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Uncovering their Legacy: Remarkable Women of Issaquah in the 1800s into the 1900s

Updated: Mar 29

Issaquah (or depending on the era: Gilman and Squak Valley) has long been the home of noteworthy women – from a time when the only residents in the area were indigenous communities, to when pioneers arrived settling their homesteads in the mid-1800s, and up into the present day. And while their contributions are vast and varied, today we're highlighting four select women – each pillars of strength who impacted their communities, and it's a fair assessment, didn’t follow conventional paths. Oh, but what a life!

Mary Louie (1794-1914)

Xa-cha-blu aka Mary Louie Squak Valley c.1880
Mary Louie c.1880 [IHM: 86.018.308]

One the earliest women of Squak Valley who we know of is Mary Louie, also known by her indigenous name of Xa-cha-blu. Mary was a beloved elder, trader, weaver, healer, and midwife of the Snoqualmie tribe. Born in 1794 near the confluence of the Tolt and Snoqualmie Rivers (Carnation), she lived most of her life in a village along the shores of Squak Lake (which we now refer to as Lake Sammamish).

With her deep knowledge of the geography and following the cycle of the seasons, Mary often traveled the area on foot or by canoe gathering medicinal herbs and plants – healing peoples in both Native and pioneer communities. Speaking only her native language, Xa-cha-blu became a friend to the settlers. She helped to deliver their babies and taught their children about the ways of the woods and the streams and the customs of her people.

Mary’s trips could take weeks. Legend has it she would walk barefoot along an ancient trail system to pick hops in Yakima and return with new plants for the hops farmers of Squak Valley. When traveling to Seattle, this prominent woman would paddle a large canoe from her home on Lake Sammamish, through the Sammamish Slough, south Lake Washington, the Black and Duwamish Rivers, and into Elliott Bay. An arduous effort to sell her hand-woven rag rugs made from the worn out clothes of settlers. At the close of her journey on June 7, 1889, Mary approached Seattle as 32 blocks of its commercial district were burning. As the story goes, Mary’s friend Arthur Denny warned her of the fire, thereby sparing her from coming ashore.

Mary died in 1914 at 120 years old. The region is still home to her Snoqualmie people who have existed here for centuries, long before the first pioneers arrived.

Stella May Alexander (1881-1962)

1932 ballot; Town of Issaquah, Washington; first female mayor
Issaquah ballot - March 8, 1932 [IHM: 94.015.008]

In 1927, another of the remarkable women of Issaquah who stood apart from the rest was Stella Alexander. She shattered the glass ceiling when elected as the first female on Issaquah’s town council. And in 1932, she did it again running for a two-year term on the Taxpayers’ Ticket to become its first female mayor. A big achievement for this little country town! So big that articles about her ran in papers in Seattle, New York, and Boston. A woman once appreciated for her independence, Alexander was not one to back down from confrontation and quickly became a controversial figure throwing the community into chaos.

Fire chief, Remo Castagno, was quoted as saying, “No woman is going to run this city.” and the entire fire department resigned, informing Alexander she could put out her own fires. The police judge also resigned. And in another instance, when three newly elected councilmen refused to serve under a “petticoat mayor,” she appointed new councilmen in order to achieve quorum but couldn’t get them ratified. At the next meeting, both the elected group of councilmen and Stella’s reorganized group showed up. When no one supported her motion to have one group leave, Alexander settled the manner by wielding a chair. It was the last straw. Three recall petitions were filed against the mayor. She dodged the first two on technicalities, but the third was the clincher. On January 2, 1934 Alexander was recalled by a vote of 206 to 85. As her grand finale, Stella refused to turn over the keys to the town hall. Presenting a whole new problem for the councilmen, they were a bit peeved that “Madame Mussolini had aced ‘em again.” She eventually sent the keys by messenger.

