Linda Miller has been giving a lot of lectures recently as Helen J. Stewart, who greatly shaped Las Vegas. Following a Nov. 19 meeting of the League of Women Voters, she decided to hang up her vintage dress.
“I’ve done about 70 appearances since the beginning of 2014,” the Henderson woman said. “I’m just worn out.”
Since 2005, Miller has been putting on a vintage-style dress and portraying Stewart. The sesquicentennial of the state and the centennial of several key events related to Stewart’s history in the valley have made Miller a busy woman, but she was delighted to be able to bring the historical figure to life and to bring her story to people who didn’t know it, or at least didn’t know all of it.
“Even in Dr. Green’s book there is very little about Helen Stewart,” Miller said. “He’s the only one that mentions that she was the president of the Mesquite Club, for instance.”
UNLV associate professor of history Michael Green has written several history books about Nevada, including a textbook that is used in Clark County School District middle schools. He agrees that Stewart isn’t nearly as well-known or celebrated as she deserves to be.
“She’s called the first lady of Las Vegas for a very good reason,” Green said. “She was the major land owner here for close to 20 years. She was involved in the community, once it began to form. She was a true community builder, with education, history and more.”
Stewart and her husband, Archibald, never intended to stay in Las Vegas. The plan was to live here for a year or so, get the Las Vegas Ranch, which they had acquired, into shape and then move back to civilization. Within a year, Archibald had been shot dead and Helen ended up living the rest of her life here, eventually selling the land the town was built on and creating the civilization she’d longed to move to.
Miller got the funding for and produced a video biography of Stewart that is screened in Clark County schools and has helped bring a greater understanding of her to students.
Miller has been an educator most of her adult life. She grew up in Kansas and received her master’s degree and doctorate in education in Virginia. As a teacher she often would turn to acting to bring figures from history to life. She worked with the National Park Service teaching in historic places. When she got tired of the snow and moved to Las Vegas in 2002, she sought out a venue for education through becoming a character and ended up working with the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort, 500 E. Washington Ave.
The site is where Stewart lived for more than two decades, until the town was built. Miller was drawn to Stewart’s history as the first postmaster of Las Vegas, the first woman elected to the Clark County School Board, a preserver of Native American cultural artifacts and more. When she found a familiar-looking dress while on a cruise in Alaska, her next step seemed obvious to her.
“I got the dress in 2003,” Miller said. “It looked so much like the picture you see of (Stewart) in the Mesquite Club. You see her in pictures in that same dress over and over.”
She first portrayed Stewart for the Nevada Women’s History Project and later became the project’s president. She took on trying to get a statue of Stewart erected at the fort. The economic downturn complicated her fundraising efforts, but she pushed ahead and the statue was dedicated Dec. 3, 2011.
“We had 300 people there, which had been my goal because she had 300 people at her funeral in 1926,” Miller said. “We had 13 different speakers talking about various aspects of her life.”
Miller hasn’t ruled out putting the dress on again for educational purposes because her research has helped her understand Stewart and capture her voice.
“What has been exciting about Helen is that I’ve read her letters and I just say exactly what she said,” Miller said. “We don’t have any recordings of her voice, but all of the lines I say are hers.”
To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-380-4532.
Helen J. Stewart
Born: April 16, 1854, Springfield, Illinois
Died: March 6, 1926, Las Vegas
Married: Archibald Stewart, April 6, 1873, Stockton, California
Frank Roger Stewart, July 23, 1903, Ventura, California
Children: five (two daughters, three sons)
Major fields of work: Rancher, businesswoman, government (postmaster of Las Vegas Post Office, 1883 to 1903; elected to Clark County School Board, 1916); historian and author; wife, mother
Source: University of Nevada, Reno