Born in 1855, Burt proved a sharp student. She graduated from Pacific University, became a teacher, and, at age 26 (average today, ancient then), married her second cousin, Henry Burt. Burt was a steadfast attendee of the Yoncalla Women’s Study Club, a twice-a-month gathering that Means’s mother attended as well. “They read and reviewed books,” said Means. “My mother was just in heaven when she could give a paper on China.” Lasswell, whose husband owned the local bank and was reportedly ousted as mayor, organized the study club. Means told me she remembers Lasswell fondly. “She was always so neatly dressed and perfectly color-coordinated,” said Means. “She opened the Yoncalla Library, donating books from her personal collection.” Members of the Women’s Study Club took turns keeping the library open.
In 1920, Yoncalla was young and prosperous. Two decades before, Burt’s father-in-law had donated land for a train station, which allowed farmers there to trade cattle and turkeys, and send prunes and dried apples to the East Coast, satisfying pre-refrigeration cravings for fruit. In 1920, the city’s streets also pumped with traffic from the newly opened Pacific Highway. Despite the growth and progress, Burt, Lasswell, and the study club noted problems—and not just a few broken sidewalk planks. Street lighting was spotty, which they perceived as a danger. Automobiles hurtled through town at dizzying speeds—which was more than just a nuisance. Cars were still a new technology, and they represented a vivid fear. And then, there was the drinking.
“Our City Council has been careless and inefficient for the last few years,” Burt told The New York Times after her election. When “pressed for further specifications,” Burt “hesitated.” She cryptically referenced “the need of enforcing city ordinances.”
But Means and Applegate told me they know exactly what Burt meant. They point to an incident described in Yoncalla Yesterday, a series of first-person accounts from old-timers collected by the Yoncalla Historical Society in 2001. One day, a local drunk named “Old Pete” rode his horse into a Yoncalla barbershop and demanded that the barber give the animal a shave. Rather than punishing him, the city council just laughed. This wasn’t just inebriated tomfoolery; it was illegal, as Oregon’s Prohibition began in 1915. “Old Pete went too far,” said Means and the council not far enough. So the townswomen, “they decided to run for office.” Applegate added, “The subtext in this town has always been temperance.”
As in many parts of the country, the temperance and women’s suffrage movements spun around each other in a complicated dance. Women often felt like the victims of male drunkenness—watching family paychecks disappear at local watering holes, living with alcohol-related abuse and violence, or feeling disappointment at their husbands’ failures as fathers. As Catherine Gilbert Murdock wrote in Domesticating Drink, “Alcohol, more than slavery or suffrage or any other single cause” mobilized women to get involved in politics. Unsurprisingly then, the members of the Yoncalla Women’s Study Club were also, for the most part, members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. “I belonged to it,” said Means. “I’m still a teetotaler.”