History of 19th century Clinton women difficult to find

Submitted photoSarah Perrin, the first mother in Clinton County.

On occasion, someone will ask about the role women played in the lumber saga. This article is about how such an important question, female representation, isn’t easy given our existing resources. Suffrage, temperance, religion, and female “firsts” abound, but we also want to tell the stories of the well-behaved women.

Two anecdotes illustrate the difficulties of women’s history in our lumber context. When you search the historic newspaper database for Chancy Lamb, there are 3,742 articles from the 19th century. Jane Lamb, his wife, only has 12, with most of them being her obituaries and the rest being parties. Yet, her obituary is full of praise for her role in the civic life of Clinton. If you change the dates to 1900-1924, Jane Lamb has an indefinite amount of results. This is because of the hospital named after her.

The other interesting number is from the Northwoods. How many women lived and worked in logging camps and sawmill towns in the Northwoods? A 1884 Bureau of Labor study found zero women working in Wisconsin’s logging camps. Other 19th century censuses show a few dozen women in Wisconsin and a few hundred in Michigan/Minnesota. Sometimes this is extrapolated to say no women were in the camps, or even that women weren’t allowed in the camps. The starkest reminder that women were in these towns is that women accounted for 25 percent of all suicides in Northwoods camp towns. While women might not have been documented workers, we know from diaries, other studies, pictures, and just human nature that women were involved in daily logging camp life.

It is true that for the mid-19th century, women were scarce in Northwoods. Lumberjacks were often veteran lumberjacks from out East. For the early lumberjack with a family, they were emigrants who came out to the West to farm and went to the woods in the winter to make money. As the 19th century progressed, immigrants and their families filled logging towns, sawmill towns, logging camps and the woods.

At the height of the lumber boom, tens of thousands of lumberjacks called the Northwoods home. Home was a very important word in the 19th century, and with home, came motherhood and the likes. At first these logging camps were true camps, always moving, set in the woods. But even then, foremen and cooks had their families in the camp. For the average lumberjack, while their female relatives might not have slept in the camps, they could be there all day. Eventually, it seems that these logging camps became more like towns and lumberjacks left these towns to head into the woods during the day.

But the biggest evidence that women were in the Northwoods is the perfect example for why even with evidence, how should the museum tell a story? With all these single men, soiled doves, or prostitutes, were present. And, well, telling the story of sex workers in the 19th century requires more skill than I possess. Are they lumberjack queens, unionized workers, trafficked girls in white slavery, or immigrants looking to transition into American life?

“Dens” were often the first business in a new logging town. These dens could be home to dozens of single women. To moral reformers, they saw a lucrative sex slave trade in the lumber towns. A crusader in saving women from the sex trade, and saving men from sin, was Katharine Bushnell. She wrote a pamphlet detailing her four months touring camps. She exposed “a horrible, White Slave trade.” In the Northwoods, she encountered 577 women in 60 dens.

Bushnell focused on the familiar story of a young woman, perhaps an immigrant, usually poor, being promised gainful employment. Once arriving, they were forced into prostitution. The saloons would supposedly arrange for wagons full of lumberjacks to visit the dens. One woman was bought for $50 and forced to have sex with lumberjacks on her first night. Yet, this is through the lens of a reformer. There’s equal evidence that single women took advantage of a market inequity. In fact, many camp bosses appreciated the role prostitutes had. Well, until fighting occurred.

But what about women in Clinton? You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to bring to life a 19th century Clinton woman. One of the first things that always jumps out about women in Clinton are the numerous widows. Reading the 1880 census, you see a 30-year-old, a widow, with a few kids, working as a seamstress, a servant, or a cleaner. Women were expected to keep house when married. A vast majority of women were homemakers, and their story wasn’t recorded in contemporary mediums.

Motherhood is a great avenue to capture a woman’s story. For example, while I have not seen a picture of Jane Lamb, I do have a picture of Sarah Perrin, the first mother in Clinton County. She came to the territory in 1837. We know a lot about these pioneer women because of the Territorial and State Pioneers Annual Picnic. The picnic in 1894 had an amazing roster of women. For example, Mrs. Francis Elizabeth Peck came to Clinton in 1837. She claimed to be a classmate of Abraham Lincoln. She shared stories of families fording the Wapsi by taking hold of the ox tail and steering. And if I understood correctly, the ferry was a door held by two saplings being pulled by an oxen. What’s interesting is just how many results there are for these ladies. But they weren’t wives of sawmill workers.

Outside of famous firsts, the other prevalent result, like the logging camps, are soiled doves in Clinton. You see in divorce proceedings many men charge their wives as being prostitutes – often to justify their violence. A Thomson man thought his wife became a soiled dove in Clinton in 1899. Instead, he was told to go to a colored resort up the river. In Clinton, Sixth Avenue housed the cots for soiled doves. An 1878 city ordinance attempted to close houses of ill fame. The fine was between $10 and $100. Landlords had three days to remedy the situation or be found guilty. What’s crazy is the ordinance allowed officers to break in with or without warrants. Larkin Upton passed the ordinance. Twenty-two years later, the Herald charged the then-mayor with providing “the virtual licensing of places of prostitution.”

Another way we see women interacting with sawmill workers is through being innkeepers or saloon keepers with their husbands. Many of the young, single men stayed there, especially the new immigrants. As talked about in prior articles, there were midwives who helped bring in so much life.

Finally, the easiest lens to tell a woman’s story is that of the baronesses. You can get a sense of high society through stories of kleptomania and fancy parties. You can get a glimpse of Esther Young in the Young business papers in Iowa. Included are dozens of invoices from Marshall Fields. I remember going through some invoices of lumber sales and out fell some drapery rope for a remodel of the living room. There’s some great personal correspondence that shows Esther fighting for her kids to be brought into the lumber business and some general observations about the stability of her husband, post what some wonder was a stroke.

The problem is the passive nature of telling history like that. We need artifacts behind the stories and stories that are passed down. But realistically, the clothes of women from the 19th century are some of the rarest artifacts. With all this said, when you walk around the museum, you will see women mentioned throughout. Explicitly, one will see pictures, a few stories, a few of the famous firsts, and Beatrice Joyce. Throughout though, every panel will have an undercurrent of larger issues.

Matt Parbs is the director of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum.