Women settlers worked as miners, ranchers and more
In 1903, actress Mrs. Wisenbacker decided to leave her life on the stage and take up mining with her father and brother near Grants Pass.
“Though I had become fascinated with the life behind the footlights, I am equally so with the life of a gold digger in Southern Oregon,” she told a Mining Review reporter.
The reporter described her as a “handsome woman busily engaged about the diggings.” Her tasks included moving boulders out of the way and separating gold from toxic mercury used in the mining process.
Retired library director Amy Blossom and actress Shirley Patton are bringing Mrs. Wisenbacker’s tale to life through their free “Windows in Time” history series presentation at noon Wednesday at the Ashland Library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.
With March marking Women’s History Month, the duo are drawing on stories about women from the popular radio series “As It Was: Tales from the State of Jefferson.”
The series about Southern Oregon and Northern California history is a collaboration between Jefferson Public Radio and the Southern Oregon Historical Society.
Patton, a former Oregon Shakespeare Festival actress now in her 75th year of acting, has been the voice narrating the series since 2005.
Over the years, more than a dozen writers have researched local history to craft nearly 4,000 of the two-minute “As It Was” radio segments.
“There’s such a rich variety of stories,” Patton said.
The segments have yielded a treasure trove of anecdotes for Patton and Blossom to share with a live audience.
Among those tales, people who come to their presentation will hear about a woman born into slavery who became a Southern Oregon pioneer, a woman who was pelted with eggs in Jacksonville for advocating for a woman’s right to vote, and a female aviator who taught thousands of men to fly.
Blossom and Patton said they especially appreciate tales that reveal how hard women have worked throughout history.
Born in the 1860s, Jennie Emogene married a local rancher. She had seven children, handled their education, took care of her husband and the ranch hands, carded and spun wool, kept a garden and fed orphaned livestock. Her sisters, who also married ranchers, handled those duties while also managing their ranches after their husbands died.
“It’s just remarkable,” Blossom said. “I comment that I used to think that I was busy, but nothing compared to what life was like at those times.”
Blossom and Patton share stories of enterprising women, including an early Oregon doctor, women who ran lodging businesses in Ashland’s Railroad District, and Adeline Billings, an indigenous Karok woman who wove baskets and hats.
Billings would spend days gathering materials in the forest, bringing back pine roots that swelled tight for water baskets, pliable sticks from hazelnut trees for carrying baskets and roots to make colorful dyes.
“Miners loved her straw hats because the expert weaving resisted wear," according to an “As It Was” segment. “The miners hunted gold, but Adeline considered weaving to be her special gold mine, accepting only $5 gold pieces for her work. She made hundreds of items over 60 years, gradually wearing her teeth down by holding grasses taut in her teeth.”
Patton said one of her favorite stories is about Doris Price, a girl who spent hours each day hoeing and stooping to pick ever-bearing strawberries on her father’s 23-acre farm. The girl battled freezing temperatures, weeds, slugs, earwigs, ants and birds intent on devouring the family’s livelihood.
“What a vexation it was to have those strawberries that were needing so much attention,” Patton said.
Patton and Blossom said they’ve enjoyed pouring over the “As It Was” segments in their search for tales about women.
“It’s been a great deal of fun for me to work with Amy, a person who I’ve admired for a long time, and to get to hang out and spend time with her as we’ve gone through the possibilities. And they are endless,” Patton said.