Sarah Bickford, from slave to owner of a water company

Date: 
Tue, 1855-12-25

Sarah Gammon Bickford was born on Christmas Day, 1855. She was a Black chambermaid who became an administrator and entrepreneur.

She was born a slave on the Blair Plantation near Greensboro, North Carolina. After the Civil War she lived with an aunt in Knoxville, TN, and changed her last name to her aunt’s name, Gammon. In 1870, Knoxville Judge John L. Murphy was appointed to a judicial post in Virginia City, Montana Territory, and Sarah, at the age of 15, was offered a job caring for the Murphy children. The family arrived in Virginia City, Montana in January 1871.

During Virginia City’s gold rush, Sarah quickly found work as a chambermaid at Virginia City’s Madison House Hotel. In 1872, she married William Leonard Brown, a successful gold miner. They had two sons and a daughter. Within a few years, however, both her sons and her husband died of diphtheria. She and surviving child Eva relocated to Laurin, Montana Territory, where they lived with a merchant family. Two years later, Sarah married Stephen Bickford, a white man from Maine. The couple had four children, Elmer in 1884, Harriett in 1887, Helena in 1890, and Mabel in 1892.

In 1888, Stephen and Sarah Bickford acquired a portion of the water system that supplied Virginia City with drinking water. In 1890, they also purchased “Fisher’s Garden,” a vegetable and fruit farm east of Virginia City. Stephen Bickford died in 1900, and Sarah was left with some resources provided in his will. This included two-thirds interest in the Virginia City Water Company, a small farm, Virginia City town lots, various interests in nearby gold mining claims, and one share of stock in the Southern Montana Telegraph and Electric Company. She assumed control of the water company, managing and directing all company matters. She also continued to manage the farm east of the city.

In 1902, Bickford purchased the Hangman’s Building, one of the oldest and largest structures in the town. From here she ran the Water Company. Now assisted by her son, Elmer, who became a master plumber, Bickford continued to expand the business, acquiring natural springs and building a reservoir to supply the growing population of the region.

Sarah Bickford also enrolled in a business management course through a Scranton, PA, correspondence school to become more proficient in company management. In 1917, Bickford purchased the other third of the Water Company from longtime partner Philip Harry Gohn, the second investor when it was originally purchased in 1888.

At this point, she became the only African American woman in Montana and possibly in the United States, to own a utility company. Known as “Montana’s First Career Woman,” Sarah Gammon Bickford managed the Virginia City Water Company until she died of a heart attack on March 22, 1931.

Reference: Black Past

Person / name: 

Bickford, Sarah Gammon

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