Utah WASP and other flying women

Happy Veteran’s Day, and thank you to the brave men and women who have served and sacrificed for our freedom.

And happy book birthday to Utah Women: Pioneer, Poets & Politicians!

To celebrate both, I’m writing today about the female Civil Air Patrol pilots and WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) of World War II.

My grandfather, Frank Brooksby, was a pilot over occupied France during World War II, and his brother Victor was killed in action flying on the Pacific Front of the war. The Brooksby family seems to have been drawn to the sky, and the Brooksby girls were no exception. Family photos like the one below of three of my great aunts during World War II always interested me, and I’ve finally found out a little more about the experiences of the Brooksby girls and other female WWII pilots.

1944 July 2; Edith, Vivien, IsabelleAmerican women didn’t fly in combat in World War II (though the Russian “night witches” did!). Instead, they flew missions stateside, freeing up men to fly overseas. WASP women tested and repaired airplanes and shuttled planes, people, and cargo around the country. Women in the WASP program even flew planes hauling targets so the male pilots could practice shooting live ammo!  Thirty-nine of the slightly over 1,000 WASP volunteers died in service to their country.

The Women Air Service Pilots were not granted status as veterans until 1977 when they petitioned Congress to have their service officially recognized by the history books. Though their recognition came late, they played an important role in proving that women’s minds and bodies could handle the complexities of flying, even during menstruation (yes, that was in serious doubt at the time). Latino, Asian, and Native American women flew with the WASP program, also proving their capabilities, though black women were segregated out of WASP by their race and out of the history-making, all-black Tuskegee Airmen by their gender.

Many other women served with the Civil Air Patrol. Started just before the US entered World War II, the Civil Air Patrol formed to utilize the skills of civilian pilots in protecting the United States. CAP pilots patrolled over land and sea, performed rescue missions, and worked as couriers. It was open to both sexes and all races.

But, I wondered, how did the Brooksby girls from little Fredonia on the Arizona Strip (the patch of Arizona above the Grand Canyon, just south of the Utah border) learn to be pilots? They might have seen the occasional barnstormer or cropduster, but I doubted that planes were common in Fredonia.

Like most female pilots of World War II, I found, they trained at college-based Civil Pilot Training Programs. At least some of the Brooksby women attended Dixie Junior College (now Dixie State University) in St George, Utah (Southern Utah is known as Utah’s Dixie for the early attempts to grow cotton there). There, they took the classes to learn to fly through the Civil Pilot Training Program and then went to the Provo Flying School under the direction of Merrill Christopherson to complete their training. Once they had the necessary solo hours, they worked with the Civil Air Patrol ferrying planes across the country.

After the war, WASP women were dismissed as no longer needed by their country. Commercial airlines would not hire female pilots. Some pilots, like Utah transplant Marjorie Redding Christiansen, became air traffic controllers. Others continued to serve with the Civil Air Patrol or other community organizations. Their service was forgotten by many for a number of decades, but today we can remember their bravery and determination to serve their country.

(Below, the Brooksby pilots, minus Victor Brooksby, who was already MIA in the south Pacific.)

1944 Summer; Vivien, Isabelle, Frank, Edith

The Decline and Fall of the Utah Sugar Beet Empire

Where does your sugar come from?

Americans eat more sugar than any other nation, consuming close to 11 million metric tons of the sweet stuff annually (that’s somewhere around 150 pounds of sugar per person per year – 100 years ago, we ate closer to 18 pounds per person per year). The US alone produces over 8 million metric tons of sugar each year, and the largest sugar producer is…

Minnesota, eh?

Not the place many of us might imagine our sugar coming from, and tropical Florida and Louisiana are top contenders in sugar cane production, but more than half of US sugar actually comes from sugar beets (pictured below).

Sugar Beet Before Topping LOC

Utah is no longer even on the map for sugar production, but for much of the twentieth century, Utah was an important sugar beet producer.

Someone recently asked me, where did the sugar beets go?

After all, Idaho – literally within spitting distance of some of the Utah towns that once ran on the sugar beet industry – is still an important producer of sugar. Some parts of Utah, like the “Sugar House” neighborhood in Salt Lake City, still bear record of their association with the sugar industry. And the sugar beet is the official Utah state historic vegetable. Who knew that was a thing?

So, here’s a short-but-sweet 😉 history of sugar in Utah.

First of all, y’all know that sugar has an ugly history, right? European (and later American) sugar cravings drove perhaps the most brutal slavery-based industry from the 1500s to the 1800s, with generations of enslaved West Africans working and dying on sugar plantations, mostly in the Carribean.

By the 1800s, with international wars and slave revolts disrupting the sugar industry, European scientists developed a process for extracting sugar from beets. Abolitionists and human rights advocates were quick to promote beet sugar (while pro-slavery factions shunned it). Beet sugar also had an economic advantage because sugar beets grow in a much wider variety of climates than sugar cane, meaning France, Russia, Germany, and the non-tropical portions of the United States could all develop their own sugar industries instead of relying on imports.

By 1850, Brigham Young had led the Mormon pioneers to the relative isolation of Utah and was interested in being as self-sufficient as possible. Thus, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints backed an experimental sugar beet factory in Sugar House. It failed miserably, producing a nasty syrup not even independent-minded Brigham Young thought edible.

It took a few decades before American factories got the hang of beet sugar, but by the end of the 1800s, with the social and financial backing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company had factories throughout Utah, and sugar beets became an important part of Utah’s economy. Sugar beets required back-breaking manual labor, but large Utah families had plenty of children to work in the fields. Their work was supplemented by Native Americans displaced by pioneer settlements and later by Latino refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution. The worldwide economic disruptions of World War I saw the peak of the sugar industry in Utah when the state was one of the country’s top sugar producers (like the factory in Lewiston, Utah, pictured below – that’s a big pile of beets!).

Sugar beets in Lewiston LOC

From there, it was a slow downhill slide. An agricultural depression followed WWI, with prices falling into a slump after the previous war-time demand, and after that came the Great Depression. At the same time, beet leafhoppers spread a blight in Utah that damaged crops and led some factories to move away from the state.

The Utah sugar beet industry struggled on, eventually finding a blight-resistant strain of beets, and in World War II, Utah was still a major US sugar producer. Many detained Japanese Americans worked in the sugar beet fields of Utah to keep up with wartime production.

Following World War II, the sugar beet industry saw a number of technological changes that made sugar processing faster and more efficient. Ironically, this would lead to the end of large-scale commercial sugar beets in Utah. The main companies that bought Utah sugar beets, U&I (Utah-Idaho Sugar Company) and Amalgamated Sugar Company, had both started in Utah but expanded their production to Idaho and the Pacific Northwest and eventually moved their headquarters out of state. They faced several antitrust actions by the federal government as well as competition with low-cost cane sugar from overseas during the mid-1900s, which strained their resources. Also during this time, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began selling its interests in the sugar companies.

So, when it came time to update factories, the sugar companies invested in those in Idaho and Oregon. One by one, the outdated Utah factories shut down, with the last one in Garland, Utah, shutting down in 1979. It was not cost-effective for Utah farmers to ship their sugar beets out of state, so most switched to other crops, and Utah fell off the sugar-producing map.

For most of Utah, sugar beets had never been an ideal crop. The soil is too alkaline, the growing season too short, and the labor too intensive. The fact that Utah enjoyed nearly a century of sweet success is a testament to the stubborn self-sufficiency of Utah’s farmers.

Utah’s official contemporary state vegetable is the sweet onion. And that’s a thing, too, because when it came time to vote on state vegetable, the onion may be important now, but the sugar beet-proponents refused to back down on giving some kind of recognition to the crop that had been so important to Utah’s economy for most of the 1900s.

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress OWI-FSA collection (public domain).

Sources: U.S. Sugar Industry Association; American Sugar Alliance; New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services; The Diabetes Council; Donald W. Meyers, “Rebirth of former sugar plant is sweet news for Toppenish,” Yakima Herald (Yakima, Washington); Leonard J. Arrington, Beet Sugar in the West;  Twila Van Leer, “Sugar Becomes a Sweet Success,” Deseret News; “Sugar Beets!” Lewiston-North Cache Valley Historical Board; Leonard J. Arrington, “The Sugar Industry in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia.

 

 

 

 

Barbara Greenlee Toomer: A World Without Barriers

Did you know that September is Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month? Spinal cord injuries affect everyone differently, and though some SCI survivors are in wheelchairs, many others (such as myself) live with “invisible disabilities” that still impact their daily lives. Thanks to advances in medicine and awareness, though, people with disabilities have more opportunities now than at any other time in history. One of the people who helped make that possible was polio survivor Barbara Greenlee Toomer.

In 2017, there were only 22 reported cases of polio anywhere in the world, thanks to global efforts to eradicate the disease, but in the 1950s, tens of thousands of children contracted polio in the United States alone each year, killing thousands and leaving many more paralyzed. In 1955, when doctors announced that they had created a successful polio vaccine, church bells rang across America in celebration.

Though the vaccine quickly caused a drop in polio infections and deaths, the vaccine was in short supply at first and was only available to the most vulnerable populations: mainly children. That was why, when Barbara Greenlee Toomer’s first child was born in 1956, the infant received a polio vaccine and Barbara did not.

Not long after, polio swept through the military base where Barbara lived. Her child remained healthy, but Barbara came down with horrible back and head pain. She was able to walk into the hospital, but she would never walk back out. Polio left her paralyzed, and she saw family and friends turn away from her and her disability.

