From Poultry to Poetry: The Life and Letters of Harriette E. Cushman

Formal portrait of Harriette Cushman

When she wasn’t working, Cushman was an avid outdoorswoman and an outspoken environmentalist. In 1973, she lobbied against strip mining for coal in eastern Montana, saying, “We just can’t have another Appalachia.” Parc-001264. Courtesy of Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections, Montana State University Library

In 1922, the Extension Service at Montana State College in Bozeman hired Harriette Cushman to be Montana’s poultry specialist. Over the next thirty-two years, Cushman worked to build a profitable poultry industry that proved an economic godsend during Montana’s prolonged economic depression. A woman of many interests, Cushman also championed the Indian Center at Montana State University and advocated for libraries, museums, and the arts. She was also a lifelong supporter of 4-H, an environmental advocate, and a prolific writer.

Harriette Eliza Cushman was born in Alabama in 1890. She graduated from Cornell University in 1914 with a degree in bacteriology and chemistry. In 1918 she earned a poultry specialist degree from Rutgers University and became one of the few women pursuing a career as a poultry scientist.

As Montana’s poultry specialist, Cushman traveled the state, educating farmers on breeding, culling, egg and bird grading, poultry housing, proper feed, and poultry health. She authored numerous seminal poultry-raising manuals that emphasized the application of scientific methods and utilized local demonstration flocks for hands-on instruction.

Montana’s poultry industry expanded significantly under Cushman’s guidance. Prior to Cushman’s tenure as state poultry specialist, individual poultry growers worked independently, selling birds locally for whatever price they could get. In the 1920s, Cushman helped to form the nation’s first egg and turkey wholesale cooperatives, enabling Montana poultry growers to negotiate top prices. As the first poultry grader for the newly formed Northwest Turkey Federation, Cushman secured nationwide markets for Montana’s premium quality “Norbest” turkeys, making Montana’s turkey industry the most profitable in the nation during the Great Depression. Continue reading

Two Legendary African American Homesteaders

An African American homestead couple stand in front of their home.

Of the almost 1,800 African Americans who lived in Montana in 1910, approximately 43 percent were women. Most lived in Helena, Butte, and Great Falls. A few, like Annie Morgan, Birdie Brown, and this unidentified Great Falls-area homesteader, pictured with her husband on their claim, looked to build a life for themselves on the agricultural frontier. Photograph by the Great Falls Photo View Company, Ken Robison Collection

Homesteading was hard work, but it offered single women a chance to become independent at a time when social mores made it difficult for women to be self-sufficient. Among the many single women who took this opportunity were two African American women who filed homestead claims and did well for themselves. Homesteading allowed Annie Morgan and Bertie Brown to become women of property, and each brought special skills to the communities in which they settled.

Nothing is known about Agnes “Annie” Morgan’s early life except that she was born in Maryland around 1844. By 1880, she was married, had come west, and was a domestic servant in the household of Capt. Myles Moylan and his wife, Lottie. The captain was stationed at Fort Meade, Dakota Territory, along with Frederick Benteen and other survivors of the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle at Little Bighorn. Morgan’s association with the Seventh Cavalry lends credence to the legend that she once had cooked for Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

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Head, Heart, Hands, and Health: Montana’s Women and Girls in the 4-H Movement

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Dorothy and Gladys Hill, both Blackfeet tribal members and students at the Cut Bank Boarding School, showcased their project “Furnishing of a Model Indian Home” at the 1930 4-H Club Hi-Line Association Conference at Rocky Boy, Montana. Attendees included members of the Rocky Boy, Blackfeet, Flathead, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations. The conference–which took place October 8-10–earned praise from officials who saw 4-H as a valuable tool of education and assimilation. Photo courtesy MHS PAc 84-59 f2.

Montana’s 4-H clubs grew from three thousand youngsters in 1914 to over twenty thousand members a century later. The organization encourages children to develop skills that enable them to better their lives and strengthen their communities. Its emphasis on the economic importance of women’s work created leadership opportunities for women and inspired girls to partake in 4-H clubs, camps, and competitions. Women and girls in 4-H have proven their abilities while broadening the organization’s objectives and expanding its opportunities for boys and girls alike.

When Montana’s Cooperative Extension Service hired Augusta Evans to organize the state’s first 4-H clubs in 1914, the nation’s agricultural industry was striving to stabilize food production. The Extension Service and experimental agricultural stations engaged 4-H youth in their efforts to apply an industrial approach to farming: maximizing efficiency using new technologies and boosting production by applying scientific methods. Initially, almost all Montana’s 4-H members were boys, and these early clubs produced corn, peas, potatoes, beef, and sheep. In contrast, the state’s first girls’ clubs focused on corset making. By 1930, however, the number of girls in Montana’s clubs exceeded the number of boys, and their activities had greatly diversified.

