ABOARD THE S.S. LEGACY - When Vi Jones needed a new dress, she did what pioneer women did. She made it herself, right down to the deer antler buttons.
“Those are very difficult to button,” Jones said, turning around to show a row of buttons down the back of her high-necked dress. “The buttons are irregular in size which makes it even harder to get them through the button holes. I always need help.”
When our S.S. Legacy cruise docked in Walla Walla, Washington, one of our stops was at the Fort Walla Walla Museum. A highlight of the museum to me was talking with the volunteer docents, clad in period clothing and representing real people from the past. Jones was portraying Martha Roberts, one of the wealthiest women in the old town.
“We have about 200 volunteers and more than 40,000 artifacts,” museum tour coordinator Bill Lake said when he stepped aboard our bus to welcome us. “The people who came here liked this place so well that they named it twice – Walla Walla.”
Actually, he added, the name is a Native American word which means “place of many waters.”
Since we are following in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark on our Legacy of Discovery cruise, we learned that when Lewis & Clark traveled through this valley in 1806, Native Americans still camped along its many creeks. By 1818, fur traders had established a post here and by the 1840s wagon trains were stopping at nearby Whitman Mission. The fort was built in the 1850s.
At one time, Walla Walla was the largest city in Washington Territory. The gold rush of the 1860s and a flourishing agricultural industry added to the area’s prosperity. With a population of about 32,000, Walla Walla is now the county seat and its museum is filled with items donated by local folks, along with fascinating family history behind the pieces.
A floor length off-rose dress with lace trim and black buttons and edging, for example, was interesting to see in the textile exhibit. But what made it even more endearing was a family photo of a woman wearing the dress. A note explains that the frock was made in 1872 by Martha Emmaline Stanton for her 1873 wedding to Anderson Franklin Benson. Then Belle Benson Coyle, Martha’s daughter, wore the same dress on her 1902 honeymoon.
Also in the exhibit is an enormous early permanent wave machine. With all its coils, wires and cords attached to a mannequin’s head, the contraption shows to what lengths women go for looks. “I thought it was a torture device,” the man next to me whispered. I agree.
The Museum occupies 15 acres within Fort Walla Walla Park, part of the original 640-acre military reservation. It features a spacious entrance hall and exhibit galleries, four additional exhibit halls, and a pioneer village.
On this sunny day, blacksmith Rod Hahn is explaining to some schoolchildren what blacksmiths did and why they were so important to the pioneers. Hahn has no trouble holding the group’s attention. He is a retired agriculture teacher and metal shop instructor.
A few houses down, Hahn’s real-life wife Lois Hahn is portraying the town’s famed madam Josephine “Dutch Jo” Wolfe. “She was here from 1859 to 1909 and she was quite a gal,” Lois Hahn said. “Prostitution was actually legal in Walla Walla until 1961. That changed when Look Magazine did a big story about the town declaring it one of the worst because of its prostitution.”
That, Lois Hahn says, was the beginning of the end for large-scale publicly acknowledged bordellos. But back in the day, Dutch Jo was a competent businesswoman who took pride in performing an important service for her community. She ran an upscale establishment and insisted on good care for her employees, including regular health checkups.
In addition to running two of Walla Walla’s most successful brothels, Dutch Jo also was a public benefactress, particularly providing for needy firefighters who saved the community during frequent fires. She erected a firefighter statue at the city cemetery where she and several of her employees (as well as some regular clients) are now buried, although in different plots.