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LCHS Celebrates Women’s History Month: Lillian Otness

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

The history of Latah County has been enriched by countless remarkable and talented women, and we here at LCHS are delighted to bring you many of their stories this Women’s History Month. As we mine our archives for examples of heroism, ingenuity, fearlessness, and everyday beauty, it seems that this month of recognition should begin with an expression of gratitude for the work of Lillian Woodworth Otness. Lillian is widely acknowledged as the founding mother of our organization, the Latah County Historical Society. While LCHS traces its roots to a turn-of-the-century Pioneer Association, its modern incarnation was the vision of Lillian. She believed that the historical club, known for its exclusivity and limited mission, should be reimagined as a museum and historical preservation society for the benefit of all residents. Although Lillian could boast direct kinship with the founder of Moscow, Almon Asbury Lieuallen, she worked to democratize the celebration of local history. It was Lillian who campaigned to hire a professional director to guide the fledgling museum newly housed in the McConnell Mansion. It was Lillian who insisted that the organization acknowledge the experiences of people outside of Moscow and those who came after the pioneers. And it was Lillian who served as the stalwart supporter of an oral history project that was to become a defining element of the LCHS archival collection.

In a touching tribute to her, Sam Schrager, the man who conceptualized and carried out the impressive oral history project, wrote of Lillian’s unwavering commitment.

“She envisioned the historical society as an institution that would help the community learn about itself. She didn’t wax on about why people needed to study their shared history – she was too practical and too modest to make grand claims – but her desire to create such a place, a place to encounter and be stimulated by honest representations of the past, guided all of her volunteering.” – Latah Legacy 24, no. 1, p. 2.

The oral history project that Lillian rallied behind, funded in large part by available monies tied to the country’s bicentennial celebration, ultimately redefined this organization. As Keith Petersen explained in his biography of Lillian and her husband Herman “Ot” Otness, “she chaired the [oral history] committee through its incredible growth, until it had amassed one of the largest oral history collections in the Pacific Northwest. Simply stated, the society would not, in the 1990s, be considered one of the finest county historical societies in the nation had it not been for the leadership of Lillian Otness and project director Sam Schrager on the oral history project.” – Latah Legacy 26, nos. 1 & 2, p. 26.

While we remain in awe of the truly remarkable work that Lillian contributed to LCHS – a resume that includes penning one of the most important local reference books in Latah County, A Great, Good County – her energy and passion were defining characteristics throughout her life. As a young child, Lillian’s zest for life was evident. Indeed many years after the fact, a childhood friend of Lillian’s shared the following anecdote with Keith Petersen:

“Lillian was very bright and precocious, and very verbal. Like kids do, she spoke what was on her mind. I remember one time being at dinner at our house. We were all sitting around the table eating, and Lillian told what seemed at the time quite a risqué story for a young girl. There was just a hush around the table. Lillian really shocked my parents.” — Interview with Mildred Axtell Hensley, by Keith Petersen, Sept. 4, 1997, LCHS SC 1998-18

Lillian was also a natural born athlete, and physical activity was a passion she pursued all her life. She was a member of the Moscow Camp Fire unit for several years, achieving the level of “Torch Bearer” just a few years after taking up with the group. She spent her summers during high school and college attending or working for the Camp Fire summer camp on Lake Coeur d’Alene. There she could truly indulge her love of sports, a pursuit not widely endorsed for proper young ladies. Although polite society frowned upon girls and women exerting themselves in such physical activities as swimming, hiking, and baseball, Lillian adored them all. She was a leader among her peers when women’s athletics were introduced at Moscow High School, and again as a member of the women’s rifle team at the University of Idaho. 

Lillian gave generously of her time and energy to several causes. She was a lifelong booster of the Camp Fire Organization. She dedicated thousands of hours of volunteer work to Gritman Hospital and the Gritman Auxiliary. She was active in countless groups in high school and college, including honor societies and athletic associations. After her husband joined the UI faculty, Lillian joined the American Association of University Women. Later in life Lillian herself served as an instructor at the University, in the English Department.

To list the accomplishments of Lillian Otness takes many more words that are available here. Indeed if you would like to learn more about this remarkable women, I encourage you to read the two Latah Legacy articles referenced above (and noted below), as well as Lillian’s own oral history interview with Sam Schrager. Her experiences as a bold, unique woman, loving wife and mother, and tireless community activist are certainly worthy of emulation.

Finally, in writing this short piece, I was genuinely moved by Lillian’s indomitable spirit. I never had the good fortune of meeting Lillian, she passed away almost two decades before I arrived in Latah County. Yet as I learn more about her, both from her own words and those of others, I am struck by the thought that she and I would likely have been fast friends. This calculation is in part based on Sam Schrager’s recollections of Lillian.

“Lillian loved local history, but was too clear-eyed about its narrowing of human possibility to be nostalgic. The present, she believed, was in important ways preferable…for instance, she spoke about the changing position of women. ‘I think the climate is much better now,’ she said. ‘It’s not yet perfect by any means – that is, there’s still discrimination, and women play, certainly, a much smaller part in the things that make the world go round than they deserve to, but it’s much better that it was. But I think that a lot of it was that we had grown up surrounded by this kind of conventional attitude, and a lot of us didn’t rebel against it as we should have’.” – Latah Legacy 24, no. 1, p. 2-3

As Sam explained, Lillian was “keenly concerned about our ability, as citizens, to think and act for ourselves. The better our understanding of the past, she believed, the better the chance of acting for the common good in the future.” This sentiment guided me into my training as a historian and informs my work as the director of the very fine organization that Lillian laid the foundation for so many years ago. I am inspired by Lillian, both professionally and personally, to engage in pursuits that I truly believe in and activities that are fulfilling. She seems, to me at least, to be exactly the sort of women this month of recognition was designed to celebrate.

— Dulce Kersting

See also:

“Remembering Lillian,” Latah Legacy 24, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 1-4. “There was Always Sunshine: The Lives of a Family,” Latah Legacy 26, nos. 1 & 2 (1997): 1-32. Lillian Woodworth Otness, interviewed by Sam Schrager, Oral History Project, Latah County Museum Society, 1975.

***Note: Transcripts from the Latah County Oral History Project can be found on the University of Idaho’s library website.  Copies of each interview were donated to the University by LCHS. 

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