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Normal Schools: Esther follows her sisters' footsteps to higher learning

As a recent high-school graduate, Esther Strasburger decided to move west to begin her teaching career. Saying goodbye to her large family, Esther boarded a train and proceeded to cross almost half of the United States, passing through Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho before finally arriving in Spokane, Washington. Anna Strasburger greeted her little sister at the dusty Spokane Depot on a crisp autumn afternoon in 1907. Lydia Strasburger also lived in the area and the three sisters were reunited.

But why did Esther, Lydia and Anna travel more than 1600 miles to become teachers when they could have done that in Iowa? Perhaps this question can be directed to Ms. Mabel Ireland. At the age of 100, Ms. Ireland provided extraordinary perspective on this matter.

Mabel Ireland - 100 years of homestead history

Ms. Mabel Ireland, age 100, still lives on her family's homestead in Simms, Montana. Her acreage overlooks Esther's original homestead. The producer of SUN RIVER HOMESTEAD, Ms. Maggie Carey, described her interview with Ms. Ireland: "Mabel sat at her kitchen table, dog Missy guarding her feet, daughter Marilyn sitting next to her. Marilyn got up often to offer cookies and instant coffee. I could never speak loud enough or clear enough for Mabel, and my awkwardness seemed to increase throughout the interview. By the time Marilyn shouted the questions in Mabel's ear, Mabel had already chosen another topic of the Sun River Valley's history to explain. Somehow Mabel was able to work her way backward to answer the question. Or perhaps I was asking the questions backwards and needed some history lessons to catch up."

"When I asked Mabel why the Strasburger sisters moved to Montana, I expected an answer involving the Homestead Act or a teaching position at the newly established school," Ms. Carey remembered. "And Mabel would answer back, 'Well, why do people do anything? Why did my people come here? My father and mother rented a place in Redwood Falls and it rained so much I heard my father say that he had 63 wheat stacks and 63 bushels of wheat. And he got this literature from Montana's Sun River Valley, why, we kids had just got acquainted with bananas, my brothers George and Frank and I. And we loved bananas. Why it said in this paper, you can even raise bananas in the Sun River Valley. And we're laughing we're going out where we're gonna climb the trees and we're gonna eat bananas.'"

Bananas are Montana's largest export to this day. No, not really. But it wouldn't have surprised Ms. Ireland if you found a railroad pamphlet from 1910 claiming that.

Farming families need teachers

The Homestead Act of 1862 prompted more than 600,000 people to move west, Ms. Ireland's family and the Strasburger sisters included. This greatly impacted the West's economy and population. In states like Washington, Idaho and Montana, the effects of the Homestead Act could be seen in an increase in agriculture. Thus, the population tended toward family groups with plenty of children to help around the farm. Large farming families needed schools for their children. And with so many public elementary schools springing up in budding communities, teachers (like the Strasburger sisters) were in great demand. Salaries that would attract college-educated men would be too costly for rural communities. School districts saved money by hiring women and paying them less.

A pioneer in women's education

Esther arrived at the Spokane Train Depot with hopes of starting her teaching career and perhaps one day owning her own land. The State Normal School at Cheney, a teacher-training institute, was her next stop. Education was very important to Esther, and attending a normal school was similar to attending college today.

The records from the years when Esther and her sisters attended the State Normal School at Cheney were destroyed in a large fire around 1908. The year Esther might have enrolled, the class had some 500 students, three-quarters of whom were women.

Many of the state-funded normal schools became state-funded universities. For example, Eastern Washington University traces its roots to the Benjamin P. Cheney Academy. The academy became the State Normal School at Cheney in 1889 (the same year Washington was granted statehood). It became Eastern Washington College of Education in 1937, at which time it was already a fully accredited four-year degree-granting institution with many majors. The name was changed to Eastern Washington State College in 1961; in 1971 the state legislature renamed the institution Eastern Washington University.

Because the normal schools had originally accepted women, they continued accepting females when they grew into universities. Thus, normal schools became some of the first colleges to allow women. Esther was not only a pioneer in the West, but in women's formal education as well.

After the sisters received their teaching certificates, country elementary schools hired them between 1905 and 1909 in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho. Records from Lydia's and Anna's school districts show they earned between 10 and 12 dollars a month.

Having grown up on a farm in Iowa, Esther, Lydia and Anna were accustomed to rural life. Many of the young, single teachers boarded with community members, paying a precious amount of their small wage for rent each month.

The homestead families lived in shacks that averaged twelve by fourteen feet. There were no guest bedrooms for the teachers and the crowded dwellings provided little privacy.

Moving on to land and prosperity in Montana

The three single Strasburger sisters dated during this period. Anna seemed to have a lot of suitors, as illustrated by the postcards she kept. One gentleman in particular captured her attention.

Anna married LeRoy Mott around 1910. Lydia also wed that year; her husband, Eli Hathaway, was ten years her senior. Lydia gave birth to a baby boy in 1914.

Now imagine Esther's position at this time. A single woman, five states between her and her childhood home, probably boarding with strangers, moving from one school district to the next, teaching for a low wage, and suddenly she came upon an advertisement for a Montana homestead...

It's about time we started talking about that budding community in Western Montana known as the Sun River Valley.

† This information was gathered from Eastern Washington University's website


Anna and Esther Strasburger

Mabel Ireland

Great Northern Bulletin

Choteau County, MT homestead

Cascade County School, Montana


Cheney State Normal School Class of 1908

Anna Strasburger and students, 1909


Choteau County, MT homestead

Wedding Photo

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