Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Temperance", Thy Name Be Mrs. Coffield

"FORMER SLIM BUTTES LADY PASSES." On 5 December 1940 the Govert Advance reported the death of a neighbor:

"H.L. Coffield received the sad news on Monday of the death of his mother, which occurred at the home of her daughter, [Marietta Catherine Coffield Cozine], who resides near Rapid City. Deceased was well known in the Reva community, as she made her home with her sons for many years. She was active in W.C.T.U. work for many years, and did a lot of work along that line including writing articles for newspapers. Her other son, Edgar, has been located near Hill City since leaving the Slim Buttes country. The funeral was held at Rapid City on Tuesday and the body brought to Buffalo for burial on Wednesday. [Buffalo] Times-Herald."

The name of the "Slim Buttes Lady" does not appear in the notice of her own death, other than the assumption that she would have been Mrs. Coffield, mother of two sons, H.L. Coffield and Edgar Coffield, and a daughter, Marietta Coffield. Referring to Mrs. Coffield as the "Slim Buttes lady" was not out of disrespect, or neglect. We can fairly judge that mother Elma Emmaline Perkins Coffield was well known in Reva, where she lived, and in Buffalo, where the Times-Herald was published, and in Govert, where the article was re-published. Mrs. Coffield was familiar in her own right to those farming and ranching in the Slim Buttes, but also because her son, Hubert Leroy Coffield, was the Harding County Commissioner for the Slim Buttes, including Govert. No further identification was necessary from the viewpoint of the journalist, or the editor of the Govert Advance.

Mrs. Coffield must have been a firebrand in her day, perhaps stoked by two years immersion in progressive advanced schooling in the northeast. She graduated from Oswego Normal School in New York, probably by 1875. There she embraced the innovative Pestalozzian teaching techniques, using objects to teach instead of relying on recitation and memorization. She married Flemon Augustus Coffield in 1887 when she was about 32.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, to which Mrs. Coffield owed her allegiance, was organized in 1873, probably while Mrs. Coffield was developing her perspective of the world at Oswego. Although an early proponent of temperance, Mrs. Coffield apparently did not see eye-to-eye with Carry A. Nation and did not adopt Mrs. Nation's dramatic bar-smashing interventions as the 19th century turned into the 20th. From the early years of its organization, the majority of WCTU members, even those considered activists, channeled their passion into education, warning of the dangers of alcohol and tobacco, just as Mrs. Coffield did in her newspaper articles. Mrs. Coffield may not have been entirely popular among Harding County men who appreciated their brew, but Elma Coffield had an audience who supported her views.

For one ... Emma Van der Boom of Govert, South Dakota, was a like-minded woman. The two women lived on opposite sides of the Slim Buttes, Emma living 23 miles south down the road from Reva. From a distance of more than 75 years, we can only wish to have heard the waves these women created. I am very familiar with Emma Van der Boom's views on alcohol (and tobacco). Gram and I never talked about organized efforts at social change. Still, when I was about eight years old, Gram gave me a box, made of a soft wood, bearing a design she burned into the wood many years preceding. The importance of the box in this story is not the design, not what was in the box, not even the box itself, but what appears on the bottom of the wooden box.

On that visit to our house, Gram recited a sort of poem I scribbled on the bottom of the box in pencil. Catchy ... one of those simple, sing-song jumble of words you can never un-memorize, even after the passing of more than half a century.

The words are already fading into the wood. An "artifact" I had a hand in creating has almost been lost to time during my own life. Here are the words on the bottom of the wooden box given to me by my grandmother:

Never drink liquor,
Never drink beer.
Always drink water,
And keep your head clear.

Does education work? This little bit of education works well if your audience sees the value of keeping a clear head. As a young woman, whenever I found myself in a social situation requiring clarity of mind, my grandmother's voice repeated the words to me. And, thereafter, I repeated the words to myself.

The opportunities for Elma Coffield and Emma Van der Boom to have shared tea and social concerns ... and perhaps even a sage little sing-song verse ... would have been considerable. Emma moved to Govert in 1912 after her marriage to Govert Van der Boom and she remained in Govert township until the Van der Booms moved to Spearfish in 1929. Mrs. Coffield also was living in Harding County before 1920, and remained in the Slim Buttes until into the 1930s. Their age difference ... in 1920 Elma would have been 65 and Emma was 35 ... was inconsequential, as Emma never saw age as an impediment to ideology. Spirited women like Elma and Emma tend to be ageless.

If time travel were possible, tea with Elma and Emma in the Slim Buttes would have been a pleasant, if not an illuminating, destination today.

The next time you're in Harding County, South Dakota, stop by the Buffalo Cemetery to honor Elma Emmaline Perkins Coffield, a prairie woman with the courage to take a moral stand. I will.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Based on Mrs. Coffield's death notice in the 5 December 1940 edition of the Govert Advance, 1920 United States Census, 1925 South Dakota Census. Should I ever discover a WCTU article written by Mrs. Coffield, I'll be sure to share it with you.]


  1. Sweetheart,

    Thanks for this week’s nice blog posting. As usual, it’s very interesting, informative, and well-written.

    We’re introduced to a new family name…Coffield. Also, it’s very fascinating to read more about the WCTU, about the ties to Emma and Govert, and the reference to “Pestalozzian teaching techniques.” I “Googled” that, and found a lengthy article in Wikipedia about Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a Swiss educator who advocated revolutionary and modern-thinking teaching principles. So, we learn from your blog…and it sparks us to go and learn something new on our own as well. A double educational benefit from your blog!

    I also liked very much your direct personal involvement in this week’s posting…the photos and your wonderful reminiscences about your grandmother Emma and the beautiful wooden box and the story surrounding it…and the “keep your head clear” rhyme/poem/sing-song verse (good advice in most social situations). What a lovely and interesting memory to have, and to share with us.

    So, thanks again for this week’s blog item. Very informative and enjoyable reading!

  2. So very interesting. I enjoy reading your posts every week. Thanks for all the information and the joy in reading it. What a special little wooden box that is.
    Gloria Gifford



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