Respectable Girl Wants Work
The primary narratives from the hired girls--women, really--who staffed the cook cars and fed the working men on the threshing crews of the Great Northwest are engaging, even charming, but a little unsettling. They offer upbeat local color, but I feel like they may not tell the whole story of their lives as working women deployed to dispense meals to rough men in open country.
Perhaps the place to start an investigation is with the fundamentals of employment, the processes by which female cooks were connected with threshermen having cook cars to be staffed. Fortunately, quite a bit of this took place in an open marketplace that generated records. Threshermen advertised in regional newspapers for cooks, and women placed position-wanted notices in the same papers.
From the Hope Pioneer, 11 August 1904: “WANTED: Place to cook for a Threshing Crew on Cook Car. Am a willing worker. Please address Mrs. Anna Sather, Wahpeton N.D. and state wages, am experienced.” From the same paper, a few weeks later: “Competent cook would like situation in cook car. Address Mrs. W. P. Catlin, Hope, N. D.”
Taking these notices as examples, already we can discern quite a bit about the situation. First, the position-seekers are women, and they use the title, “Mrs.” Perhaps married, perhaps widowed, perhaps some other status--but the message is, not single women unattached. Second, note the words “competent,” “willing,” and “experienced.” Threshermen had elaborate operations to oversee. They needed cooks who could take over and not be needy.
The Grand Forks Herald was a regular entrepôt for cook car arrangements. August 1918: WANTED FOR COOK CAR--FIRST class cook and helper. State experience. $5.00 per day.” The Herald maintained postal boxes to facilitate reply.
Among the cook-car applicants seeking positions in a single issue of the Herald were “man and wife without children,” “two experienced women,” “two experienced middle-aged women, “two experienced cooks,” “two competent cooks,” an “elderly woman,” “two ladies” who came as a package deal with an engineer, a “young married couple” - and so on, you get the idea. It was an advantage to offer both cook and helper as a package.
Also, there is the notice, “RESPECTABLE GIRL WANTS WORK on large farm or cook car.” It was important to convey steadiness and good repute.
Another source documenting the cook-car network was the locals, the brief news items grouped together on the page of a newspaper to convey items of local interest. From these we learn that quite commonly threshermen hired local women of known ability and reputation, and people knew who was working where.
For instance, an item from Buchanan in August 1908 reported, “Mrs. Ricker went out to the farm last Saturday to take charge of her father’s cook car during the threshing season.” An item from Ward County in 1909: C. M. Christianson was moving thresherman Monger’s cook car to its work site, where Mrs. H. M. Westrum would be the cook. From Oakes in 1901: “Anna McGinnis is working in Jas. Mead’s cook car.” Local columns are full of this sort of intelligence.
There were local food systems that sustained operations. In September 1909 B. F. Hanson, after threshing his own wheat, took up supplying fifteen local cook cars with beef, killing eight beeves per day.
Threshing, and cooking for threshers, was a complex emergence on the land. Which also entailed a fair bit of drama, as we will see.