The Plight of Widows

In post-Civil War America, widows whose late husbands were not military veterans usually remarried right away, moved in with one or another of their married children, were taken in by other relatives or became the responsibility of the county where they lived.

 It was part of the expectations of the time that if a widow and her children needed a place to live, someone in the family stepped up to take them in, or paid for their housing elsewhere.

If there were no relatives, and they were physically able, widows who lived in towns like Laramie could try to sustain themselves with occupations open to them. Those might include domestic service, retail business, dressmaking, or, as was occasionally done in Laramie, china painting. If they had some resources, like a yard and a cow or chickens, they could sell food to their neighbors.

Remarriage was an unlikely prospect—after the Civil War there were many widows and single women in the US population. However, there was a better chance of remarrying in Laramie—when it was settled in 1868 there were more men than women.

County Responsibility

Responsibility for indigent widows in Wyoming who had no relatives fell to the county commissioners. As late as 1920 in Laramie, the Commissioners paid for both a “poor farm” and a “county hospital.” The former was for men and women who needed only minimal care (room and board).

The hospital (often called the “County Home”) was mainly for the infirm elderly requiring more care who had no place else to go. The concept “nursing home” didn’t exist then, but that is essentially what the county hospital was. There were at least two widows there in 1920 when it was on Grand Avenue, approximately where McIntyre Hall is today.

If an elderly widow with a residence but no income appealed to the Albany County Commissioners, sometimes they provided a stipend of $5 per month just to keep down the expense of having them at a county facility.

Military Pensions

Private company pensions were almost non-existent in 1900 with only five companies offering them according to the Social Security Administration.

Widows of military veterans were better off, though only slightly. Tom Rea tells of the plight of one Wyoming Civil War widow who was denied a $6 monthly widow’s pension after her husband died in 1897, partly because the Pension Board was confused by her having two different maiden last names. That was because she had been born a slave, and was given the name of a different “master” at age eight when she was sold.

Laramie’s unique social history book, the 1987 volume edited by Mary Kay Mason, “Laramie; Gem City of the Plains,” is replete with contributions from local families documenting the plucky widows who found a way to survive in what may have seemed like anything but a “gem” to them at the time.

Some, like Joanna Bath, Hannah Gross Durlacher or Hannah Radichal Trabing were relatively well off because they could inherit their husband’s estate. Wyoming Territory gave widows the right to own land in their own name, something that was a rarity in the states at the time. Where it existed, however, that right was generally not extended to minorities, particularly Asian women who were burdened with anti-Asian laws that regulated what they could own (no land) and who they could remarry (only someone of their race).

Some Laramie women who became widows around the turn of the 20th Century, took advantage of the right they had to hold public office, a novel idea that Wyoming Territory enacted soon after Laramie was founded. Emma Howell Knight was elected Superintendent of Albany County Schools in 1904, a year after her husband died, leaving her with four young children. Etta Roach became Albany County Librarian when her husband died.

Jane Ivinson’s Concern

One old timer many years ago told me that he used to go around to homes in town after his father died in 1911, selling canned goods and milk that his widowed mother produced. “Mrs. Ivinson always bought, whether she needed any or not” was his recollection of going to the back door of the Ivinson Mansion.

That was probably a standing order that Jane Ivinson gave to her cook, if any widows or their children came to the mansion selling goods, The plight of widows, often women who had been her close friends, was of great concern to her.

All that changed radically in 1935 when Social Security included benefits for widows and orphans. But long before that, Jane Ivinson discussed with her husband, Edward, the possibility of turning their large home into a residence for widows to be operated by their church, St. Matthew’s Episcopal.

But after her death in 1915, Bishop Thomas and a doctor looked it over and determined that the high ceilings and long stairways were not suited for elderly women. Instead, the Bishop recommended that it become a girl’s school, to allow ranch girls to move to town and attend high school. Edward did convey the property to the church for that purpose. The school operated until 1958, and after nearly 10 years of standing empty, it became the home of the Laramie Plains Museum.

But Edward never forgot that widows were his wife’s main concern. So he put a provision in his will to set up a trust to build a new facility to be called the “Ivinson Home for Aged Ladies.” After he died in 1928, though there were bumps along the way in adjudicating his estate, construction for the building began at 2017 Grand Avenue. It opened in 1930; his will and subsequent bequests from residents have allowed for its perpetual maintenance—now referred to as the “Ivinson Home for Ladies.”

Caption: The Ivinson Home for Ladies was a vision of Laramie pioneers Jane and Edward Ivinson. The home opened in 1930, thanks to the Ivinson bequest for its construction and a maintenance endowment for operation. It continues as an elegant and unique residence with private apartments for about 30 senior women who enjoy a club-like atmosphere with many services, though it is not a nursing home. Photo courtesy of Ivinson Home for Ladies.

By Judy Knight