HELENA – Louise Replogle Rankin Galt, who died last month at age 90, led a remarkable life as a Montana attorney, rancher, landowner and Republican Party stalwart.
She was a private person who didn’t boast about her groundbreaking accomplishments as a woman, but they were plenty.
“Montana has never been too big on race or gender,” she told writer John Byorth for a 2008 profile in Big Sky Journal. “I never felt that doors were closed or that there was a gender gap. You would have thought I felt it, but it seemed the other way. Look at Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in the world to be elected to a national legislative body. It didn’t seem unusual to the Montanans.”
Replogle, a distinguished attorney in her own right, married Wellington Rankin, a larger than life figure, one of the state’s most renowned lawyer and a leading Republican. From that union she gained Jeanette Rankin as a sister in law.
After Rankin’s death, she married Jack Galt, a veteran ranch manager who became a prominent legislator. He brought seven children to the marriage.
In 1946, Louise Replogle received her law degree from what’s now the University of Montana where she was president of the Associated Women Students.
The same year, at age 23, she returned home to Lewistown and defeated two men in the primary and one in the general election to become Fergus County attorney. She was the third woman in U.S. history to be chosen as a prosecutor.
Replogle soon made national news with her raid of slot machines in the Joyland Club in 1947.
Despite laws on the book banning slot machines in Montana, the Legislature in 1945 had carved out a loophole for nonprofit religious, charitable, fraternal and social clubs.
Soon hundreds of new nonprofit clubs sprouted up. Many taverns roped off parts of their floor space to create private clubs. Memberships often sold for a quarter.
From her research, Replogle concluded that slot machines amounted to mechanical lotteries, which were then illegal under the state constitution.
She and a deputy sheriff raided the Joyland Club and seized five slot machines, drawing extensive state and national press coverage. Some stories compared her to Carrie Nation, the woman who opposed alcohol before Prohibition and attacked taverns with a hatchet. Cartoons showed Replogle smashing a slot machine with a sledgehammer.
“I wasn’t so much against gambling, but I thought we had a duty there,” Replogle told me years ago. “I was a young and green county attorney. I didn’t realize everyone had illegal gambling.“
In 1950, the Montana Supreme Court upheld the Joyland Club decision, which resulted in a statewide ban of slot machines.
Replogle was a rising star in state and national Republican circles. In 1949, she was co-chairman of the National Young Republicans, speaking at dozens events across the country. Mademoiselle magazine honored her as one of its 10 Young Women of the Year nationally in 1949 for her political and legal accomplishments.
She left the county attorney’s post in 1951 to join Wellington Rankin’s law firm in Helena. Rankin had had won one court case against her as county attorney. She prevailed against him in another when he represented a prominent man accused of child molestation, although the Montana Supreme Court later overturned the conviction.
Replogle unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking more than the $225 burial allowances for the families of each of the 13 firefighters, including 12 smokejumpers, killed in the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire, her niece, Candace Johnson Kruger, of Columbia Falls, recalled.
“She was really a person ahead of her time,” Johnson said. “She worked hard for causes that she believed in.”
In 1956, Rankin and Replogle married, despite an age difference of nearly 40 years.
“He didn’t seem that much older,” she told Byorth for Big Sky Journal. “We had all the same interests, and he seemed much younger.”
Rankin was largest private landowner in Montana, with more than 1 million deeded and leased acres of land and 27,000 cattle at his operation’s peak, the article said.
Much of Louise Rankin’s law practice focused on the ranching operation’s legal issues such as water and grazing rights. Already an experienced horsewoman, she loved riding on the ranch, family members said.
For decades, Wellington Rankin was Republican national committeeman for Montana, a friend of presidents and a frequent but mostly unsuccessful candidate for office. However, he had helped manage Jeannette Rankin’s two winning campaigns for Congress.
When Wellington Rankin died in 1966, Louise Rankin inherited ranches mainly in seven counties, Broadwater, Meagher, Park, Garfield, Rosebud, Phillips and Valley counties, along with 66 employees and the cattle on the ranches, the Great Falls Tribune reported then. She also inherited controlling interests in the Placer and Helena hotels in Helena and some oil wells.
A year later, Rankin married Galt, an experienced ranch manager and cattle buyer from Utica who brought strong managerial skills to the ranching operation.
About 20 years earlier, Galt had asked her to dance once at an event. She agreed, but told him the next dance was taken.
“As Galt waited, some men playing cards in the back poked fun at him, telling him that he didn’t have a chance with the most popular woman in Montana,” Byorth wrote in Big Sky Journal. “The men, Galt figured, were right, and he left without saying goodbye.”
When they bumped into each other nearly two decades later, she reminded Galt of the incident. He then asked her on a date, and they later married.
Galt also was Republican national committeeman for the state (a post now held by his son, Errol), and he served in Legislature for 16 years and was Senate president in 1989.
The Galts were among the earliest Montana supporters of Ronald Reagan for president. They backed him against fellow Republicans Richard Nixon in 1968 and sitting President Gerald Ford in 1976.
Those attempts failed, but the Galts helped lead Reagan’s Montana efforts four years later when he was elected president. She chaired Reagan’s Montana campaign and headed the state delegation at Republican National Convention, casting Montana’s vote that put Reagan over the top for the nomination.
Jack Galt died in 2007, and Louise Galt continued to live on the 71 Ranch near Martinsdale and at the family home in Helena. She remained a fixture at local and state Republican meetings.
“She was a real stateswoman,” former Gov. Tim Babcock said. “I’ve known here ever since I got involved in political activity. She was one of the stalwarts of Republican women in the state. She always financially supported candidates and was just a lady for good government.”