Leora J. Lewis: Leading Librarian

I came across Leora Lewis’ name recently as the director of the SD Free Library Commission in the 1920s and early 1930s, a Commission that had been established in 1913.  As always, I’m curious to dig around for information about historically-significant women…  [and am inexplicably proud of the alliteration in this post title.]

Leora June Lewis was born in 1889 in Pennington County, South Dakota [1930 census; SD Birth Index].  Her parents, Clarence L. Lewis and Mary Helen Benson, were from New York and Pennsylvania respectively [Helen in 1900 census; Mary in 1910 census; 1930 census; SD Birth Index].  Clarence Lewis was an attorney [1900 census; 1910 census].  The family lived at 730 South Street in Rapid City and was relatively well-off –they had a 16-year-old Swedish girl working as a servant in 1900 [1900 census; 1910 census].

Leora Lewis’ professional career began in 1910, when she was appointed librarian at the Rapid City Free Public Library [RCPL Timeline; 1918 city directory].

The first library in town was a reading room set up in 1879 and moved to Library Hall on the corner of 6th and Kansas City Streets in 1881.  In 1903, the Rapid City Public Library became a publically-supported city institution, had its first directors appointed, Rose and Laura Bower and Lillian Nyswanger, and a reading room was set up downtown in 1904.  [“A Brief History, 1879 to the Present,” brochure from Rapid City Public Library, accessed online; “Rapid City Public Library,” South Dakota Library Bulletin 49 (1963), 62].

In 1914-1917, the Rapid City Library under Lewis’ direction erected a new building with support from the Carnegie foundation [“A Brief History, 1879 to the Present,” brochure from Rapid City Public Library, accessed online].  In her position, she would have had a key opinion in the design and layout of the building as she worked on it with the state field librarian, the local building committee, and their architect.

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What I’m Reading 7

What I’ve been reading in spare moments over the past few months…

‘This is all the home I now have’: Deserted and Widowed Homesteaders” by Rebecca S. Wingo, Macalaster College on Rural Women’s Studies to promote the new book Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, with a focus on Nebraska.  The excerpt/adapted text in the blog focuses on ‘non-traditional’ paths to becoming a woman homesteader by desertion or being widowed – which required a lot of hoops to negotiate in the bureaucratic process of claiming the land, and their reliance on male relatives/neighbors to bear witness for their claim.

This great online exhibit: Protecting Places: Historic Preservation and Public Broadcasting from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting on “the many ways Americans have created a dialogue through public media about these places that embody local and national histories” made the rounds on social media a short while ago.  It’s great to see a study about historic preservation with a particular aspect of media like public broadcasting, and I will have to keep this archive in mind for research generally.  And, it looks like they have some crowd-sourcing transcription on their site–that looks like fun.

I was looking at the SD Agricultural Heritage Museum and can’t believe I missed these exhibits: Land In Her Own Name and Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964.

And finally, I’ve read several good articles in recent issues of South Dakota History, particularly ones on the Presentation Sisters who founded and ran the network of Catholic hospitals in South Dakota, on the experience of one particular Scottish-trained nurse in the Plankinton (I think) area, on the persistence of the sod house building on the South Dakota prairie, and on the women of Brown County who served as nurses and other jobs during World War I.

Family Ties: Girls Trip to the Black Hills

I didn’t grow up in South Dakota, but was visiting family recently and had an unanticipated run-in with South Dakota history.  We were sitting around their kitchen table and I was listening to stories of all the old photos–every visit I see some of the same photos but there also seems to be something new.

One of my grandparents (well, a step-grandparent) shared a small album that their mother had put together after visiting South Dakota’s Black Hills with her friends in the early 1930s.  It was right at the start of the period when the highways to and within the Black Hills, as well as tourist facilities, were being improved and the ‘common folk’ could better access the area for vacation.  Needles Highway had been built in the 1920s, but Mount Rushmore would have still been in progress during their trip.  The cell phone photos I quickly grabbed of the unlabeled album aren’t great, but it made such an impact that I thought I’d share them anyway.  It’s amazing the feeling you get when you find a personal connection to interesting history.