Home Demonstration agents effected this change when they brought up-to-date techniques to rural women. Even women already experienced in canning and cooking benefited from the expertise of agents like Helen Mayfield, who demonstrated food preservation for maximum nutritional content. A 4-H leader from Rosebud County noted in the 1930s that farm women were often more bashful than their daughters but just as eager to try the newest technologies. This outreach to rural women stimulated a rapid rise of 4-H club leaders.

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The Work Was Never Done: Farm and Ranch Wives and Mothers

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Pearl Unglesbee Danniel homesteaded in the badlands of eastern Montana with her husband Clarence Unglesbee. Her caption for this photograph read, “Our little home where the Crickets used to make me feel that it was always summer. They sang in the walls all winter.” This photo was taken circa 1930. After Clarence died in 1927, Pearl transferred the property to her daughters and took out another homestead nearby. MHS Photo Archives PAc 95-7 1.

Upon statehood in 1889, 5,600 farms spread across Montana. By 1910, that number had jumped to 26,000. The Enlarged Homestead Act was one reason thousands flooded into Montana, including many married couples. Although federal census records consistently note that women whose husbands were involved in agriculture had no occupations, women were often the linchpins of the family economy and played key roles in building their communities.

Helena Hagadone, Janet Smith, Lilly B. “Ma” Smith, Ruth Garfield, and others represent different experiences, but share a unique sisterhood. What women brought to the marriage influenced the success, and sometimes failure, of the partnership. They were neither as frail nor as frightened as they have sometimes been portrayed.

Frank and Helena Hagadone married in 1913. In 1917, the Hagadones homesteaded with their three children in a hostile place in the Missouri Breaks called the Devil’s Pocket. The Missouri River bottomlands were unbearably hot in summer and cruelly cold in winter. The family grew vegetables and caught fish, but they had no well. They carried river water to the house, let the silt settle, and boiled it for cooking and drinking. Rattlesnakes were everywhere, and one of the children survived a near-fatal bite. After four years, the Hagadones separated. Mrs. Hagadone sent the young girls to board in town and paid for their schooling by working the homestead alone. The girls were glad to leave because their mother had become a mean woman.

Partnerships were sometimes uneven. “I was just like a hired man,” recalled Katie Adams of Hill County. “I was right there. I helped harness the horses and unharness them and hitch them up. And I followed the plow more than once and the harrow and the rake, raked the fields.” Women worked alongside men in haying, threshing, and branding. But they also did the cooking, the washing, and raised the children.

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A Farm of Her Own

Grace Binks and Magaret Major pose outside a chicken house.

In 1911, thirty-nine-year-old Grace Binks (left) and twenty-nine-year-old Margaret Major (right) came to Sumatra, Montana (northwestern Rosebud County) as part of a group of Iowa homesteaders. The women stayed only a year, paying cash to “commute” their homesteads into purchased land. MHS Photo Archives PAc 92-62 p.19 #C

Historians estimate that up to 18 percent of homesteaders in Montana were unmarried women. Passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any twenty-one-year-old head of household the right to homestead federal land. Single, widowed, and divorced women fit this description, and they crossed the country to file homestead claims of 160 acres. After the turn of the century, when the Enlarged Homestead Act doubled the acreage to 320, even more women took up free land in Montana. While not all succeeded, those who did proved that women were up to the task. Gwenllian Evans was Montana’s first female homesteader. A widow from Wales, she emigrated to the United States in 1868. Her son, Morgan Evans, was Marcus Daly’s land agent and a well-known Deer Lodge valley rancher. In 1870, Gwenllian Evans filed on land that later became the town of Opportunity; she received her patent in 1872.  She was one of the territory’s first post mistresses and lived on her homestead until her death in 1892. Continue reading

Work Done by Muscle Power or Grit: Anna Dahl, Rural Electrification, and the Transformation of Rural Women’s Work

The Sheridan Electric Coop's first board of trustees, 1946

Posed here in October 1946 with the Sheridan Electric Coop’s first board of trustees, Anna Dahl became used to being the only woman at the table. She went on to become the second woman in the United States elected president of the board of a rural electric coop, the first woman member of the board of directors of the Montana State REA, and the first woman trustee of Northwest Public Power Association, Anna Dahl Scrapbook, SC909, MHS Archives

In the twentieth century, rural women faced a different—and arguably more rigorous—set of gender expectations than did their urban sisters. They did, of course, preserve and cook food, mend and wash clothes, care for children, and clean their homes, but they were also intimately involved in farm labor. Rural women raised produce, chickens, and pigs; kept the farms’ books; and worked in the fields. Their work was so essential that historian Richard Roeder called Montana women the “economic linchpins” of the state’s farms and ranches.         

