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Local suffragette, pioneer honored for work 100 years later

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 26, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Dale Niewoehner poses near a headstone marking the grave of Pierce County businesswoman and suffragette Millie Holbrook. Niewoehner paid for the headstone, which was placed earlier this month.

One hundred years after Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote, the forgotten grave of a Rugby suffragette received a headstone to honor her work.

Millie Logan Holbrook, who was born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1883, came to North Dakota in 1902, according to history books published to mark the 75th and 100th anniversary of Pierce County.

Local funeral director Dale Niewoehner has had an interest in Holbrook’s story for years and researched her life in Rugby. “I don’t think there’s anyone related to her who lives in the area, according to (research),” Niewoehner said of Holbrook. “She didn’t have any descendants.”

Niewoehner, who moved to Rugby from Upham in the early 1970s, said he spoke with Holbrook “a few times.” Holbrook died in 1980.

After learning about Holbrook’s past work, Niewoehner began collecting stories about her life in Rugby.

Submitted Photo Millie Logan Holbrook in a photo (c. 1907) from a 1961 publication marking Pierce County’s diamond anniversary.

Holbrook had moved to Rugby with her family as a young woman and decided to open a business. She owned the Rugby Steam Laundry.

“One folktale goes – and some of these are folktales – before she arrived in Rugby, the story goes that apparently at that time, you had to get a permit or license to open a business,” Niewoehner said.

Niewoehner noted, “Whatever document Millie had, she signed her initials on it. She didn’t write her name. They gave her a license, permit, whatever, and she walks in the door, and they see she’s a woman. Holy cow, they had a fit,” Niewoehner said with a laugh. “But, they realized they had given her the permit, so they couldn’t deny her the right to be in business. That was a big deal at that time for a woman to own a business.”

Millie married W.J. Holbrook in 1907. She continued to break new ground for women, even as the respectable wife of W.J., an undertaker and widowed father of 12 children.

A Pierce County history volume published in 1961 described Holbrook as “the first woman to drive a car in Rugby.”

“During the campaign for women’s suffrage, Mrs. Holbrook took an active part,” the history publication said. “She drove the speakers by car to various small towns for political meetings, picnics, auction sales, church suppers, etc. (The Holbrooks) used a small cowbell to announce their cause and had a kettle for collections.”

“She worked for (women’s suffrage), and for the temperance movement,” Niewoehner said.

The 18th Constitutional Amendment imposing prohibition on the U.S. would later be repealed and the ratification of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

Copies of the Pierce County Tribune from September 1920, just after the 19th Amendment was ratified, carried no stories about local reactions to the new right given to women, but an editorial headline in the Sept. 16 paper asked, “Women incompetent to vote?” The editorial described debates over women’s suffrage in Tennessee, the last state voting to pass the amendment. North Dakota had ratified the amendment almost a year before Tennessee.

Gubernatorial candidate J.F.T. O’Connor ran an ad in the same Tribune issue, inviting women to his campaign speech in Barton and Rugby.

The Holbrooks’ 12 children moved away to towns in California and Minnesota. W.J. Holbrook died in 1942.

Millie Holbrook remained in the family home at the corner of Third Avenue and Second Street Northwest in Rugby.

“I remember her as a tiny lady,” Niewoehner said of his encounters with Holbrook in the 1970s. “She shopped at Bickler’s Jack and Jill, a grocery store north of the railroad tracks for many years.”

“I talked to her at least one time or more,” Niewoehner said. “I didn’t know her history at the time. The Jaycees were selling Christmas trees at the time and we had some extra ones. We tried to give her one, but she didn’t want it.”

“She had some farm land northeast of Rugby that she rented out, so she gained some income from that,” Niewoehner said of Holbrook.

“I don’t know where W.J. is buried,” Niewoehner noted. “I tried to look up his death certificate, and I don’t know what his first name is, so I can’t find it.”

Millie Holbrook’s April 3, 1980, obituary in the Pierce County Tribune lists her birth name as “Millie L. Schmockel” and lists sisters Frieda Skinner, Borin, Ore., and Esther Marshall, Elman, Wash., as survivors. Survivors also included two stepchildren and “a number of step-grandchildren.”

More than 40 years after Millie was buried, Niewoehner said he decided to make a tribute to her accomplishments.

“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Niewoehner said of Holbrook’s life. “This pioneer lady did not have a marker. I took it upon myself to get her a marker so she’d be remembered as a businesswoman and a suffragette. August is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, and the passage of (the 19th Amendment), so I thought this was kind of timely. I went ahead and did it.

“I put ‘suffragette’ on (the headstone). I thought of that after I read this and I said, ‘I think that word is appropriate.’ I looked that word up and said, ‘yep, that’s someone who worked in that movement.'”

“I paid for it myself,” Niewoehner added, holding a drawing of the headstone he purchased. “That’s what it says: ‘Rugby Pioneer Businesswoman, Suffragette.'”

“I thought that should be remembered also,” he said.

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