Harmon’s Histories: Though brief his stay, William Hoblitzell left enduring scenes of life in 1890s Missoula

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.

Every now and then my curiosity leads me down the rabbit hole.

Such is the case with a fellow named William Arthur Hoblitzell. He spent but four or five years in Missoula, yet he contributed to the city’s history in a way he probably never fully realized.

“W.A.,” as he was known, was appointed a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service in Missoula in 1889, and a year later began work as the chief clerk to Superintendent Brimson of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Missoula.

He was single and, while well-known due to his position with the railroad, conducted (sorry for the pun) a rather private life.

A search for his name in local newspaper files reveals little, other than he was a “trap springer” for a Missoula Shot Gun Club event in April of 1893 and was confined to his home with a case of “la grippe” around Christmas that year. That’s it.

By 1894, he had left Missoula for a position with the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C.

None of this, however, has anything to do with his contribution to the Missoula community. His lasting mark was made by his hobby – photography.

If you want to know what life was like and what Missoula looked like in the late 19th century, you’ll want to click on this link and look at William Arthur Hoblitzell’s photos.

The fire station, city hall, churches, railroad buildings, hotels, banks, bicycles (lots of bicycles) and ordinary people doing ordinary things – all were subjects of Will’s “Kodak.” 

Dozens of these photos are available through the online digital files of the UM Mansfield Archives & Special Collections. They’re not fancy, professional photos. They’re the kind of pictures you and I might shoot of everyday life. 

Will and his wheel

One of the shots, titled “Will and his Wheel,” may actually have been a photo of Will Hoblitzell himself, but archivists can’t be sure.

Another, titled “Georgia, Harmon, Carlo and bicycle, Missoula, Montana,” may have referred to his brother, Harmon Hoblitzell, but again that’s just a guess.

All of this has made me want to know more about the man.

William was born in 1864, one of eight children of Solomon and Ellenora Hoblitzell, who lived in Pocomoke City, Worcester County, Maryland. His father was a Methodist minister and longtime Freemason.

Why he came to Missoula is unclear, though there were a number of other Hoblitzells living in the area at the time – most notably H. S. Hoblitzell, who served as city clerk for many years.

A few years after his departure, in June 1902, the Missoulian newspaper carried a society article from the Worcester Democrat, detailing William’s wedding to Miss Florence Coston in Pokomoke, Maryland. The ceremony was performed by Will’s father in the palatial home of the bride’s parents.

The couple, we learn later from census records, had no children. 

Georgia, Harmon, Carlo and bicycle, Missoula, Montana

As a field clerk for the U.S. Census Bureau, Will spent the rest of his life in Washington, D.C., and in Pokomoke City, Maryland.

The Bureau features one of Hoblitzell’s field diaries on its history webpage. It contains his daily notes as he traveled about New Jersey and New York “collect(ing) data for a special report on the financial statistics of cities with populations of more than 30,000 inhabitants. 

“The final entries of the diary record the events leading up to President William Harding’s death on August 2, 1923.”

The Bureau noted that “in the years that followed, Hoblitzell supervised the agriculture and government censuses before retiring in the 1930s.”

Will died in 1943. He was buried in the Bethany United Methodist Church Cemetery in Pocomoke City.

Left unanswered is why William Arthur Hoblitzell ended up in Missoula, Montana for those four or five years? One can guess it might have been because his uncle “H. R.” was already living in the Garden City. But we can’t know for sure. 

Most importantly, what about those photos? What sparked his interest in photography?

Sometimes I have to accept that there may be no answers. But my time spent down the rabbit hole was not time wasted. 

I came across an interesting story concerning his uncle “H. R.” Hoblitzell and the lengths to which he went to help a long-suffering daughter. I’ll have that story 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.