Linda Karen Miller (M.Ed. ’78, Ed.D. ’91 Soc Studies Ed) When I was three I donned my first costume and “acted” as a cowgirl in a tap dance revue. It was enough to put the acting bug in my genes and I took drama classes in high school and college. Throughout my forty-year teaching career in Kansas, Virginia and Nevada I frequently dressed as historical characters in class and also had my students perform activities where they made history come alive through historical interpretation.
This was such a useful teaching technique that it earned me two national teacher of the year awards, one from the Organization of American Historians for American History and one from the National Council for the Social Studies, both in 1996. I saw that the students learned more when they were personally involved in the characters’ lives. In 2006 I published an e-book, “Put a Little Acting Into Your Teaching” that chronicled many activities that my students and I performed in from 1986 until the present.
When I retired from secondary teaching in 2002 and moved to Nevada I wrote a lesson plan for the National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places about the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Park built in 1855. It was the later home of ranchers Archibald and Helen Stewart. After Archibald’s untimely death in 1884, Helen bought up land, which she finally sold to the railroad in 1902. The city of Las Vegas developed from there after a land sale in 1905.
Helen Stewart was affectionately called the “First Lady of Las Vegas” by her friend Delphine Squires. She literally brought civilization to the desert as she helped found women’s groups and a church, build a cemetery and serve on civic committees. Yet, there was only a street named after her and a special needs school named after her disabled granddaughter.
Helen documented her activities through many letters, mainly to her daughter in Kansas City. These letters provide an open book to the life and times of Helen Stewart. Thus, I decided to do some historical interpretative performances to bring Helen Stewart back to life.
Events unfolded in my life that helped spur this process. In 2007 I became president of the Nevada Women’s History Project Southern Region, which had recently been instrumental in putting the statue of Sarah Winnemucca in statuary hall in Washington, D.C. The statue was done by Benjamin Victor. Also that year I became a board member of the Friends of the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historical Park. It was during one of those meetings that I brought up the idea of a statue for Helen Stewart, former rancher on the fort grounds. The idea had surfaced before, but it was thought to be too expensive. I proposed a gala event at the Old Fort in September 2008. Unfortunately, we had a poor showing as the economy was starting its sharp decline.
Undeterred, we tried to come up with new funding ideas for the $100,000 statue. This is when I began performing as Helen Stewart to civic groups around Las Vegas to raise money and awareness for the statue. I also took training to be a historical interpreter in a special program at UNLV. But the process was slow until we heard about funding from the 1905-2005 Centennial of Las Vegas license plates. A special committee had been organized to provide for historical programs with funds from the profits of the license plates. Another lady and I from The Friends of the Fort appeared in costume as Helen Stewart and Delphine Squires before the committee. We were awarded $99,000 for the statue in what the Mayor Oscar Goodman said was the most unique presentation that he had seen. Later we received $12,000 for a documentary.
Who was Helen Jane Wiser Stewart and why should there be such recognition for her in Las Vegas? She was not a native Nevadan but instead was born in Illinois, passed briefly through northern Nevada when she was nine, and was raised in northern California. She earned a college degree, which was unusual for the time, and married a well-educated and older successful man.
The Stewarts took over the O.D. Gass ranch (located on the Old Fort Grounds) in a foreclosure that changed the Nevada landscape forever. With three small children and a fourth on the way, the Stewarts moved to Las Vegas from Pioche, Nev., in 1882. Their ranch was successful and they profited from selling vegetables to the miners. Then her husband was tragically and mysteriously killed trying to settle a dispute on another ranch.
Her husband’s death only made Helen more determined to bring civilization to this desert. She made her ranch an early resort for weary travelers as she fed them and put them up under the cottonwood trees for only $1 (same charge for the park entrance today). She was a tough business woman who was also interested in educating her children. After her husband died, she and her father Hiram Wiser acquired so much land that they became the largest landowners in the valley. She finally sold her land to the railroad in 1902.
Helen once told her children, “One day civilization will come to this isolated place,” and thanks to the railroad it did. Now she was free to engage in civic activities and bring civilization to town. She was the founding member of Christ Church in 1908 and the Mesquite Club in 1911. She was the first woman elected in Clark County (serving on the school board that built the first high school), the first woman to serve on a jury, and a confidant of governors and other government officials. She built the city of Las Vegas with her own hands.
A young sculptor, Benjamin Victor, used his hands to mold her image. Alongside the statue of this remarkable woman are artifacts of her activities: the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the Mesquite Bush, Indian baskets and rugs, and her letters. Without her letters we would not have known what she did to create the city of Las Vegas. Without historical interpretation we would not have been able to bring her legacy back to life. On December 3, 2011, the statue was dedicated at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort. Three hundred people were in attendance. A dozen speakers focusing on the accomplishments of her life helped bring The First Lady of Las Vegas alive again. Her legacy will live once again as the statue of Helen Stewart will welcome visitors to the grounds of her former home at the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historical Park.