Professionally, I think it’s fascinating that this young woman from a farm in Minnesota first, went on a vacation out to the Black Hills, but second, that she went with four female friends.  I would have guessed it to be unusual for five young women to travel that far alone in the 1930s, but maybe I need to check my preconceptions.  I wonder if they were school friends, or related?  Also: why they went, how long they were there, where they stayed, how they made travel arrangements, whether they had car trouble, what camera they had brought…

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Women in Business in Faulkton, 1909

A while back I did a series of posts on the women included in the 1909 business directory for the city of Sioux Falls.  I came across a website with a 1909 list of businesses and their owners for the much smaller city of Faulkton (link here) and thought I’d try the same research experiment with the women listed there.  The directory was transcribed by K. Torp from a 1909 published county history by C.H. Ellis.  There were several that were hard to find, perhaps they were transient, or married and their marriage record didn’t come up, for whatever reason, on Ancestry.com.  Several of the women worked with/for their husbands or fathers, or took over the management of a business after their husband’s death.  Then, there was Abbie Jarvis who was known for delivering babies, which was a branch of medicine that I would assume was more accessible for women at the time, but she also was so driven to become a qualified doctor that she went to another city, with her two youngest children, in order to pursue that education.  She was the first woman licensed to be a doctor and pharmacist in the state,  and proceeded to have a long and respected career.

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Women of the South Dakota Farmers Institutes

A while back, I was reading an article about the relationship between farmers and agronomists in the period where the ag science was blossoming, but before hybridization.  Curious about how that played out in South Dakota, I thought of the farmer’s institutes that the Agricultural College in Brookings and the state put on in different places.  So I’ve started going through the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America collection (love some good LOC time) searching for news printed about the farmers institutes in South Dakota papers.

From the 1880s to the 1910s, counties across the state hosted “farmers’ institutes” that could be one to four days of lectures and demonstrations on agricultural topics at a central spot like a courthouse or opera house.  In SD and elsewhere, they later evolved into more formal “short courses” directed by the state’s agricultural college and its extension offices.  Many farmers’ institutes involved judged contests for corn or grains, both for men and boys.  Many also seem to have made a special effort to get women to attend by providing special sessions on domestic science–topics of home sanitation, caring for the sick, different cooking techniques, etc.  This in turn made me curious about the women who served as instructors, so here is what I could find out about the female instructors I’m coming across in the newspapers.  I am way down the rabbit hole at this point…  As is often the case, it was amazing to actually see their faces when photographs were included in the newspapers and other publications, and to read their own words when full text articles and speeches were printed.

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Profile of a Scholar: Gertrude S. Young

Gertrude Stickney Young taught history at South Dakota State College (now University) from 1907 to 1955.  A small collection of her papers are held at the H.M. Briggs Library at SDSU, link to their site here (also has a photo posted).

It has been a rewarding life, certainly not a dramatic one — this one of teaching for four decades, this one of attempting to point out helpful patterns for working in the present entanglement of world affairs to be found in a study of good and bad reactions to like problems of other peoples and places…. It has been a life of an observer, an interpreter, not a participant….

To have lived through these decades – a blessed privilege; we hope that we have not altogether abused it.

— “A Study in History for the ‘I Personally Award,'” c.1948, p43.

Background and Education

Gertrude Young was born on September 14, 1883 in Sioux Falls.  Her family had a privileged status with the resources to support her education.  Her father, Sutton Young, was the first Speaker of the House in the South Dakota legislature.  He had come to Sioux Falls in 1881 from a Yankee family in Ohio, working in law and real estate interests.  Her mother Emma Stickney Young was born in Ohio, graduated from Oberlin College in 1867, and then taught at a Freedman’s Bureau school in Mississippi for a year and in Ohio schools before marrying Young.  In Sioux Falls, Emma taught for a time at the high school there.  Mrs. Young set an example of civic engagement for Gertrude in her service to the church, charities, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Women’s State Board of Charities and Corrections.

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The Queen of Orchardists: Laura Alderman


Fruit growing in Dakota Territory was a risky prospect early in the history of Euro-American settlement on the plains.  Growers used to the rainfall levels, soil types, and temperature variance of the Midwest had a significant period of adjustment to find a system that would work in their new environment.  Nonetheless, the demand for fresh fruit as well as products like cider vinegar, apple butter, and dried apples made the investment potentially profitable for local growers because they could keep shipping costs lower and fruit fresher.  There were many active participants in horticulture in South Dakota that were worthy of note.  Some were scientist scholars, some business owners, some dedicated amateurs–and most were men.  Unusual for the day, the success of one commercial operation in Turner County was credited to a woman…

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