Even more amazing than the number of tasks rural women performed is the fact that, before World War II, they largely completed their work without electricity. Anna Dahl, a farm wife from Sheridan County, helped change this. A key community activist promoting rural electrification in eastern Montana, Dahl helped bring power to six hundred families in Sheridan, Roosevelt, and Daniels counties. Her efforts significantly altered life on the farm, especially for Montana women.

Anna Boe Dahl (1892-1986) arrived in Plentywood, Montana, with her brother in 1917. She taught school in Dagmar for two years before marrying Andrew Dahl in 1919 and moving to a 640-acre farm near Coalridge. There she and Andrew raised five children. During the Depression, Anna also taught English and farm economics for the Works Project Administration to supplement the family income.

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Nannie Alderson: Pioneer Ranchwoman

Nannie Alderson as an elderly woman. Born in 1860 in Virginia, the twenty-two-year-old Nannie Tiffany Alderson moved to eastern Montana in 1882, where she and her husband hoped to strike it rich on the cattle frontier. Their dreams of wealth never materialized.

Born in 1860 in Virginia, the twenty-two-year-old Nannie Tiffany Alderson moved to eastern Montana in 1882, where she and her husband hoped to strike it rich on the cattle frontier. Their dreams of wealth never materialized. MHS Photo Archives PAC 89-29

When Nannie Alderson and her husband, Walt, immigrated to Montana in 1883, they were among the first wave of settlers in eastern Montana’s nascent cattle kingdom. A Bride Goes West, Alderson’s memoir of her years as a rancher’s wife, is consistently listed as one of the best books about Montana. In it, she famously paraphrased Theodore Roosevelt, stating that Montana was “a great country for men and horses, but hell on women and cattle.” The story of her transition from a life of Southern privilege to the hardships of ranching on the Northern Plains has come to symbolize the experience of the pioneer woman in Montana.

Alderson grew up in a wealthy West Virginia family. She met Walt while visiting relatives in Kansas in 1882, and they were married in the spring of 1883. Possessed by a “feverish optimism” about the prospects of cattle ranching in Montana, the couple settled on a homestead south of Miles City. In her memoir, Alderson recalls an overwhelming sense of possibility: “Everyone, it seemed, was making fabulous sums of money or was about to make them; no one thought of losses; and for the next year my husband and I were to breathe that air of optimism and share all those rose-colored expectations.”

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More Than Just a Happy Housewife: Home Demonstration Clubs in Post-World War II Montana

Members of the Fort Peck Friendly Homemakers Club prepare to serve food at a fund-raiser for a children’s Christmas party, circa 1948. Early clubs on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation were segregated by race, but the Extension Office worked to integrate clubs in the 1960s.

Members of the Fort Peck Friendly Homemakers Club prepare to serve food at a fund-raiser for a children’s Christmas party, circa 1948. Early clubs on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation were segregated by race, but the Extension Office worked to integrate clubs in the 1960s. Roosevelt County Extension Service, “Annual Report of Cooperative Extension Work, 1949.” 22.

Home Demonstration clubs—also known as Homemakers clubs—were created in 1914 as part of the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics. Their goal was to bring “expert” instruction on the subjects of home economics and agriculture to rural women. Originally intended to “uplift” rural women through professional instruction, Home Demonstration clubs became a way for Montana women to socialize and learn from one another and to serve their communities. While the clubs attempted to reinforce conservative domestic values, the experiences of Home Demonstration clubwomen in the post-World War II era suggest that farm women adapted them to their own ends.

At their inception, Homemakers clubs reflected a Progressive-era faith that expertise and government intervention could improve American society. Targeting women who were unable to attend college, Home Demonstration agents instructed women in “scientific” methods of child rearing, food preservation, cooking, consumerism, nutrition, women’s and family health, and home and farm management. Department of Agriculture employee Mary E. Creswell expressed optimism that proper instruction would improve the lives—and character—of rural women: “With increased opportunity for training, . . . and with the opportunity for permanent service in her county, the work of the county woman agent will continue to be the most potent influence for progressive and happy country homes.”

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