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Notable and Remarkable Women in Lycoming County History

March is “Women’s History Month,” so it seems altogether fitting and proper to note and recognize some of the remarkable and notable women who have contributed in various ways to the life and history of Lycoming County through the past 200 plus years. Much of the information for this article is taken from Lycoming College’s

March is “Women’s History Month,” so it seems altogether fitting and proper to note and recognize some of the remarkable and notable women who have contributed in various ways to the life and history of Lycoming County through the past 200 plus years.

Much of the information for this article is taken from Lycoming College’s Women’s History Project, which was compiled and put together by two dedicated researchers, Mary Sieminski and Janet Hurlbert, who tended the vineyards of the contributions of women in Lycoming County over the past 150 or so years.

Significant women who have contributed to Lycoming County predate the establishment of Lycoming County. One of the most interesting was Madame Montour.

Madame Montour played a role that was way ahead of her time for a woman and was a crucial figure in the diplomatic intercourse between colonial authorities in New York and Pennsylvania and Native American leaders.

Montour, born Isabel Couc, was reportedly born near Trois Riveres (Three Rivers), Quebec, in Canada, somewhere around 1667, the daughter of Frenchman Pierre Couc dit Lafleur (1627–1690) and Marie Miteoamegoukoué (1631–1699). A Métis (a person of mixed indigenous and Euro-American ancestry, in particular one of a group of such people who in the 19th century constituted the so-called Métis nation in the areas around the Red and Saskatchewan rivers.), she was familiar with both French and Native American languages and became proficient in many dialects.

Dr. Mary Ann Levine, an archaeology professor, said of Montour, “emerges as one of the most visible women in the written record of interactions between Native Americans and Colonists in New York and Pennsylvania.”

At one time, she lived in the village of Otstonwakin, near present-day Montoursville. She worked for Pennsylvania Governor Patrick Gordon in 1727, interpreting and negotiating land settlements with the Iroquois.

Madame Montour reportedly died in 1753.

Alison D. Hirsch, assistant professor of American Studies and History at Penn State University, writing on Madame Montour, asserts she stands out in American history as a “self-fashioned woman … the most creative — most outrageous — in fashioning her life from the whole cloth in the midst of Pennsylvania’s most volatile frontiers.”

One of the most heroic women of the Revolutionary War era was Rachel Silverthorn, who became known as one of the “Paul Revere of the West Branch Valley.”

During the summer of 1778, frontier Indians massacred settlers throughout the West Branch Valley during the Revolutionary War. This precipitated what became known as the “Great Runaway.” Silverthorn and Robert Covenhaven rode throughout the valley, warning of the impending Indian raids. Their warnings no doubt saved many settlers’ lives.

Katherine Bennett wrote in the Lycoming Historical Society Journal in 1971, “Many heroic women feature the frontier life of this state, but none excel in sheer bravery as Rachel Silverthorn … Rachel’s ride was to warn her unsuspecting neighbors along the half-beaten trail of Muncy Creek.”

As Lycoming County industrialized and grew, some opportunities for women expanded, albeit reluctantly. One of the most notable areas was in the medical field. The first two women physicians in Williamsport and the county are inextricably linked. They were Dr. Jean Saylor Brown and Dr. Rita Church.

Church was born in Brookfield, N.Y., in 1841, and Jean Saylor Brown was born in New Jersey in 1843. She received her medical degree at the Women’s Medical College Hospital of Philadelphia in 1874. It was there that she became friends with Jean Saylor Brown.

Saylor Brown developed a prosperous medical practice that extended beyond Lycoming County. She then persuaded her friend Rita Church to bring her medical skills to this area.

Church and Brown were tireless in their efforts in the development of the Williamsport Hospital during its formative years.

Saylor Brown and Church became the driving force in the establishment of Williamsport Hospital’s first School of Nursing, in 1883. It was only the third nursing education program to be established in this country.

Brown had the distinction of performing the first operation “worthy of mention” by a physician in Lycoming County. She was also one of the founders of the Williamsport YWCA in 1893. She died in 1928.

Dr. Church served as superintendent of the Williamsport Hospital until 1893. She then moved to Lock Haven and helped found what would become the Lock Haven Hospital. Like Saylor Brown, Church died in 1928.

Louise Larzalere Chatham is the first woman to become an attorney in Lycoming County. She started her professional pursuits somewhat late in life. She earned her law degree at Boston University, graduating magna cum laud, at the age of 50 in 1923. She was admitted to practice before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1924.

She was very active in women’s organizations and those that promoted the civic good. Chatham died in 1938.

Women have also been very accomplished in the area of arts and letters.

Julia C. Collins is reportedly the first African-American woman to write a novel titled The Curse of Caste in 1865, and she called Williamsport home during the early 1860s. A Pennsylvania historical marker honors her and is located along the Susquehanna River Walk, near where she once lived. She died in November 1865 of tuberculosis.

Two interesting and notable women painters hail from Lycoming County, Dewing Woodward and Frances Tipton Hunter.

Woodward was once hailed by the New York Times as “one of America’s leading painters. She came from a distinguished area family that figured prominently in area history. She was the daughter of John Vanderbelt and Ann York Woodward. Woodward Township and other Woodward named places were named for relatives of Ann.

Her talent for art started early, and the faculty soon recognized it at the college that would become Bucknell University. She was an art professor there for five years.

