Women have played important roles in history, even those who come from small towns like Boone. Through their strength these women left their marks―not just as women, but as people and community members.
It’s not often that places have heroes, and it’s not often when that hero was a 15-year-old girl. But on July 6th, 1881, Kate Shelley made it her mission to save countless lives.
At the time, there were heavy thunderstorms that caused flash flooding of Honey Creek, a stream within Boone County that linked to the Des Moines River. A pusher locomotive containing four workers was sent to check on the conditions on the track, but when they crossed Honey Creek, the bridge collapsed and the locomotive plunged. Kate Shelley, who lived nearby, heard the crash and ran over to find two of the four crew members.
Needing to get help, and knowing that there was a passenger train due to cross, she grabbed a lantern and made the trek through the night to the nearest station. This meant that she had to cross the Des Moines River bridge, crawling on her hands and knees. Shelley managed to do so, reaching the Moingona depot to alert the train agent and get help. In the end, she not only saved the two survivors of the initial crash, but also every single passenger on that oncoming train.
Kate Shelley made an impact. She was talked about for a long time, as people told her story throughout the rest of her life, and even today. Shelley later became one of the first female stagecoach agents in the country and has a bridge named in her honor.
Decades later, in 1908, women of the Boone Equality Club came together and decided they needed a more “in your face” approach to get more people aware of the women’s suffrage movement. After some discussion, the group decided to have a parade in which, given the context of the time, would have been a bold, provocative move for them. Organized by club president Rowena Edson Stevens and Des Moines Unitarian Church minister Eleanor Gordon, the two planned the events surrounding the parade.
Charles Irwin, a history professor at Boone DMACC, recounted the event.
“So in October, and of course, it’s kind of overcast and they kind of thought well might rain so some of the women were saying, ‘I don’t know whether we should do this or not because you know, the weather might be kind of bad’.” He said.
“[But] from what I understand, Rowena Stevens said, ‘No, we’re gonna do it. We said we’re going to do it and we’re going to do it.’ And so they marched.”
A little over 100 women took to the streets, with banners, an automobile, and even a band. They received a nice reception from the public, people watching and clapping as the women showed and voiced their opinions. This would be known as the only suffrage parade in Iowa along with one of the first women’s rights parades in the nation―possibly even the very first.
Their efforts and the efforts of women nationwide proved successful by 1920, when the constitution was amended, allowing women to vote. At about the same time, one Boone woman was getting her start in a career that not too many think to pursue.
In 1919, Elsie Lawrence started her own business as a mortician. Irwin talked about how she was the first in Boone, but speculated that she could be the first in Iowa.
“I can’t believe there was many female morticians in the country, or certainly here in Iowa at that point.” He said.
Lawrence not only ran funeral and embalming services, but also started an ambulance service. She ran this business by herself, and provided these services all out of her own home, her business expanding after moving into the Stevens House at 728 Linn Street. She devoted nearly two decades of her life to this, before devoting her remaining years to the Boone Biblical Ministries.
While some women were defying gender roles, others were showing their own strengths that were considerably more conventional at the time. Mamie Eisenhower became a role model for women in the early 1950s when she became First Lady of the United States. She was well dressed and well kept, providing that she felt that she had to represent the country properly. As First Lady she had to entertain guests such as foreign dignitaries, so she felt that she was the hostess for the United States. While she was not personally in Boone long, she still held fast to her roots. Her affinity for Boone along with the family and family friends still there brought the Eisenhowers to the Boone area for visits.
While the days of Women’s History Month have long passed, it’s never too late nor too early to appreciate the women in history―especially since it’s been nearly 100 years since women got the right to vote. While small, Boone County has had a number of women who have made their impact on this community, both explicitly and subtly.