Stella Alexander; first female mayor of Issaquah Washington
Mayor Stella Alexander c.1932 [IHM:]

Alexander’s early life had been one hardship. From broken home, to runaway, and to orphan at the Home for Friendless Children – where she was informally adopted before being deserted as a teenager in California. Stella married in 1901 but divorced upon discovering her husband was a bigamist. She didn’t give marriage another shot until 1919, after meeting Jack Alexander. The two later moved to Issaquah where he became the town blacksmith while she managed his books. Stella and Jack left the area in 1936, moved to Renton, and bought the Renton Tourist Hotel which they ran for many years. Deciding she wasn’t quite done with politics, in 1940 Stella ran for Secretary of State. She lost.

It’s no wonder she had a tough, fearless spirit. Stella had both supporters and critics, with many speculating her assertiveness would have been better tolerated if she had been a man.

The Wold Sisters: Mary (1886-1961) & Sena (1891-1968)

The daughters of Scandinavian immigrants and one of Issaquah’s earliest settlers, the Wold sisters didn’t fall far from the proverbial tree. With their pioneering parents as examples, these two sisters did not shy away from their own novel adventures and broke the mold of societal expectations for a woman in a man’s world.

The Wold sisters, Mary and Sena, on the poultry farm in Issaquah, WA c.1930
Sisters Mary and Sena Wold on the poultry farm founded by Sena c.1930 [IHM: 2021.036.009]

After growing up on the family farm along with ample time spent in Seattle, both sisters attended college at Washington State Normal School in Ellensburg (which later became Central Washington University). Normal schools were typically teacher training schools. Mary (the older of the two) went on to teach for five years (three in Issaquah), but by 1914 she had decided to further her education by attending school at Seattle General Hospital and became a registered nurse. A career which took her from the slums of Seattle to the far reaches of Siberia. Unafraid of venturing out into the world, in 1917 Mary joined the Red Cross to serve as a nurse in Siberia – braving cold temperatures and the horrors of war. And at home in Washington, she worked as a visiting nurse at the county health service, in logging camps, on Seattle’s skid row assisting the law, and at Firland Sanatorium, Seattle’s municipal tuberculosis hospital.

Sena however, had other ideas. She loved farm life and animals, but her education had made her an astute business woman. So after time working as a secretary, bookkeeper, and clerk at Standard Oil Company, Sena decided to establish her own business – the Wold Poultry Farm. By 1930, the total worth of the farm and Wold house was $4,000 (respectable for the time) and her hens had won at least one trophy for their admirable egg-laying. To show how serious she was about her enterprise, that same year Sena traveled to London, England to attend the World Poultry Congress. It was a big deal when even travel between Issaquah and Seattle was worth a mention in the local paper!

A pet project of both sisters was the Odd Old Maids Club, which was originally started by Mary Wold and her friend Bessie Marsh. The club’s purpose was a bit of a mystery but there was enough intrigue around town that the Issaquah Independent (later the Issaquah Press) printed several anecdotes about the club. They speculated its mission was to catch husbands... although meeting activities suggested otherwise – women dressing in trousers and going fishing and having tea in the costumes of fairytale characters. These very educated women clearly had their own ideas and definitely had a sense of humor.

Odd Old Maids Club on the Wold's front porch; Issaquah, WA; Mary and Sena Wold c.1911
Odd Old Maids Club on the Wold's front porch in Issaquah c.1911 [IHM: 2007.022.061]

In later life, Mary and Sena lived together (along with dogs, cats, domesticated birds, horses, and chickens) on the family farm. Mary, a gardener and known for her cooking prowess. Sena training German Shepherds as police dogs. Neither ever married or had children. The family home was built by their father in 1908 and still stands with its original garden intact – today serving as the Farmhouse School in Gilman Village and the only building in the complex in its original location. Sena Park, near the Atlas Apartments on Gilman Boulevard, is situated on land that was part of the Wold’s original 160 acre homestead and was named as a tribute to Sena Wold.

So much for the old boy’s club!

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2 comentarios

29 mar

Fabulous pic of the Wold Poultry Farm!

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28 mar

Great article! There is a public art installation at Meadowbrook Farm in North Bend dedicated to Mary Louie, very cool to check out. I would also love to see a revival of the Odd Old Maid's Club!

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