Carolyn Niethammer, my friend and fellow Women Writing the West member, joins us today to talk about her exciting new book The Piano Player. Although Carolyn isn’t new to the world of writing and publishing, this is her first novel. I’m excited to have her share about her book and some of the fascinating characters it includes!
Sometimes we think women didn’t appear from behind the dishpan until the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. But actually, women have been running their own businesses since long before that. The western states offered particular opportunity for women. In many ways, it was easier for women to set up businesses in the West away from the old strictures of eastern expectations for women’s role in society. Non-white women also had expanded opportunities.
Nellie Cashman, one of the Old West’s most celebrated business owners, appears as a major character in my new novel The Piano Player. Nellie, an Irish immigrant, ran the Russ House in Tombstone where she provided comfortable rooms and delicious meals to both travelers and the locals. Nellie also did some prospecting and grubstaked other prospectors trying to develop their claims. Every issue of the Tombstone Epitaph followed her in articles about the money she raised for the hospital, the holiday dinners she was serving, or her outspoken opinions on local matters. In the novel, the fictional Frisco Rosie, the young piano player at the Bird Cage Theater, boards at the Russ House and learns much from the more experienced Nellie.
While Nellie Cashman was among the most well- known women business owners because she traveled from boomtown to boomtown setting up restaurants, she was surely not that unusual. Here are some of the other most interesting women business owners from Territorial Arizona.
Angela Hutchinson Hammer used her business savvy to run newspapers in small towns around the turn of the last century. In 1903, as a divorcee with three young sons, she purchased the Wickenburg Miner for $250 and set out to make a success of what had been a failing operation. She was bold and outspoken, and her sometimes unpopular positions lost her advertising business and community support. But when one newspaper failed, she moved quickly on to another town. In her retirement years, she recalled her “happiest days were spent in the middle of a controversy as editor of a local newspaper.”
In 1891, Bill and Elizabeth Smith took jobs at a rundown hotel in Wickenburg and began turning it around. In the diverse mining community, the African-American couple was accepted by dint of their hard work. In 1890, Elizabeth oversaw the building of the new Hotel Vernetta where she prepared outstanding meals from vegetables she grew and meat she butchered behind the hotel. After a divorce, Elizabeth expanded her businesses, buying a ranch, a barbershop, another restaurant and a dozen rental houses. When hard times arrived with the Great Depression and brought out latent prejudices, the townspeople, shunned her businesses and cut her out of local social life. When she died, she was put to rest with unknown miners, Mexicans and Chinese rather than the other business owners.
China Mary was a Tombstone institution. She lived in Hoptown, the Chinese neighborhood, where she ran a general store and gambling parlor. She also had interests in several hand laundries and a restaurant. She is most often remembered as a supplier of labor to the non-Chinese population and she always vouched for her workers. Her motto was “them steal, me pay.” She was generous to fellow citizens down on their luck, paying for food and medical care for those in need.
These women all lived in Arizona, but others like them lived in communities throughout the West. I would love for readers to share their favorite Old West women entrepreneurs from their state.
The Piano Player (Oak Tree Press, 2014) is Carolyn Niethammer’s first novel but tenth book. She has previously written on edible wild plants, gourmet Southwestern cuisine, and Native American women. Read more about her on her website www.cniethammer.com. The book is available for purchase from Amazon.