There is no end (or so it seems) to the stories, covered in newspapers, about Montana’s early women lawyers, a group of spectacularly newsworthy women. The following article was recently unearthed:
“Gifted Portia From Wild West Yearns for Great Open Spaces Where Women Wear Trousers, by Fletcher Pratt” — 25 January 1925 — Buffalo Courier
“‘I always wish I could be out in a free country where I can wear trousers,’ says Mrs. Florence Stephens of No. 103 Anderson place, speaking of Buffalo, ‘but I’ve stayed here longer than I have stayed anywhere else in the last fifteen years, so I guess I must rather like the place.’
Well, she has a right to wear trousers if anybody has. She is a practicing lawyer, a member of the bar in three states, and of the federal bar. She was for some time in charge of recording all the bills that passed the Montana state senate, and was the first woman to read the bills in that state. She is the owner of a 320-acre farm in Montana, which she took as a homesteader, building her own house on it, and doing her own farm work while she was studying law for her bar examination.
‘Oh, homesteading,’ she ways, nonchalantly, ‘that was fun. There was nothing to it.’
Month’s Journey on Horseback
She left her law studies in Chicago and her five-year-old daughter there, who was studying to be a trained nurse, and set out on horseback for Montana and the government homestead lands. All their possessions and all their equipment for the homesteading venture was carried on pack horses. The journey took a month and often they were miles from the nearest town, not seeing anything more civilized than a stray house for days. At night they pitched their tent under the stars. In the morning were off again.
At the end of a month of horseback riding they reached the claim sites at Circle, Montana, a town that then consisted on only one house and a store, which was also the post office. The house had been the ranchhouse of an old ranch, the Circle-Bar, from which the town took its name.
‘We pitched our tent,’ says Mrs. Stephens, ‘and slept on the ground until we got our house built. It was sixty miles to the nearest railroad, and there was only one carpenter in the vicinity, so building the habitable house required by the government regulation was a matter of some difficulty, as the whole country is a flat, treeless plain, and all the wood had to be hauled from the railroad.
Built Her Own House
‘I got the carpenter to help me for one day and finished the house myself. It was all built of six-inch flooring stock, the only kind obtainable, and roofed with a car roof. At night in the winter you could look up and see every nailhead in that roof covered with frost.
‘The first year I raised potatoes. The government regulations on homesteading require that forty acres of the 320 must be placed under cultivation and a habitable house built on the land. I arrived there in September and began work on the land in the spring, and the first year didn’t raise anything much but potatoes — about as big as a dinner plate and nearly as thick.
‘The soil there is wonderful. You can raise anything on it, but it was all new land, and that first year I couldn’t do anything more than plow it up and plant the potatoes under the furrows. They flattened right out and grew to prodigious size, but only about an inch thick.
“Of course, cultivating the land out there meant building a fence, too. It is still the wild west there, with cowpunchers and range cattle, just as they have them in the movies, only the cowpuncher doesn’t dress that way at all. The only part of his uniform that is real are the high-heeled shoes. For the rest he usually wears the oldest and dirtiest overalls he can find anywhere.
‘A fence with three barbed wires in it is a “legal fence” and if the cattle break through it you can sue the owner for damages. But a fence of some kind is a positive necessity, for the cattle tramp down and eat everything that isn’t fenced in.
Serenaded by Cows at Dawn
“There used to be a place right in the lee of my house where the cattle that were roaming around town all the time would collect just before dawn. I think I must have taken a dozen cowbells off cattle there, and the owners would come around innocently the next day and kick about their cows’ lost bells. They would keep you awake all night if you didn’t take them off. when I left there I had a big donation party and gave all their bells back to them, and you should have seen them when I did.
‘Of course things gradually got more comfortable there. I kept getting more stock. I didn’t have anything but some horses when I first went out, and by and by I got a portable pool table and a piano. You can’t imagine what that meant. That piano and the pool table were the first ones in that part of the country, and I can tell you I was the center of attraction there for a long while.
‘It’s still very much the wild west, you see. When they have a dance everyone goes at dusk, and it doesn’t break up till morning. No use of breaking up before, because the roads are a minus quality and, as it’s all open prairie, you couldn’t find your way home before daylight.
Defended Cattle Thieves
‘In 1916 I went back to Chicago and passed my bar examination there. That was where I had started from and where I began my law studies. Then I went back to Montana and was admitted to the bar there and spent most of my time defending horse thieves and cattle thieves. Most of those old-timers would slap a brand on anything that didn’t have one, and steal anything they could get away with.
‘I guess I came naturally by being a lawyer. My mother was a lawyer before me, and I believe she was the first woman lawyer in the state of South Dakota, where we lived at that time. It’s easier being a lawyer in the west, anyway. They don’t have so many darn fool laws, nor so much trouble enforcing those they do have.
‘In 1922 I thought I would come to Buffalo and see what the east looked like, and I have been here ever since. But I’d like to get out once in a while where I could wear trousers and ride a horse again.'”