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Notable women in East Otter Tail County history

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They are the ones who came before. The trailblazers.

With hard work, imagination, wit and will, they carved out a living in the early days of East Otter Tail County - clearing a path of opportunity for women today.

They were teachers, sisters, wives, daughters, businesswomen, mothers, activists, advocates and survivors.

Their stories are interesting and inspirational, heart wrenching and thought provoking, worth being preserved and told over and over again.

Yet there's a remarkably large hole in the pages of history where the female gender is concerned - and local history books are no exception.

Lina Belar, of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, said that in helping to conduct research for this article, "I'm reminded at how frustrating it is to access women's stories in history."

"We know they were there," Belar continued. "Schoolteachers, hat makers, nurses, farmers, ambulance drivers, homemakers, storekeepers, pilots, musicians, pioneers. But their stories are largely unknown."

Other historians at the museum, including Joan Happel and Mary Pfeiffer, said it wasn't until the 1950s and '60s that women in this area started to gain recognition and earn decent wages.

"But that didn't stop them from working hard," they're quick to add. "Women were a big part of hospitals, schools and the volunteer scene throughout history."

There have been, in fact, more influential and noteworthy women in the eastern part of this county than could ever fit within the pages of any newspaper. Though information on them can be disappointingly scarce, they've made their marks, and their stories - at least bits and pieces - have survived.

Here are just a few of them:

1) The Franciscan Nuns

(Editor's note: This section has been updated since first published. The original version contained errors.)

The nuns of St. Francis Convent were some of the first women to carry major influence in Perham.

They came to town from Little Falls at the request of Perham citizens and managed St. James Hospital starting in 1959. The new hospital was built with $250,000 in community-raised funds, plus nearly another $250,000 in federal Hull-Burton aid. The project was one of the earliest instances of both rural and townsfolk coming together and "getting things done," according to lifelong Perham resident Bill Bauck, whose father was on the fundraising team.

Until 1971, when the city took over, the nuns oversaw all operations at the facility, providing care to the sick and wounded.

Over the years, a total of 15 women held the position of hospital administrator.

2) Anne C. Struett

Described in local history books as an "early feminist, of a sort," Anne worked as a teacher in Perham for more than four decades, having a significant impact on generations of early pioneers.

Born in Perham in March of 1877, Anne taught seventh and eighth grades and was principal of the junior high school until she retired in 1946. She also taught piano for a number of years, and was a charter member of the board of the Perham Public Library, on which she served for 33 years.

In a tribute written upon Anne's death, Harvry Smalley, Jr., then-publisher of the Enterprise-Bulletin, wrote:

"She made certain we knew of females who accomplished great things; women like Helen Keller...(and) Susan B. Anthony.

"The Great Depression was still on in this country and Miss Struett encouraged everyone, those with and those without adequate means for enough food on the table or adequate clothing, to maintain their dignity.

"She told ethnic minorities of the great leaders in Europe, the Nobel winners in science, the famed musicians that were of the kids' nationality, all to bolster their self esteem.

"She was a character, the kind of character which makes this both a more interesting and a better world because she lived and imparted into it her wholesome and inspiring breath."

2a) Rural teachers

In the early days in East Otter Tail County, small rural areas had their own little schools. And these schools were often led by female teachers.

In a time when women ruled the home but rarely worked outside of it, these teachers made the little secluded schoolhouses of rural Minnesota their domain - influencing, inspiring, and helping to shape the lives of thousands of pioneer children.

According to a New York Mills 125th anniversary publication, the earliest rural school was Newton Township District 105, established in 1878 with Miss Maggie Watson as the first teacher. The next was District 110 in Otto Township in 1879, where the teachers were local girls who had only a very basic education for teaching (this was common in early rural schools).

3) Verona Larson

A passionate preserver of history, Verona moved to Perham from Bertha, Minn., in 1942, and quickly made her mark.

Extremely active in the organization of the Perham Pioneer Homestead and the development of the Perham Pioneer Festival, she served for years as treasurer of the East Otter Tail Historical Society and the Perham Centennial Committee.

According to Lina Belar of the History Museum of East Otter Tail County, Verona also made possible the purchase and renovation of the town's old newspaper offices into a Chamber and Tourism center.

An early history book of East Otter Tail County is dedicated to Verona, "for her untiring efforts, patience and interest in the preservation of historical material and facts."

4) The Gerber sisters

Though information on these very early settlers is scarce, what is known is that Mary and Lizzie Gerber have the distinction of being the first female business owners in Perham.

Their father, John Gerber, bought a building in town in 1898, in which the sisters ran a millinery shop in one half, and their brother ran a harness shop in the other.

An ad in the November 3, 1898 Bulletin reads: "Gerber Sisters have the latest styles in millinery goods and a heavy stock of everything; are ready to retrim old hats and make them look like new ones. All and any work in the millinery line done at reasonable charges, at old post office building."

