Thursday, March 23, 2017

Women's History Month 2017: Grace Wicks, Woman of Action

LCHS Photo Collection
With a personality and force of character that go unrivaled among Moscow’s matriarchs, Grace Wicks was a well-known community member for nearly forty years.  The staunch Republican was one of the first women elected to the Latah County Board of Commissioners.  Beginning in 1975, Wicks wrote a weekly column in the local newspaper, missing only two deadlines until she put down her pen just weeks prior to her passing in 1997. 

Grace was also heavily involved in the creation of the Latah Care Center, which replaced the County Farm (or Poor Farm) located north of Moscow. Below you can read Grace's own account of how that project began, which was published in a 1993 volume of the Latah Legacy. She was truly a woman of action.

To read more about the Latah Care Center, see Latah Legacy 22, no. 1

Friday, March 17, 2017

An Open Letter to our Congressmen Regarding Funding of Humanities and Arts Agencies

March 16, 2017

Dear Senators Crapo and Risch and Congressman Labrador,

            This morning I learned that President Trump’s budget blueprint does not provide for continued funding of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the National Endowment for the Arts. I am deeply concerned about the long-term impacts that such cuts would have on museums like the one I lead here in Idaho. The work undertaken by our country’s museums is essential to the cultivation of our national heritage and civic culture. At the Latah County Historical Society, grants from these agencies are investments in our vision of building good citizens, strong communities, and satisfying lives. 

            Just two months ago our small historical society was able to bring a traveling exhibit, curated by the Smithsonian Institution, to Latah County because of financial support from NEH administered through the Idaho Humanities Council. Several thousand people had a chance to learn through the exhibit, and for many it was their first interaction with the Smithsonian. In 2016 we were also the co-recipients of a $10,000 grant, along with the University of Idaho Library, which allowed us to purchase equipment and software. With that new technology we are traveling throughout Latah County to assist local residents in digitizing and preserving their prized family photos and documents. 

These awards are quite small in terms of dollars spent, and yet their impact is incredible. According to a 2012 study by Americans for the Arts, museums and cultural institutions return $5 in tax revenue for every $1 received in funding from all levels of federal government. Museums are also an important part of our economy. More than 400,000 people are employed in museums, and the sector contributes $21 billion to the economy each year.

Thank you, Senators Crapo and Risch, for your support of these organizations. When the IMLS came up for reauthorization in 2010, you and your colleagues passed the bill with unanimous consent. I hope that you will consider the dramatic and detrimental effects that defunding these federal agencies would have on the museums which serve your constituents in Idaho. As you pursue prudent public spending policies through your work on the Senate Committee on the Budget, know that investments in the humanities and arts are good for the economy, good for communities, and good for the future of our country.


Dulce Kersting
Latah County Historical Society
Executive Director

Women's History Month 2017: Jennie Hughes, UI Pioneer

Just three years after the University of Idaho produced its inaugural class of graduates, the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree in Idaho accepted her diploma in 1899.  

Jennie Eva Hughes was born in Washington, DC to Louisa and Alexander Hughes in 1879. While still a young child Jennie's mother married Lewis Crisemon and they began moving westward. For a time the family, which now included two more daughters, lived in Indian Territory. By the early 1890s the Hughes were living in Idaho. During this period the African American population in Idaho was quite small, and the Hugheses were likely Moscow's first black family. 

Jennie graduated from Moscow High School in April of 1895 and enrolled in college the following fall.  During her four years at the university, Jennie won the Watkins Medal for Oratory and earned enough credits to receive a Bachelor of Science degree, just one of seven students to matriculate in 1899.  While not much is known about Jennie’s parents, Lewis and Louisa, they must have been quite proud of their daughter, who had weathered several moves across the country before the family’s arrival in Moscow.  At the turn of the twentieth century, only about one percent of all Americans earned a bachelor’s degree, a fact that makes Jennie Hughes’ accomplishment all the more remarkable.   

A short time after her graduation from the university, Jennie married a miner named George Smith and moved to Idaho’s Silver Valley.  Following the birth of their fourth child, the couple moved to Spokane, Washington where Jennie believed her children would benefit from a more established public school system.  Her commitment to education was a trait she passed on to her children.  Her son Berthol became the second African American to enroll at the university, although he passed away before his graduation.  Another son would earn a degree in Electrical Engineering from Washington State College, and a third became a lawyer in the Spokane area. 

Most of what we know about Jennie Hughes Smith comes to us from school records, Argonaut articles, and recollections from grandchildren. Jennie's own words were never captured in a diary or oral history interview. Her life experiences were surely shaped by race and gender. As we commemorate the women's suffrage and equal rights movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is important to remember that women of color were largely excluded from participating. The particular needs of non-white women, among the most marginalized individuals even today, were not acknowledged. For an excellent overview on the historic intersections of race and gender equality, see "Feminism and Race in the United States." 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Women's History Month 2017: The Bovill Women, Thriving on the Frontier

The Bovills - LCHS Photo Archive

In 1890, the superintendent of the Census declared that the country’s frontier had closed. Settlement of the American West had been so prolific in the latter-half of the 19th century that there no longer existed a distinct region in which the population was below two persons per square mile. Indeed the West was changing. Between 1870 and 1890, the population of Denver grew from 4,759 to 106,713. Railroads proliferated, bringing people and industry to the once isolated region. Even the ubiquitous open range of western lore, inhabited by rugged cowboys and longhorn cattle, was under pressure from homesteaders and land developers.

It was during this period of immense change that Charlotte Emily Robinson moved to America. Charlotte was born in England to a genteel family that claimed direct decent from King Edward III. She was one of nine Robinson children, all of whom were provided an education in the classic subjects. According to biographical notes provided by her daughter, Charlotte’s father “believed in education for women and pioneered to that end. All of his nine children were given the best education available.”

Although the Robinson family had connections and some land in England, dreams of limitless opportunity and prosperity called several of the children to America. The youngest son Fred, along with the two oldest daughters Gertie and Emmie, were the first to take on the adventure. Emmie would eventually return to England, while Gertie married another British ex-pat and accompanied him into the gold fields of Idaho in the 1880s. Charlotte, or Lottie as she was known to her family, set out to visit her sister in Colorado in 1887, thus changing the course of her life.

“Her sister’s baby was born shortly after her arrival,” reads Charlotte’s biographical sketch, “and this event convinced her she had to learn to be more practical and useful if she were to remain in the West.” While in Denver, Charlotte took courses in nursing that would serve her and her family well. Next she moved to Nebraska to assist her brother with a cattle ranch he had just begun. She showed a remarkable willingness to “rough it,” choosing to live in the sod house nearly 100 miles from any town, rather than return to England. In 1891 she became a naturalized American citizen. On the ranch she met another Englishman, Hugh Bovill, and they married in 1894. 

Like many of Latah County’s settlers, Hugh and Charlotte Bovill arrived in the area looking for unadulterated open spaces. Their homestead in Sand Hill, Nebraska, which had once provided enough space to graze cattle and make a living, was ringed by competing settlers by the late 1890s, and they were feeling suffocated. In 1900 the Bovill family, which now included daughters Dorothy and Gwendolyn, arrived in Moscow by train and then made their way to Warren Meadows, some forty miles north and east.

The Bovills - Hugh, Charlotte, Dorothy and Gwendolyn - along with family friend at their home in Bovill, ID
LCHS Photo Archive
Gwendolyn Bovill recalled this new home with great fondest in her memoir, Knight or Knave?

“In later years I, Gwen, remember it well; ponies, horses galore, farm animals, milk, venison, fish, pheasant, bear, huckleberries, fields of hay and grain. It was a paradise for growing girls to roam…The only fly in the ointment as far as I can recall was Mother’s persistence in importing teachers, ‘tutors’ as she called them.”

In the early days of Bovill, as the community would come to be known, you would have been hard pressed to assert that the American frontier was closed. Conditions were primitive and every person had to contribute to the physical settlement of the town. In an article published by the Daily Idahonian in 1954 about the development of Bovill, Charlotte was characterized in this way: “Though she was raised in the city, Mrs. Bovill was a real pioneer when faced with the wilds of Idaho. She did a lot of hunting and bagged her share of elk, deer, bears, and wild cats.” She was also a caretaker to all. Following a tragic dynamite explosion at the WI&M Railroad’s Camp Eight that claimed two lives, Charlotte treated the survivors whose next nearest treatment would have been found in Troy or Moscow.
Charlotte Bovill - LCHS Photo Archive

Charlotte’s daughters inherited their mother’s adventurous spirit and commitment to service. Gwendolyn spent her formative years enjoying all the splendors that the forests and meadows had to offer. There was fishing and horseback riding and conversing with the interesting people who would visit her parent’s hotel and general outfitting store.

Gwendolyn Bovill - LCHS Photo Archive
Sadly, her childhood in the idyllic forests of northern Latah County came to an end when the Weyerhaeuser timber company forced its way into the town site.  Gwendolyn completed her schooling in Coeur d’Alene and then moved with her parents and sister to western Montana. Hugh and Lottie bought a piece of property from which their daughters could explore the Bitterroot Mountains and the Missoula River. As Gwen recalled, “The fact that there was only a partially built shack to live in was of little concern.”

Gwen quickly passed the state’s teaching exams and was given a small schoolhouse about ten miles from her parent’s home. Her accounts of that first harrowing year are too good not to share.

