What Can a Woman Do?

Over the last two years I have spent many hours picking through my tattered collection of newspapers and magazines of the early 1900s searching for insight into the lives, the habits, the thinking of the people of those times. As I flip through those old magazines, characters of the era seem to rise out of the pages and speak to me. Apparently, they all want to be in my book. Sadly, like big-eyed puppies at the pound, I must turn most of them away or else completely redo the plot and premise of my book. I think any writer doing research for a work of historical fiction must, every now and then, fall prey to these ‘imagination flares’ as I call them. The trick is knowing when to include them and when to regretfully, sorrowfully turn them away.

 Miss Florence Morton (b. 1881) is one of those intriguing characters. I discovered her lurking in a June, 1914 issue of The Farmer’s Wife, purchased on Ebay (of course). For weeks after reading John Scott Mills’s article about Miss Morton, I tried to think of some way to include her in my book, but alas, her character was simply too strong to take a supporting role. You see, Miss Morton is a leading lady. And lest the feminists of today (myself included) begin to think that we own the movement, let me just tell you what a single lady in 1914 accomplished before she turned 33 years old.

Florence grew up on a farm in Oregon. At the tender age of eight years old, she was sent away to school. Upon turning 16, she became a teacher. Apparently, two years of teaching obstreperous youngsters was enough for her, and she left that profession and trained to become a nurse. She then spent several years working in Portland, and in her free time she frequented local race tracks. She eventually bought a Yakima-bred filly, hired a trainer, and began racing. The article doesn’t say how Miss Morton came to the decision to dive into the racing industry. It seems to me like a long step in a dark room for a single nurse from Portland to decide to become a racehorse owner, but Florence jumped right in. Her little mare eventually earned her $3,000.00. In 1910, Florence’s father passed away and left her 120 acres of land. Florence used her track winnings to purchase an additional 100 acres, and just like that, she was a farm owner–all by herself.

At the time she purchased her land, only 25 acres were cleared. By 1914, she had 40 acres cultivated for a commercial apple orchard and oats and barley to feed her stock and poultry. She also grew three tons of corn, plus a vegetable garden and fruit. She produced and sold apple cider and jellies and preserves from strawberries, cherries, currants, gooseberries and blackberries. She began selling eggs – each one date stamped with the day it was gathered to ensure freshness for her customers. Florence also ran the dairy, milking the cows, running the separator, and churning butter three times weekly. She then delivered the butter to her customers. Miss Morton also began breeding and showing prize hogs and Jersey cattle. This got her name in the papers and benefitted her farm by increasing traffic to her business.

Wearing short “khaki bloomers and a shirt of the same material,” with “high laced shoes over black stockings,” Miss Morton did most of the farm work herself. In a day where the only short dresses were seen on little girls, and women’s hemlines were at the ankle, one wonders what sort of feedback Miss Morton had to endure.

There is a certain quality that I admire in people. You might call it gumption, I don’t know. That ability to reach for what you desire, to cut through the red tape that life surrounds us with and simply go for it has always entranced me. I sense that Miss Morton had this attribute in spades. As she says herself,

Any woman who has ability and the faculty of management can run a farm. She must not be lazy or too fond of her bed. She must like her work and look after it.

They are simple words, but oh so meaningful.

Florence Morton and her prize hogs.