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LCHS Celebrates Women’s History Month: Women of Rural Latah County

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

This week’s celebration of Latah County women comes in the form of an excerpt from a Latah Legacy article published in 1982. Co-authored by Mary Reed and Carol Young, “Rural Women of Latah County: Life and Work with the Harvest and Logging Crews” drew heavily on oral histories collected in the 1970s from long-time residents. Women played integral roles in nearly every industry that drove the county’s development. While this piece highlights just two of those economic pursuits, the contributions made by women are many and varied.

“The tasks of creating a farm and home in the Palouse country in the late 1800s and early 1900s demanded continuous hard work from both men and women. With the quantity of work to do and the narrow margin between profit and survival, everyone on the farm did what had to be done, working long hours in the house and fields. Women, however, had the added duties of raising children and nursing sick members of the family. The fashions of those days, long skirts and sleeves, high necklines, and numerous petticoats, restricted their movements and made farm chores even more difficult. Unlike men, the farm women could not easily let down their hair – either figuratively or literally. As they were supposed to be models of decorum, in the early years they could not travel unescorted or appear too prominently in public places.

“Perhaps the social prejudice gave rural women an advantage for they developed a supportive network of neighboring that eased the loneliness of farm life. Tasks such as sewing, and picking and preserving fruits and vegetables were combined with visiting. The social network was extremely important during critical times of childbirth and family sickness…

“At a time when money was scarce, farm women often worked outside the home either to supplement the family’s income or to make their own way. Careers for women were usually limited to teaching, nursing, or home industries such as sewing or selling butter. Many young women in Latah County worked as cooks and housekeepers for town women. As most rural women could not afford to go to college or had the responsibility of their own families, part-time work provided the way for these women to make some money. A common occupation was working for threshing crews during harvest or in logging camps. The wages earned – small by today’s standards – were important additions to the family’s cash resources and, in addition, gave women a sense of independence and a chance to meet new people.

“The oral history collection of the Latah county Historical Society contains many examples of women working as cooks for threshing and logging crews. These oral histories recount the demanding and difficult task of cooking, especially during the hot summer months when the hours were long and the facilities primitive. Nonetheless, there was satisfaction with a job well done and some time for fun…

“Palma Hanson hove was the daughter of immigrants who first moved to their parent’s homestead in Troy, and then took over an uncle’s farm in Genesee Valley…When Palma was 17, she and her 19-year-old sister worked for her uncle’s threshing outfit. ‘We cooked for the men in this cookwagon. It had five tables that you could seat four men. We could seat twenty men at that time. And we got up at 3:30 in the morning, and we had to give them lunch in the forenoon, sandwiches and either cookies or cake and coffee. And then we cooked dinner. And at about three thirty or four in the afternoon, there was another lunch. And then in the evening they never ate ‘til about seven thirty or eight in the evening. And we baked all the bread and cooked, all the baking we did. And we did that for probably six weeks…They’d move from one farm to the next, sometimes you’d move probably as far as ten miles. So then you’d get there just before supper in the evening. And boy, was that a scramble then to get supper ready for all these men. But you had to plan ahead, you see, and have all this prepared so that it wouldn’t take too long…I don’t know how in the world we did it…We always had meals ready on time, believe you me. We baked bread twice a day, eight loaves of bread, twice a day…we baked cookies, probably every day if not twice a day…

“’We usually averaged about maybe four and a half hours of sleep, sometimes five. [We] slept right on the floor between the benches in the cookhouse. So it wasn’t an extra good bed either, you know, but it worked pretty good…’”

If you would like to read more about the remarkable women profiled in this article, four women who cooked for farm crews and at logging camps, you can find the complete story on our website.

Excerpt from Mary E. Reed and Carol Young, “Rural Women of Latah County: Life and Work with the Harvest and Logging Crews,” Latah Legacy 11, no. 2, 21-27.

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