She then went to Paris, where her paintings soon became a favorite of the Paris Salon. Her art style was described by observers as “modern and quite like that of Toulouse-Lautrec.”

In 1897 she established the first summer school of art at Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod.

Her art has been displayed at venues all over the country, from Miami to Baltimore to New York.

She died at the age of 94 in 1950.

Frances Tipton Hunter was a noted artist whose watercolor illustrations graced the covers of such national magazines as Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and the Saturday Evening Post. Some of Hunter’s illustrations have the same warm and human quality that Norman Rockwell’s do. She also wrote and illustrated several children’s books. She died at the age of 61 in 1957.

No person has loomed over this area’s music scene as large as Mary Landon Russell. She was an accomplished musician, music educator, and chronicler of Lycoming County musical history.

Her education — musical and otherwise — began at Dickinson Junior College, later to become Lycoming College, an institution she would be associated with for more than 62 years. She also received musical training at such prestigious places as Julliard, the Eastman School of Music. She earned her master’s degree from Penn State.

Russell was at the forefront of various local musical organizations. She was one of the original members of the Williamsport Music Club, assisted in the formation of the Williamsport Civic Chorus. She was a musical accompanist for the various musical organizations at Lycoming College and those within the community and as a soloist for the Williamsport Symphony Orchestra.

However, her crowning accomplishment may be her encyclopedic History of the Music of Williamsport, which is the go-to work to anyone seeking to find out more about the musical heritage of Williamsport. She truly was a community treasure.

Local women have always been at the forefront of local efforts at social improvement, uplift, and philanthropy. One of the most notable of these women was an African American, Mary Slaughter.

She was born on the Myers plantation near Martinsburg, West Virginia, in 1835. She would eventually become the Myers’ favorite cook and housekeeper.

She married her husband, William Slaughter, probably while living on the Myers plantation. After the Civil War in 1866, she and William moved to Williamsport. They served as custodians at the former St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. She was active at both the First Baptist and Bethel A.M.E. churches.

Tragedy stalked Slaughter. She lost three children at an early age, and her husband died of tuberculosis in 1886.

She needed a constructive outlet to deal with her grief, so she became involved in bettering the lot of elderly black women.

She initially began by providing meals to sick mothers. She opened her four-room house on Walnut Street to elderly black women, and by 1897 it had evolved into the Aged Colored Women’s Home, a place for indigent, elderly African-American women. She moved the facility to 124 Brandon Avenue, where it operated until 1973, some 39 years after her death at the age of 99 in 1934

Jerusha Bailey Mussina, known as “Mother Mussina,” was the sparkplug of the local temperance movement. The movement set out to bring about the prohibition of intoxicating beverages.

She was very active in church and charitable work and served as a Sunday School teacher at the Pine Street Methodist Episcopal Church (now Pine Street United Methodist Church) for more than 50 years.

Her abiding passion, however, was the temperance movement. On February 24, 1874, she formed the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union at a large public meeting at the Pine Street church. The Williamsport chapter she organized was one of the earliest ones in the nation. The headquarters for the local chapter was located above the Mussina’s family business, a jewelry and watch shop, at the northwest corner of Market Square, West Third, and Market streets. The Prohibition Party also had its office in the Mussina building.

When she died in 1887, the Gazette and Bulletin noted her passing this way. “Mrs. Mussina was a representative woman and was distinguished for her piety and devotion to Christian duty. She was a leader in the church and foremost in all things dedicated to the elevation and benefit of the human race. It can truthfully be said of her, a mother in Israel has fallen.”

The campaign to win the vote for women was a social and political cause that was embraced by many women locally; perhaps no one campaigned for women’s suffrage more tirelessly than Henrietta Baldy Lyon.

Baldy Lyon was born in Danville in 1865; when her mother died shortly after her birth, she was raised by her great aunt Caroline and her husband, prominent lumberman Edward Lyon, and she moved to Williamsport.

She attended Bryn Mawr College, Barnard, and Washington University in St Louis, but she never married.

She was involved in various social and civic activities and was one of the first women in Williamsport to drive an automobile.

She threw herself enthusiastically into the women’s suffrage cause and frequently traveled throughout the state promoting the cause. Her most active work was here in Lycoming County, and she was the sparkplug for it locally.

She was one of the key figures when the Pennsylvania State Suffrage Association held its state convention in Williamsport in November 1916.

When the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was approved in August 1920, Baldy Lyon gave a celebratory address marking the occasion.

She died in 1950 at the age of 85.

Speaking of the suffrage movement, two legendary giants of the suffrage movement appeared and spoke in Williamsport through the years.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton appeared here in November 1869 and Susan B. Anthony spoke in November 1870. Both Stanton and Anthony appeared at the Ulman Opera House, located at the corner of Third and Market streets.

It would be many years before the true fruits of women gaining the vote would be felt by local women with the election of members of their sex to various local offices.

Constance Snyder became the first woman elected to Williamsport City Council in 1971. Jessie Bloom was elected the first woman Mayor of Williamsport in 1987. Dolly Wilt and Lora Morningstar were the first women elected as Lycoming County Commissioners in 1983. Nancy Butts became the first woman judge in Lycoming County in 1996. Of course, during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, many women were elected to various borough councils, township supervisor positions, and mayors of several boroughs.

We hope that this gives some flavor of the interesting and vital role that women have played in our county over the past 200 plus years, and there is so much more than they are contributing now and well into the future.

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