“Blizzards had a habit of hitting when I was on my way home, in which case I let my horse loose and waited in the sleigh for Dad to rescue me. The horse always went home, and soon as Dad saw him he would ride his big stock horse, Red Dog, to find me. A strong arm and my foot in his stirrup pulled me up behind his saddle, and away we went leaving the sleigh to sit until I could redeem it. Not even a wolf would be out in such blizzards. My eyelashes would freeze together until I was unable to see anything, and I still wonder how my horse always got home. If the weather prevented my horse from traveling, I had to snowshoe past the nearest farm in order to get any pay. No tracks, no pay, and I got $50 a month so I made tracks.” - Knight or Knave?

The Bovill’s adventures next took them to Newport, Oregon. During the waning years of World War I, Gwendolyn enrolled in the Army Physical Training course. She was one of 12 to pass the course in Portland and she was transferred to San Francisco. Before she could deploy oversees, the Armistice was signed. As a trained “physiotherapist” she soon found employment at the University of California Hospital. In that position she gained respect among the doctors as an innovative therapist with a proven track record of healing patients.

“Around this time [1922], a large medical building was under construction on the corner of Post and Powell. The top specialist in San Francisco were leasing space for their offices and they wanted a physiotherapist in the building. I had a co-worker, Hazel, with a fine record, but we had no money and I told Dr. Moffett that. With his help we got a group of the specialist together and offered to work for them exclusively for one year if they could keep us busy and if they would pay our rent and loan us the money for our equipment. Hazel and I were jubilant when they agreed. Weeks before we could move into the building, they learned I had an automobile and began using me for house calls down the Peninsula and around the Bay Area. Hazel carried on at the hospital during which time we started a joint business account. I loved driving, and my house calls consisted largely of dealing with children in their homes. After morning appointments, I was frequently invited to stay for lunch and in time I made many friends among the famous and wealthy people who had been or still were my patients. Our business flourished and we both were happy in spite of long hours and demanding work. What a happy day it was when we moved into our very own suite in the Fitzhugh Building and could work with all the best doctors.” Knight or Knave?

It was through her work that she met her first husband, Major Louis Cassel. Eventually she would move to Hong Kong with Louis and spend many years overseas. Upon his unexpected death, Gwendolyn returned to the states. After marrying and being widowed a second time, she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law’s home. She remained an active woman and spent a great deal of time as a family historian. Before passing away in 1980 she wrote three books related to her family many travels. Although short, her obituary alludes to her penitent for exploration and her love of people. It concludes by noting “She will be remembered by her many friends in Europe, Asia, California and Idaho for her graciousness and generosity and so will be greatly missed.”   

Gwendolyn Bovill - LCHS Photo Archive
When considered as individuals, Charlotte and Gwendolyn Bovill were undeniably vivacious and interesting. The pictures of Gwen as a proud outdoorswoman are what first caught my eye. Truly they are some of my favorite images in our photo archives. The more I read about the remarkable Bovill women, however, the more I was reminded that they were just two among many who had little regard for the societal expectations of women during their lifetimes. Men dominate our popular images of the American West. Yet there was a sisterhood of fierce, self-reliant, smart, and compassionate women who built communities across the mountains and plains. Yes, they carried out important domestic tasks like cooking and child rearing. But they also provided in less traditional ways – Charlotte hunted for her family’s dinner and Gwendolyn opened her own medical practice. Women blazed trails, saved lives, and added to the fabric of America.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Women's History Month 2017: Norma Dobler, Champion of Service

In 1980 a group of educators began agitating for national recognition of the historic contributions made by women. The handful of high school teachers noticed that their social studies textbooks devoted less than 3% of pages to women’s experiences and accomplishments. That year President Carter proclaimed the week of March 8th – International Women’s Day – as Women’s History Week. By 1987, the movement had gained enough traction among legislators that the entirety of March was declared Women’s History Month. In every subsequent year our President has recognized March as a month to celebrate all that women have done and continue you do for America. In the spirit of Women’s History Month, throughout March we will be celebrating women who called Latah County home.  

Norma Dobler was a mother, wife, volunteer, politician, activist, and concerned citizen. She was not, by her own admonition, a “women’s libber.” (1) Yet when all of Dobler’s accomplishments and contributions to her community are added up, it is clear that regardless of labels she was a champion of equal rights, which is the core tenant of feminism.

LCHS Photo Collection

Norma Woodhouse graduated from the University of Idaho with a business degree in 1939, married Clifford Dobler in 1941, and spent much of that decade as a housewife. She dedicated herself to the activities of her three children, volunteering time to the 4-H Club and Campfire Girls and serving as the superintendent of Sunday school at the Methodist Church. She performed the duties of a faculty wife for her husband, who taught business law at UI.

