By Richard I. Gibson
Alma Bielenberg Higgins, born in 1874, came to Butte from her native Deer Lodge in 1920, when she was 46 years old. She was an active member of various clubs and organizations, and founded the Civic Improvement League of Deer Lodge in 1902. Also in Deer Lodge, Alma convinced her father Nicholas Bielenberg to acquire the mortgage on the Deer Lodge Women’s League Chapter House and donate it to the organization, giving Alma a platform for her early civic works. Nicholas Bielenberg was a German immigrant credited with establishing the sheep-raising industry in western Montana. He became a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt. In Butte, he was a partner in the Butte Butchering Company as well as the Pilot Butte Mining Company.
Alma Higgins and Montana Womens’ Clubs generally were leading forces behind the creation of the State Forester position in 1909, a precursor to the University of Montana’s School of Forestry.
Butte was ugly in the 1920s (called “the ugliest town in the world” by Time magazine in 1928), but Higgins worked through photography exhibits and letter-writing campaigns, as well as in eventually eighteen Butte garden clubs to beautify Butte. Her “Garden Week” in Butte in 1922 became a national event (still celebrated) thanks to her lobbying and the national designation by President Harding in 1923. President Harding might have met Higgins that year during his visit to Butte, when Harding Way was named, just a month before Harding’s death in office August 2, 1923.
As a political activist, promoter, and conservationist, Higgins became prominent by connecting urban beautification—flower gardens—to the broader stewardship movement that was largely focused on forest reserves.
Alma Higgins became known as the nation’s Christmas Tree Lady after promoting living Christmas trees, one of which became the first National Christmas Tree. She died in 1962, with a remarkable legacy of conservation and leadership—largely forgotten today. Norm DeNeal and his colleagues carry on her tradition, developing and caring for the Lexington Gardens, the flowers at the Berkeley Pit visitor center, and all over Butte.
There is a small obscure memorial to Alma Higgins in Butte. The garden has been there since 1931; it sits against the retaining wall at the northwestern corner of the parking lot between First Baptist Church and the Covellite Theater (old First Presbyterian Church) on West Broadway Street. The location is essentially the back yard of the old Montana Hotel that stood here until it burned down in 1988, and where Alma lived when she died March 16, 1962.