A couple of weeks ago, I climbed into my bright blue Ford Focus, filled up the gas tank (thank you English Department!), and turned on a murder podcast to pass the time for the three-hour drive to Argonia, Kansas.
Located about an hour southwest of Wichita, Argonia dominated national news in 1887 when the small Kansas town elected Susanna Madora Salter as the first woman mayor and the first women in any political office in America. The purpose of my trip was to visit Susanna Salter’s family home in Argonia and research my talk for the upcoming “Kansas Women Have Done It: Agitating for the Women’s Vote” event at the Douglass Community Center in Manhattan.
Organized by the Literature Track of the English Department in collaboration with twelve local organizations and donors, the evening is showcasing music, performance, and discussion in honor of this year’s centennial of the 19th amendment, which guarantees and protects women’s constitutional right to vote. In 1887, in fact, East Coast newspapers saluted Salter’s landslide election and one of the newspaper headlines declared “Kansas Women Have Done It!”
When I finally arrived in Argonia, I turned off my blueberry-car and took in the sights: fields on either side of the highway stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was an incredible sight.
Argonia itself is a pretty small town of less than 500 people. I quickly passed the post office, brick library, community center, and stood in front of the mural installed for the centennial of the town, displaying Susanna Salter prominently in the front row as “America’s First Woman Mayor.”
At the end of Main Street, before the train tracks, a sign stuck out, announcing: “Salter Museum 5 Blocks.”
The red, brick house stands proudly on its lot with a stone dedication remembering Salter.
Here at the house museum I met two truly extraordinary women: Carol Pearce and her daughter Valerie Wade. Pearce and Wade have taken on the preservation of the house as a part of the Salter House Museum, Inc., which they started in March 2019. Ester Wulf, the mother of Carol Pearce and grandmother of Valerie Wade, started the Western Sumner County Historical Society that initiated the care of the Salter House and Museum in 1961. Both women devote their labor and energy to keep the memory of Salter alive in Kansas.
In fact, Pearce and her daughter Valerie took me on a guided tour through the museum and shared their knowledge about Salter. Their Salter Museum holds a number of historically decorated rooms and remembers various local people alongside America’s first woman mayor. The museum also artfully links Susanna Salter’s history with Argonia’s history and future histories of visitors interacting with the museum, of whom I am now proud to be a part.
To hear more about my visit to Argonia and a number of exciting performances and talks, join me at the Tubman/Douglass Room in the Douglass Community Center Annex next Tuesday on March 3rd at 7pm.
Come and listen to historic suffragette songs, meet an actual suffragette, and learn about the rich and complicated local histories of the Women’s Vote!
If you would like to visit, donate to, or support the Salter Museum in Argonia, you can reach Carol Pearce and her daughter Valerie Wade via email at SalterHouseMuseum@gmail.com. The museum is open by appointment.
— Krista Everhart (BS ’20, Secondary Education — English, with minors in English and Computer Science)