In 1950 Norma Dobler joined a another group in Moscow, and that new affiliation would prove to be a turning point in her life. Along with six other women, Dobler set out to obtain a charter for a local League of Women Voters. The national organization is a successor to the women’s suffrage movement and was first organized in 1920, following the passage of the 19th Amendment. Dobler was impressed by the League’s commitment to research and consensus building. (2) She and her fellow co-founders believed a local League could provide a venue for the exploration of common concerns, such as school funding or government accountability. Within two years the charter for League of Women Voters of Moscow was awarded, and Dobler’s commitments grew.

League members were encouraged to attend the meetings of boards, commissions, and councils with handled public funds and made decisions that impacted voters and citizens. Dobler began attending Moscow School Board meetings regularly around 1960 as a citizen observer and invested parent. Her presence was noted and in 1963 she was encouraged to run for a seat on the board. She served for six years in that capacity. In an additional act of service to her fellow community members, her and Clifford produced an accurate map of school board precincts for the first time. (2)

From 1969 to 1972 Dobler was the president of the state’s League of Women Voters. Throughout Idaho League members were agitating for causes that some legislators deemed radical. In 1966 the League adopted a position in opposition to loyalty oaths, which the Young Republicans of Coeur d’Alene asserted was “of great assistance to the Communists in the spread of their seditious propaganda.” (2) Although League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization, membership provided Dobler with a background in politics. In 1972 former Latah County Commissioner and Democrat Donna Bray encouraged Dobler to run for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. Her victory that November added one more title to Dobler’s resume – elected official. Upon her arrival in Boise she was greeted with skepticism, both for her affiliation with the “rabble-rousing” League of Women Voters and for her age. According to Dobler, a young Rep. “Butch” Otter even patted her on the head and told her she reminded him of his grandmother.

For 14 years Norma Dobler served her community as a Representative (’72-’76) and a Senator (’76-’86). During her terms, she gained respect as a Democrat willing to reach across the aisle and she often built bi-partisan coalitions to further the legislation important to her constituents.  The efficacy of her leadership is manifest in a list of accomplishments that is long and included the adoption of a state-wide kindergarten system (Idaho was the last state to adopt such a model), requiring the disclosure of campaign contributions by lobbyists, ensuring water quality, and preventing road building in wilderness areas. During Dobler’s final year she was also part of a bipartisan group of Senators urging their colleagues to adopt Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as an official state holiday. At that time Idaho was one of only a handful of states that had not done so. Although the Senate passed the 1986 bill, it was killed in the House of Representatives. MLK, Jr. Day was not recognized in Idaho until 1990.

In an interview many years after she left the Idaho Senate, Dobler remarked that her proudest accomplishment was the creation of a displaced homemakers fund. Although she lived a happy, “traditional” married life, she was keenly aware of the hardships faced by women after a divorce. The displaced homemakers fund, which was sustained by the fees collected by courts to process divorce filings, allowed women to attend one of Idaho’s vocational schools and learn a trade to support themselves and their family. (3)

Even after her retirement from the legislature, Norma Dobler was not content to rest on her laurels. From 1987 to 1996 she served on the Idaho State Board of Tax Appeals, hearing cases in the ten northernmost counties. Dobler also acted as a representative for the American Association of Retired People at the state and national levels. She was a faithful member of the League of Women Voters until her death in 1998.

A few months before her passing, a profile of Norma Dobler was published in the local newspaper. The piece opens with the line “If an election were held today to choose one of Latah County’s most respected women, Norma Woodhouse Dobler would likely win hands down.” (3). Her commitment to service made her a remarkable woman.

At the same time, her record of volunteerism is representative of the role that women everywhere play in their communities. In several interviews Dobler insisted that she was just a housewife and mother before she got into politics. Yet we know that she was volunteering and a school board member and a community activist. Although those roles did not come with a paycheck, she was contributing important work to her family and to her town. Women’s work is too often unpaid and therefore undervalued. It goes unaccounted for in our economy. That is just one reason why Women’s History Month is so important. When we neglect to take the time to look at the accomplishments that cannot be easily quantified in textbooks, we neglect the experiences of wide swaths of our population. Women’s contributions to American history, politics, culture, and the economy are undeniable.

(1) "Idaho Senator, Grandmother Norma Dobler," Palouse Empire News: A Weekly Supplement to the Idahoan, April 24-25, 1982.

(2) "League of Women Voters: National Group Celebrates 75 Years of Political Stands," Moscow-Pullman Daily News, September 23-24, 1995.

(3) "Retirement Not an Issue for Dobler," Moscow-Pullman Daily News, February 1-2, 1997.