Labor Day: Life downstairs at an American mansion

Big houses are cool. 

Downton Abbey we all know from TV. 

Biltmore, when the Vanderbilts built more than anyone else in the United State at that time, was where I got up close (only inches away) from an original Albrecht Dürer woodcut!

Sheridan, Wyoming, has its own version of the big house, right up on the hill overlooking the city.

The architectural style of the building is calld Flemish Revival. I didn’t even know that was a thing.

It’s a classic American tale. John Kendrick, a poor Texas orphan, joins a cattle drive to Wyoming, stays, and over the course of a few years becomes a cattle baron in his own right. His ranches covered 210,000 acres. That’s 328 square miles. He built the big house in town, was elected governor, then U.S. senator, died in office in 1933. His widow lived there until her death in 1961, and the local historical society saved the house from demolition in 1968. Now it’s a state-owned property and open to the public.

It’s cool. No doubt.

But as the lovely Miz Vicki and I toured it on Labor Day, guided by a Wyoming cousin, Tom Fried, I couldn’t help but think of the employees who kept the house running. 

Four members of staff, both at the ranch and the big house.

This year’s displays in the home point out that things like the laundry and kitchen, while seeming archaic by today’s standards, were really quite the latest thing in 1913 technology. There is a central vacuum system, which meant the maid didn’t have to lug a 90-pound upright up and down those narrow servant stairs. 

The central vac was a nice addition to the house, I think. That sort of thing is even available in some RVs, at least some larger than ours.
Also in the basement was the core motor and collector of the central vacuum system.

It seems John Kendrick was pretty progressive, both at home and in politics.

In that era, the cooks in big houses typically had a pretty good deal and stayed for years. They were valued. The maids, however, generally got 20 cents an hour (in the later 1940s), plus room and board and uniforms. Better jobs or marriage would take them out of the household in a relatively short time.

The displays in the house give names of a few of these women. Jerry Johnson was the maid about 1937. Frances Buell was the nursemaid in that same era. And Mrs. Hotchkiss, a rather severe-looking older woman, was the cook.

The white walls supposedly helped keep the heat from that monster stove a bit more bearable.
The best of early 1900s technology in the basement laundry.
Again, it beats hauling folded clothes up from the basemen on those narrow servant stairs in the back of the house.
Modern conveniences only go so far in easing the work load, whether in 1913 or 2023
The maid’s room was a place for work, not just a place to relax. Note the sewing machine, of course.
The cook’s room was bigger and more nicely appointed than the maid’s room. And the male employees at the big house slept in the carriage house, if I remember the description correctly.

Of course, there was an entirely different sort of labor for the ranch hands. The Kendricks took an active role in ranching, which should not be much of a surprise for someone who came up from being a cowhand himself.

But despite the glamorized presentation of cowboys in television, songs, movies and folklore, it was not an easy life.

American capitalism has accomplished a lot. But it is nothing without its silent partner, labor. 

Sadly, the work of the hired help is often minimized and devalued. The pandemic shed a little light on how important labor really is, and as a result wages and working conditions, at least for some, at least for now, are beginning to improve. 

The American worker keeps things running, and American capitalists should remember the merit of that.

So it’s not really about the workers. But the Craftsman style is one of my favorite looks.
And kudos for Cousin Tom Fried, who brought us on the tour of the Trail End Historic Site. Tom and his siblings are cousins that I knew OF, but never really knew until this summer. Good folks, all of them.

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