But Barbara did not let polio slow her down. She did not just want to live with her disability, she wanted to be a person with a disability who fully lived. And she wanted the same for other people with disabilities as well. In fact, she was arrested dozens of times while protesting for disability rights, wheelchair and all. She even chained herself to buses that did not accommodate wheelchairs. To find out more about how Barbara Greenlee Toomer championed fair treatment for everyone, regardless of their abilities, read Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians, available for preorder now on Amazon.

Below: Children with polio-induced paralysis learning to walk with leg braces.

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Emma Dean Powell: The Explorer’s Wife

2019 is a big year for Utah sesquicentennial celebrations (isn’t that a great word?). May 10, 2019, was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking the East Coast and West Coast at Promontory Point, Utah.  This enormous accomplishment, achieved mainly by such downtrodden groups as the Chinese, Irish, former slaves, former Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, and Latter-day Saints (Mormons), is rightly regarded as a major technological and social achievement in Utah and US history.

On May 24, 1869, another scientific wonder began: an exploratory trip down the wild Colorado River by one-armed geologist and former Civil War soldier, Major John Wesley Powell. With a ten-man crew–none of whom had white-water rafting experience–he set out to map the unexplored regions of the Colorado River through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. And I don’t just mean unexplored by white men–Native Americans familiar with the area told him his goal was impossible, deadly. Yet he took his scientific equipment in four boats and set off. The fourth boat–his own–was named the Emma Dean after his wife. On August 30, 1869, Major Powell arrived in St. Thomas, Nevada, having lost one boat, a great deal of the scientific information he gathered, and four of his men (all four deserted the expedition, and three of those were lost in the desert, never heard from again). Undeterred by the hardships, he would make the trip again in 1871-1872 to improve his scientific data.

Powell is justly famous for his daring and for his contributions to the understanding of the geology and ethnology of the West, but Emma Dean Powell rarely gets any mention. True, she did not raft down the Colorado (during one of her husband’s Colorado expeditions, she was busy giving birth to their daughter Mary Dean Powell), but the petite Emma had been her husband’s nurse, champion, and scientific partner starting in the Civil War and through his many previous expeditions. She became an ornithology expert in her own right, as well as one of the first women to climb Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Along with her sister-in-law, Nellie Thompson, Emma made important contributions to the work that her husband and the other men of his expedition became famous for, at a time when female scientists were rarely recognized for their work. You can read more about Emma Dean Powell’s quiet but remarkable career in Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians.

Photo of Emma Dean Powell courtesy of the USGS.

powell005

Diversity in Children’s Books

Those outside the writing and publishing community may not have heard of #ownvoices, but perhaps they have noticed an uptick in books featuring diverse characters. I have an academic (and personal) interest in questions of identity as well as writing, so I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this trend and wanted to hammer out my thoughts by writing about them.

Sarah Park Dahlen and her associates have used data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison to create two infographics showing how the representation of minority characters in books has changed over the last few years.

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I looked at this and saw it as good news. It’s important for young people to see characters who look like them in books and movies. It helps them feel that they have value, that their voices matter, and that they’re part of the big story of our world.

I was surprised by the anger some people expressed over it – not that there are more diverse characters, but that there are not enough. I would agree that there is still more we in the writing community can do to make sure the voices of people of color and other traditionally-minority groups are being heard. For instance, less than half of books with brown or black characters are written by people of color, which means that the voices we hear may not ring true if the white authors haven’t been very, very careful in their research, writing, and use of the advice of cultural insiders and sensitivity readers, and it leaves young people of color with fewer role models to look up to–and maybe with the sense that their voice doesn’t really matter. I think it’s counterproductive to say that white authors should never write characters who are people of color (what kind of weird world would we be writing about if all our characters are white? Even in medieval Europe there was ethnic diversity), but I do think white authors need to think carefully about how and why we’re including diverse characters and make sure we’re not shouting over the voices of people who are struggling to be heard.

But I like Hans Rosling’s assertion that we can maintain a dual mindset that “things are good” and also that “things need to get better.” Out of a desire to keep people engaged with a cause they consider important, people might be tempted to downplay positive outcomes so others don’t turn their attention elsewhere. But if they send a message that the progress so far “doesn’t count,” people may get discouraged and give up anyway.

So, let’s look at these numbers. I was curious and turned to the U.S. Census Bureau for some statistics. Its current 2018 estimate is that about 60% of the US population is white, 18% is Hispanic (I’m choosing the term Hispanic over Latinx because it’s broader, and it’s the one used by the Census Bureau), 13% is black, almost 6% is Asian, just over 1% is Native American, less than 1% is Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and almost 3% is mixed race. BUT, those numbers are for all Americans, and the racial makeup of the US is always changing. For Americans under the age of 18, Kids Count puts the numbers at 51% white, 25% Hispanic, 14% black, 5% Asian, 1% Native American and Alaskan Native, less than 1% Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and 4% mixed race.

