Harmon’s Histories: ‘The Babs’ served early Missoula as a business college

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

Most Missoulians are familiar with that wonderful Victorian-style building just south of the Higgins Avenue Bridge called “The Babs.”

It’s well over a century old, and stands as a monument to an ambitious young man whose name was once as well known as early Missoula notables Higgins, Woody, Stephens or Hammond – but now is largely forgotten.

Professor Edward C. Reitz and his wife Laura arrived in Missoula by train on the night of June 13, 1893. The Illinois native, who had moved west to establish a business school in Anaconda, came to Missoula with big ideas – very big ideas – and the personality to sell them.

Immediately after setting up a successful night school in penmanship and business forms, Reitz approached Missoula’s business community with his idea for “a thoroughly practical commercial college … to be called the ‘Garden City Commercial College and Shorthand Academy.’ ”

Reitz, with little money of his own, offered his educational expertise if Missoulians would supply funding for the business school through the purchase of $60 scholarships, transferable to “whoever the purchaser may see fit.”

He promised, “If the people of this city endow me with this trust and confidence … I shall endeavor to conduct such a school in such a manner as to reflect credit upon all concerned.”

Edward Reitz

Soon, the Evening Missoulian threw its support behind the idea, telling local businessmen, “A live business college will not only afford them an opportunity to practically educate their sons and daughters right at home, but will bring a large sum of money into the city every year.”

The new commercial school opened on October 3, 1893 in the First National Bank building “with a large scholarship.” In succeeding years, students would attend from all over Montana, Idaho and neighboring states.  

Augmenting basic instruction in banking, shorthand, penmanship and typewriting, a German class was added, a literary club was organized, political and debating societies formed and students published a school newspaper called “Flashes.” 

By the turn of the century, with enrollment increasing to the point of outgrowing the rented space in the downtown bank building, Professor Reitz made a deal with John & Hattie Keith to buy five lots in the Knowles Addition No. 2.

Reitz then announced plans for construction of a new, three-story college building to be built on South Fourth Street West at Higgins Avenue, at a cost of $30,000. 

Furnishings and equipment for the building would cost even more, so Professor Reitz once again offered scholarships as a method of fundraising – this time, one hundred scholarships at $100 each.

On December 25, 1902, Reitz unveiled his plans in a full-page newspaper spread, complete with a drawing of the proposed building. The professor envisioned a 60-by-85 footprint, with ceiling heights of 12 to 14 feet. The first floor would hold administrative offices and a large banking department with a “business house setting” to accommodate 125 students. Finishes would be of high-grade, quarter-sawed oak.

The 1902 schematic of Reitz’s proposed Garden City Commercial College

On the second floor would be a large shorthand general assembly hall, with dictating, typewriting and recitation rooms off to the side. In the rear would be a suite of apartments for Professor Reitz and his family. The third floor would accommodate an assembly hall and a literary hall. The basement was designed as a gymnasium, with baths, lunch rooms and reading apartments.

It would be three more years, though, before the building, with a completely different design by A.J. Gibson, was constructed. The mortgage was $18,957, held first by John M. Keith and later by none other than Mary Bandmann, the widow of Missoula’s famous playboy Shakespearean actor.

On May 16, 1905, hundreds of Missoulians attended a reception and toured the new college, examining it from “basement to garret.” A welcome sign “in college colors – purple, white and golden” greeted guests at the main entrance.

The Garden City Commercial College as it appeared upon completion in 1905, designed by architect A.J. Gibson. The building is now known as “The Babs.”

There were “words of praise on all sides for the pluck and energy that prompted the construction (of an) institution that would reflect credit upon a city ten times the size of Missoula.” Nearby the college, new streets were being graded around a 200-lot housing development, being marketed on the “installment plan.”

Little did anyone know that just a few years hence, the only way to reach that new, booming area would be cut off. The 1908 floods were historic. The center span of the Higgins Avenue Bridge was washed away the night of June 5. The south span disappeared a few days later. And the city had no money to rebuild!

Once again, Professor Reitz would play a pivotal leadership role. With the blessing of the mayor, he began another subscription drive, this time urging business owners to commit whatever they could – anything from $25 to $500. In a few weeks, he’d raised $9,000 to pay for a temporary span. On October 22, 1908, the structure, dubbed the “Reitz bridge,” opened to foot traffic and served the community for years while a permanent bridge was constructed.

By all accounts, times were good for Professor Reitz and his family. The college did well and the couple built a summer retreat in the Rattlesnake. But in the winter of 1912, Laura Reitz fell ill. She was taken to Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment, but died January 9, 1913. She was just 37, and left behind two children, Edith and Zanner.

Many of the students from the Commercial College attended the funeral, honoring her as “a friend and inspiration even more than a teacher.”

The business school continued for another decade and a half, but in 1929 the building at 120 South Fourth Street West was remodeled as apartments, remaining so until recent years when it was converted to The Babs Condominiums. “Babs,” by the way, was the name of Jerry Aasheim’s daughter. Aasheim bought the building in the 1940s.

Still unanswered in all of this history is why Professor Reitz’s name is not remembered today along with the likes of Higgins, Woody, Stephens or Hammond. After all, he was one of the city’s biggest boosters for a half century.

Perhaps it’s because (as the Missoulian put it upon Reitz’s death in 1952) he “swam against the current most of his life (and) was steadfast for his convictions no matter what the general sentiment was.”

The fact was, a lot of Missoulians back in the day wished he’d never come to the Garden City. At one point, he was even attacked by an angry mob in downtown Missoula.

The rest of the story continues next week.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.