Hidden History: Osage County farmer women hated weeds, politics and men – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Osage County farmer women hated weeds, politics and men

In the 19th century women’s roles in the home and workplace were often limited to household management and family responsibilities. Different factors began to influence a change in expectations. One was the rise in popularity of the women’s suffrage movement, which showed young women they could be considered on equal footing with men in many areas. There was also a shift away from an agrarian society in which young men sought out “easier” jobs in cities. Additionally, technological advances made farm work easier to manage and allowed women to take a larger portions of farming activities. In Osage County, Carrie and Martha James didn’t settle for just that, but became principal farmers on their farm in the northwestern portion of the county.

Carrie and Martha’s parents, Charles and Sarah James, moved to a 200-acre farm northwest of Burlingame in the early 1880s. Charles James started with nothing but his land, his horses, implements, and hard work. When lands in Oklahoma Territory were opened up for white settlers, the family took their chances and participated in the fourth land run, which took place in the north central portion of the state in 1893.

Not every participant was able to obtain a claim, but the James family secured an uncontested one near Alva in Woods County. After the claim was made and improvements began, the land was rented, and the Jameses returned to Osage County. Carrie James eventually took on responsibility for the property, while Martha never went farther than the county seat. Once a year Carrie would go to check on the Oklahoma claim, collect rent, and assure herself that the land was being properly maintained.

Charles died in 1896 and instead of his sons taking over their parents’ farm, Martha, age 30, and Carrie, age 18, immediately jumped in. The sisters began working 100 acres – 40 acres they owned and 60 rented. And they did it with great success.

Advances in farming technology greatly helped women farmers. While cost was prohibitive to small farms, implements like the reaper-binder, improved hay rakes, hay tedders, land roller, and disc harrow made the work go much faster. While the Jameses’ farmhouse may have been plainly furnished, their outbuildings housed all modern machinery with large Clydesdales to pull it.

Newspapers marveled in their reports on the industrious women who had the fattest hogs, the heaviest poultry, freshest eggs, and the yellowest butter in the local neighboring markets. It was said that the sisters “may be seen flourishing the hedge knife, or breaking cornstalks, or mending fences before the frost is out of the ground. Then when the regular spring work opens up one can be seen riding a plow behind three big horses, breaking ground, while the other is harrowing and planting. Their farm work is all done with neatness and dispatch. Their corn rows are the straightest, their hedgerows trimmed the closest, their wheat fields the evenest, and the weeds on their farms are the scarcest.”

When asked how they were so successful in farming, Martha replied “We don’t spend any time monkeying in politics. Don’t you know that politics and farming don’t mix well? Look at that farm over there. It is run down and about to be sold at mortgage sale. The reason is that the owner spends too much time on dry goods boxes in town trying to tell the other loafers how this country should be run.”

Carrie and Martha didn’t just plow, sow and reap on their own, they adamantly refused offers of help from men. They did have help though. Their mother, Sarah, drove the reaper while the girls gathered the sheaves of grain. Sarah also drove the mower and the rake in the hay field while girls stacked it.

Martha stated, “There is nothing I hate as bad as weeds … There is one other thing. A man!” Both women had at least a few advances by old bachelors or widowers that were enamored with the sisters (or maybe their land). A suitor once proposed to one of the sisters while she was selling her wares at a local store. The answer was not quite what he expected, and he quickly got his answer in the form of a slap across his face. The offended sister then left the store slamming the door behind her hard enough to shake the windows, leaving the jilted gentleman with a well-defined handprint on his cheek.

In Martha and Carrie’s lifetimes, they experienced a stark change in attitudes towards farming women. Nationally, by 1899 there were more than 8,000 women farmers, specifically those that owned their own farms and not operated in partnership with their husbands. In 1900, the James sisters took part in a farming conference put on by the State Grange, where a special invitation was extended to women interested in farming. Burlingame businesswomen supporting this conference included Lucy Jennings, Margaret Buck, Jane Palmer, Mrs. E.W. Crumb, and Mrs. Imley.

Within a decade and as part as a nationwide trend, classes were made available to local farmers through the extension department at Kansas State University, and similar institutions for women. It wasn’t too long before women farmers numbered more than 300,000 in the United States. This number was greatly increased during World War I, as many women managed the farms on the homefront as their husbands went off to war. At the end of the war, calls went out for a statewide conference focusing on women actively managing their own farms, some doing so because their husbands had perished in the war. The goal was to promote cooperation among women in farming, increase knowledge by using educational institutions with an agriculture specialty, educate inexperienced women on farming practices, and offer advice on soil, water supplies, rental contracts, and selecting and buying farms.

In the United States today, 31 percent of farmers are women, farming more than 300 million acres. Martha and Carrie James continued farming throughout their days and are buried in the Burlingame Cemetery.

James family on their farm near Burlingame, Kan. Ancestry.com photo.

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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