I don’t think that statistical representation is necessarily the goal. Quality matters as much as quantity, and giving people of color an edge over statistics seems fair in light of their historical underrepresentation–it won’t hurt white kids to see a higher proportion of people of color as main characters, as long as the publishing industry doesn’t go to the other extreme and make all white kids bad guys. But based on the above infographic, the only group that is still severely underrepresented are Hispanic youth. And they are severely underrepresented.

If we take out the animal books, the percentages come out differently: 1.3% of the books feature Native American characters, 6.8% Hispanic, 9.5% Asian, 13.7% black, and 68% white (that’s where the numbers would have to give to allow for more Hispanic characters). What’s the deal with the animal books? Their percentage of the market has actually gone up. I wonder if that’s because animal books can be seen as more universal: many different kids can relate to animals characters regardless of race. There’s a caveat to that, though: characters can be “coded” to be of a certain demographic even if they look “raceless” on the surface. For instance, in the latest iteration of My Little Ponies (which I enjoy along with my kids), I get the sense that all of the ponies are “white.” That could be because I’m white and white is often the “default” race in media, but it’s also the voice actors and the accents and vocal styles they use. So, those animal books? I’m not sure if we can count them as universal or if they would reinforce the feeling for non-white kids that they’re on the outside. The best understanding would come from asking non-white children what they think.

There are a few other aspects of these numbers I find troubling, beyond the fact that the number of Hispanic characters is so far behind actual demographics. One is that Pacific Islanders are lumped in with Asians. This happens a lot, but there’s a pretty wide gap between the history and culture of the Pacific Islands and Asia. I’ve looked for kids’ books specifically about Pacific Islanders, and they’re very hard to find. Also, mixed-race kids don’t seem to be represented at all in the statistics, even though they’re growing as a share of the population (a common shortcoming).

What about religious diversity? I have seen more kids’ books with Muslim characters lately, and I think reading about people of other faith traditions goes a long way toward reducing fear and antagonism between various groups–atheists, Buddhists, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Methodists, etc.–we all need to understand each other. Showing the complexity of faith and religion is great, but none of these groups should make its main appearance in literature as a “boogieman” (something that often happens to many organized religions, but especially various Christian denominations and Muslims).

And kids with disabilities? They tend to be very underrepresented as well, and apparently, no one is even thinking of tracking their numbers (in the future, they’re going to be tracking LGBT+ representation).

So, there’s room for improvement in creating a selection of diverse children’s books, but I still think we can celebrate the progress we’ve made as a writing community. I’ve enjoyed many of the diverse kids’ books I’ve been reading and sharing with my children. For those of us who aren’t publishing gatekeepers (agents and editors), we can still encourage diverse books by seeking them out and buying the best ones for our children to signal to those gatekeepers that there’s an interest.

Image credits:

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/.

Released for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0 license). You are free to use this infographic in any of your work, including presentations and published work, so long as you provide the full citation noted above.

 

Biddy Mason: Utah Pioneer

I’m excited to share the stories I learned while writing Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets, and Politicians, so I’m going to post some “teasers” here on my blog over the next few months leading up to release day.

Today is Pioneer Day in Utah, celebrating the arrival of the Latter-day Saint (Mormon) pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. An often overlooked part of that early pioneer migration are the free and enslaved black people who came to Utah in the westward trek – including Green Flake, one of several slaves in the vanguard company of pioneers and the man who drove Brigham Young’s wagon when the LDS leader uttered his famous (if possibly misquoted) proclamation over the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847: “This is the right place. Drive on.”

Biddy Mason was another early black Utah pioneer. Born a slave in the South, she would end her life as one of the richest women in California: just one of the many remarkable women from Utah’s history!

Below: Biddy Mason, image courtesy of the National Park Sevice.

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For more on the ongoing efforts to document the lives of black Utah pioneers, check out historian Paul Reeves’ online database, “A Century of Black Mormons.”

Utah Women: Pioneer, Poets & Politicians

I LOVED working on this project – Utah history has so many inspiring stories and amazing women – and I’m excited to have a release date and cover! Utah Women: Pioneers, Poets & Politicians coming November 2019 from The History Press.

Trailblazing in Untamed Territory

Representing lawmakers and lawbreakers, artists and adventurers or scholars and activists, the women of Utah defied stereotypes. At the crossroads of the West, they found new challenges and opportunities to forge their own paths. Emma Dean explored the Rocky Mountains with her famous spouse John Wesley Powell. Martha Hughes Cannon defeated her husband to become the first female state senator. Maud Fitch drove an ambulance under German artillery fire to rescue downed pilots in World War I. Author Emily Brooksby Wheeler celebrates the remarkable Utah women who, whether racing into danger or nurturing those who fell behind, changed their world and ours.

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