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Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

by Kristen Parrott, curator
for the week of 3/22/2017

Spring is here - really! - and that means that the museum will soon be changing to its spring hours. Beginning April 1, the museum will be open five days a week, Monday through Friday, from noon to 4PM. These will be the hours for the months of April and May.

March is Women's History Month, and one of the stories we've been wanting to tell is that of women working in tobacco warehouses. Tobacco was once an important crop grown all over Vernon County. Women were a significant part of the tobacco-growing process. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop, and everyone's help was needed. The museum's files contain many images of women and girls involved in the different steps of growing and harvesting tobacco.

But today we are focusing on the warehouses. Farmers brought their tobacco harvests to the warehouses located in cities and larger villages around Vernon County, including Readstown, Westby, and De Soto, and in nearby counties, including Monroe and Crawford. At the warehouses, women again played a major part in preparing the tobacco to be shipped. Looking through the museum's records, we find women working in tobacco warehouses for at least 100 years, from the 1880s through the 1980s. In fact, women far outnumbered men as warehouse employees.

Newspaper articles tell us that Viroqua's first tobacco warehouse, built in November, 1885, was busy by March, 1886, "with about 20 young ladies and boys sorting and packing tobacco," according to foreman Charles Pierce. Martin Bekkedal's Viroqua warehouse, built in 1906, opened with 100 girls and women doing the sizing (sorting tobacco leaves by size), and about 12 men working as receivers, packers, and markers. In 1950, the Viroqua Leaf Tobacco Company hired 92 women and 20 men to sort and pack the tobacco harvest at its Viroqua warehouse.

From a 1971 newspaper article written by Myrtle Wolfgram, we learn that women from around the region were hired to work in Viroqua's tobacco warehouses in the early 1900s. They rented rooms in the city during the weeks when the most employees were needed. Women were hired for "sorting, sizing, and tip-sizing" of tobacco, and were paid according to the number of pounds of tobacco they completed.

Women also worked as inspectors, checking the tobacco before it was packed, and as packers, boxing the tobacco for shipment to cigar or chewing tobacco companies. In the early 1950's, Viroqua Leaf purchased machines for binder stripping, which removed stems from binder leaf tobacco, and hired women to run them. Binder stripping was also done by hand, such as at the Wisconsin Tobacco Company, which moved to Viroqua in 1961 and hired about 40 women to separate leaf from stem.

Why were women especially employed in tobacco warehouses? Nothing in our files explains this. Did the work require small hands? Viroqua's first tobacco warehouse specifically hired boys and young women, who usually have smaller hands than grown men. Or was it the seasonal nature of the jobs? Most warehouses offered work only during certain times of the year, and most men already had full-time jobs. Perhaps it was because women could be paid less than men, by law, and this was a way for the warehouses to save money. Let us know if you have more information about women working in tobacco warehouses.


Lizzie Rice restaurant

Women working in a local tobacco warehouse.


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by Kristen Parrott, curator
for the week of 3/15/2017

Conventional wisdom says that few women who lived 100 years ago and earlier worked outside the home, but again and again I find that to be not true. Doing research on many topics here at the museum, I often find 19th and early-20th century women employed in a variety of jobs. Most recently I've learned about a Vernon County church, Burr Wesleyan Methodist, that was served by ordained female pastors long before that was a common practice.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church was an offshoot of the Methodist Episcopal Church (now the United Methodist Church). Wesleyan Methodism was founded in 1843 by abolitionists in New York who opposed their church's stance on slavery. Equality among races and also between sexes was a founding principle of the Wesleyans. The 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY, was held at a Wesleyan Methodist chapel. Women in the Wesleyan Methodist Church could be ordained as pastors.

John Wesley Markee was a Wesleyan Methodist. He and his family arrived in Vernon County late in 1855 and settled on Pleasant Ridge, later called Burr Ridge, in the Town of Forest. A few months later a visiting pastor from the Baraboo Circuit organized a Wesleyan Methodist congregation at the Markee home. A church building was constructed in 1887, and a parsonage in 1895.

In 1879, the Wesleyan Methodist denomination stopped ordaining women, but in 1891 that decision was reversed. Mrs. J.A. Rose served as pastor of the Burr Church beginning in 1891. Julia Ann Olmstead was born in Illinois in 1837. She married Ambrose Rose in Juneau County, WI, in 1864. By the 1890's they were living in Town of Forest, Vernon County. Julia Rose served as pastor of Burr Wesleyan from 1891 to 1894, and again from 1899 to 1902. Under her leadership, four area churches - Burr, Valley, Oak Ridge, and Billings Creek - joined together to form a four-point Wesleyan Methodist charge, and she served them all.

Miss May Lewis appears on the list of Burr pastors in 1907. May was born in 1881 and grew up in Sauk County, WI. She attended a Wesleyan Methodist college and then came to serve briefly as minister of the Burr charge, where she met Wesley Markee. They married in 1908 and went to work at a church in La Valle, before returning to jointly pastor at Burr from 1914 to 1917. The Markees also served at Wesleyan churches in Ohio, South Dakota, and Illinois. In the 1930's they worked as the pastors of the Free Methodist Church in La Farge for five years, and May returned there to serve alone after Wesley died in 1941. She died in 1967 and is buried in Forest-Burr Cemetery. Her tombstone reads, "Rev. May."

Jennie Clawson served as pastor of both Burr and Valley Wesleyan Methodist Churches with her husband Joseph from 1920 to 1924. She was born Elizabeth Jane Reid in Ohio in 1877. She grew up in Kansas, studied at the university there, and began a teaching career. Jennie taught at Christian colleges in Kansas, New York, and Iowa before being ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Wisconsin in 1915. The Clawsons served at churches around Wisconsin from 1911 to 1949. Jennie died in 1953 and is buried in Forest-Burr Cemetery. Her tombstone reads, "Rev. Jennie."

Other women appear on the list of Burr Wesleyan pastors, including Josephine King, 1940 to 1943, and Sylvia Lee, 1946 to 1954. Let us know if you have any information about them or other women who served at Wesleyan Methodist churches in Vernon County.

As a side note, I don't think it's an accident that the Wesleyan Methodist Church, with its emphasis on equality of sex and race, flourished in this multicultural corner of Vernon County in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Markee family, who were white, moved to the Town of Forest at the same time that free black families began to move there, a few years before the Civil War. For decades this was a multiracial area, with people of many colors living, working, studying, and worshipping together, and the abolitionist Wesleyans no doubt helped to make that happen.



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To read the previous two articles click on the following links:

March 8, 2017

March 1, 2017

*You can find the original newspaper copy in the museum. Ask one of the staff for assistance.