A letter in that same newspaper revealed that the sisters had just lost their stock of goods in a fire, "but we have a new stock on hand again and shall be very much pleased to wait on our former patrons and on hundreds of new ones."

5) Olga Weickert

In the early days of telephones, it was Olga that connected people to the outside world. Everyone recognized her voice as she would say, "Number please," "Line is busy," "Call again," and "The time is 8:30."

After years as chief operator of the Perham Telephone Exchange, Olga bought the company in 1922.

That year's May 11 issue of the Enterprise-Bulletin states, "The telephone exchange deal marks the entrance into Perham business life in an important capacity of a woman, for the telephone exchange is both an extensive and an important business."

The headline on the article that quote is taken from reads, "Don't Cuss - The Manager's a Lady."

Indeed, Olga had a rule against cussing on the phone. Her guide on 'How to Use the Telephone' included the following directions:

-Speak slowly, clearly and directly into the telephone, with your lips about one inch from the mouthpiece.

-Obscene or profane language must not be used under any circumstances.

-Conversations on country and commercial lines limited to five minutes.

-Do not use the telephone during electrical storms.

-Do not allow children or disinterested parties to use or tamper with your telephone.

6) Eleanor Arvig

In 1950, Olga Weickert sold the Perham Telephone Exchange to Royal and Eleanor Arvig, who changed the name to the East Otter Tail Telephone Company.

The Arvigs modernized the operation, offering subscribers dial service for the first time. Perham celebrated this momentous occasion with "Dial Day," complete with marching bands, floats, and political guest speakers including Hubert H. Humphrey.

Eleanor served as secretary-treasurer for the telephone company until her husband's death in 1975, when she assumed the position of president and general manager. Her contributions to the company over the years helped secure its success and significant growth.

Eleanor was a well-respected community member and generous donor to many causes, including the Perham Area Public Library, where her picture still hangs today.

7) Maria Jokela

Like so many women in the early days in east Otter Tail County, Maria juggled the tasks of farm life and big family. And when things got tough, she rolled up her sleeves and proved herself capable of rising to any challenge.

Described in historical records as, "an efficient, strong, hard-working type of woman, cheerful, with a sense of humor," Maria handled housework, barn chores and fieldwork around the farm - all while raising 12 children.

Born in Paltamo, Finland in 1869, Maria immigrated with her family to the United States in 1892. After living and working in New York City for a year, she moved to Wolf Lake and got married. Widowed in 1910, she was left with seven young children.

Soon, she married Jacob Jokela, a widower with three children of his own. The new bride found herself with ten children under 13 years of age, six less than 6 years old. By 1916, the couple had had two more children of their own.

After Jacob's death in 1919, Maria managed the family's 200-acre farm, a large herd of dairy cows and other livestock. She lived until 1960.

8) Dr. Romula Orque

Romula, or "Rollie," as she was called, moved to Perham in 1978 to practice internal medicine and obstetrics at Perham Memorial Hospital. In doing do, she became Perham's first female doctor.

Rollie moved to town from New York State with her husband, Dado, who became the first boarded surgeon to serve in Perham.

Born in the Philippines, the pair were recruited by a friend of theirs, Ben Delgado, who was Perham's only doctor at the time. Together, they helped solve a doctor shortage in town.

Sadly, Rollie's husband died of a heart attack in 1982. Less than a year later, she resigned from the hospital, and left Perham.

9) Hortense Friedman

Born in 1901, Hortense was the daughter of Samuel Friedman, who owned Friedman's Store in Perham (the building where Photo Magic is now).

According to Missy Hermes of the Otter Tail County Historical Society, the Jewish family was "welcomed and treated well in Perham."

Hortense attended school at the University of Minnesota, then moved to Chicago and lived with her grandmother. Feeling she needed "to do something about the war," she wrote later in life, she volunteered for the Red Cross, doing her part by delivering yarn, bandages and other materials.

She also helped a Jewish family escape the Nazis, paying for them to get to China (a common escape route at the time), and eventually to Chicago.

After the war, Hortense found employment as a secretary at the University of Chicago. Initially denied work elsewhere for being Jewish, the University recognized Hortense's potential - and would later be very glad they hired her.

Hortense turned out to be "very astute in business - that's what was really amazing about her," said Hermes.

Hortense worked her way up in the University, making some "unusual investments" in things like oil tankers. By the time she retired, she had made "millions and millions of dollars for them," building up a huge endowment.

Later in life - in her 90s - Hortense came back and visited Perham. She never had any children, and lived with her mother until her mother's death. The old Friedman's Store was owned by Jewish families until the 1960s.

Lina Belar and the History Museum of East Otter Tail County contributed greatly to this story.