MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 13, 2012

Women were winners at the fair

By Jonita Mullins
Guest Columnist

— Women have long been involved in making farms and ranches a success in Oklahoma. In fact, women and agriculture have a long connection in our history.

In many Native American cultures, women were the farmers while the men were the hunters. The Indian women planted and harvested the crops and prepared and preserved the food for the family. Many a rural household in days gone by ran on the milk, butter and egg money that women earned from their work on the farm.

A huge vegetable garden was common to every farm and usually the women of the household were responsible for it. Canning and drying fruits and vegetables were chores undertaken by women to ensure that the family had a healthy diet through the winter months.

One of the first major gatherings of the Five Civilized Tribes to discuss working together came in 1870 with the Okmulgee Constitutional Convention. While the constitution that was drafted at this meeting was never put into effect, one other item of interest was. The tribes wanted to establish a yearly agricultural fair. Muskogee, being centrally located and having a railroad, was chosen as the fair’s location.

Muskogee began to host the International Indian Fair in 1874, and the goal of the event was to encourage agricultural development and excellence in Indian Territory. It continued in Muskogee until around 1900.

The fair gave farm women of all the represented races an opportunity to demonstrate their skills in agricultural enterprises. And the women were often the most talked about aspect of the fair.

In the early fairs, equestrian events were a favorite among the many Indian tribes that were in attendance. Much attention was garnered by the ladies who participated in the riding events. In those days, women generally rode sidesaddle, and one horse breeder from near Briartown in her velvet riding habit was all the talk of fair goers. Her name was Belle Starr. It is said that Belle enjoyed entering the riding competitions each year at the fair — except for the year she spent in prison for horse stealing.

However, at the 1875 fair, the woman taking first prize in the competition was not Belle, but rather a young Cheyenne woman named Minnehaha. At age 16, she was married to a Cheyenne leader and was described as a “prairie queen” by the Indian Journal.

Minnehaha’s prize for winning the competition was a sidesaddle. Unfortunately, she didn’t know how to ride upon it. The women of the Plains Tribes all rode astride. She was allowed to trade the sidesaddle for one she could use.

Each year the International Indian Fair included a “Women’s Department” that judged baked goods, canned vegetables, jellies, jams and needlework just as fairs continue to do today.

But in the 1881 fair, it was a woman who took the blue ribbon in a competition outside the “women’s department.” A Cherokee widow named Mrs. Rogers won first place for having the best bale of cotton at the fair.

Women have never been strangers to farming and the hard work that goes with it. Their ongoing success at the fair down through the years is proof of that.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.