peter’s Mission, west of Cascade. Learning that Amadeus was stricken with pneumonia, Fields hurried to Montana to nurse her back to health. Amadeus recovered, and Fields stayed at St. Peter’s, relegated multiple charges regarded as “men’s work” at the time such as maintenance, repairs, fetching supplies, laundry, and gardening, hauling freight, doing laundry, growing vegetables, tending chickens, and repairing buildings, and eventually became the forewoman. The Native Americans called Fields “White Crow”, because “she acts like a white woman but has black skin.”
Life in a nunnery was placid, but Fields hearty temperament and habitual profanity made the religious community uncomfortable. In 1894, after several complaints and an incident with a disgruntled male subordinate that involved gunplay, the bishop barred her from the convent and Fields moved to Cascade where she opened a tavern, but waned due to allowing the cash-poor to dine free. It closed due to bankruptcy about 10 months later.
By 1895, at sixty years old, Fields secured a job as a Star Route Carrier which used a stagecoach to deliver mail in the unforgiving weather and rocky terrain of Montana, with the help of nearby Ursuline nuns, who relied on Mary for help at their mission. This made her the first African-American woman to work for the U.S. Postal Service. True to her fearless demeanor, she carried multiple firearms, most notably a .38 Smith & Wesson under her apron to protect herself and the mail from wolves, thieves and bandits, driving the route with horses and a mule named Moses. She never missed a day, and her reliability earned her the nickname “Stagecoach Mary” due to her preferred mode of transportation. If the snow were too deep for her horses, Fields delivered the mail on snowshoes, carrying the sacks on her shoulders.
She was a respected public figure in Cascade, and the town closed its schools to celebrate her birthday each year. When Montana passed a law forbidding women to enter saloons, the mayor of Cascade granted her an exemption. In 1903, at age 71, Fields retired from star route mail carrier service. The townspeople’s adoration for Fields was evident when her home was rebuilt by volunteers after it caught fire in 1912. She continued to babysit many Cascade children and owned and operated a laundry service from her home.
Fields was Catholic, though she preferred the company (and activities) of local men to the sisters and their religious trappings. She died in 1914 at Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, and her funeral was one of the largest the town had ever seen. She was buried outside Cascade.