Knox Historical Museum to focus on famous area women

By Dora Sue Oxendine Farmer

For the Mountain Advocate

Knox County holds many firsts, especially in the area of accomplishments of numerous local women. This article will focus on six women who lived and worked in the late 1800’s to the late 1900’s. All of these women hold the title of being the first woman to achieve this particular status in their field.

  • Miss Nola Minton, (1884-1975) was a woman well known not only in Kentucky’s show horse circles, but she was well known around the world. Miss Minton’s showhorse breeding, judging, training and riding earned her a nation-wide status. She was president of T. W. Minton Company, a hickory processing firm established by her father in 1914. The mill produced lumber for golf club shafts, car and wagon wheel spokes, and canes for the blind, as well as regular walking canes. She invented the white cane for the blind after witnessing a blind man being struck by a speeding car who was trying to cross a crowded street without assistance. Miss Minton was the first woman to be elected to the Kentucky State Fair Board and the first named to the Horseman’s Hall of Fame. She died in Barbourville, Kentucky, at the age of 90.
  • Mrs. Jennie Lee Mealer Walker (1889-1982) was the first woman elected sheriff in Kentucky and in Knox County. A staunch Democrat, she ran for the office in the 1930’s when her husband, B. P. Walker, was disqualified. Although at the time a few women in Kentucky had been appointed sheriff, usually succeeding their husbands who had been killed, Mrs. Walker was the first to be elected sheriff. Although regulating a county the size of Knox was commonly looked upon as a man’s job, Mrs. Walker did not shirk her duties and handled every situation in a professional manner. Actions from investigating murders to breaking up of “home brew” stills were all in a days’ work for her. Mrs. Walker did all of this along with taking care of her home and children.

  • Mary Elizabeth Pitzer lived during the time of the Civil War in Barbourville, Kentucky. She along with a group of women in Barbourville decided to do their part for the Union by making a suitable flag for the Home Guard which had just been organized. Miss Pitzer was able to obtain the appropriate material needed for the flag and worked with several other local women in sewing, quilting and embroidering the flag which was painstakingly completed in 1861. On July 4, 1861 the completed flag was presented to the captain of the Home Guard. Three months later, in order to save the flag from capture by Confederates, Mrs. Pitzer removed the flag from its staff and sewed it in her feather bed where it remained hidden for nearly four years. It was finally donated to Union College where Union has been designated the keeper and custodian of the flag and maintains it on display.
  • Euphemia Word (1838-1944) also known as Fame, was born in 1838 of slave parents. There was not a lot of information that could be substantiated on Euphemia, but it is thought that maybe Samuel Word who owned slaves in Knox County may have owned Euphemia. After being granted her freedom after the end of the Civil War, she worked as a milliner in Barbourville. She had eight children. According to a newspaper article found on the internet, Euphemia won first prize for being the oldest woman voter in Knox County which was offered by the Young Men’s Republican Club. She was 107 years old at the time. Euphemia was the oldest living former slave in Knox County, and the first woman to live to the age of 107.

The source of the information on Nola Minton, Euphemia Word, Jennie Lee Mealer Walker and Mary Elizabeth Pitzer was found in the book, Knox County, Kentucky: A History Book for Children, editors Jakalyn Jackson, Linda Oxendine and David R. Helton.

  • Francis Jones Mills (July 4. 1920-May 24, 1996) born in Gray, Kentucky, to Dr. William H. Jones and Bertie (Steely) Jones. Mills was the first woman and first Democrat in the 20th Century to win the office of State Representative for the Knox County District and to hold the seat in the heavily Republican Knox County. She was also the first woman to serve three (non-successive) terms as Kentucky State Treasurer.
 Her father was a prominent Knox County physician for more than fifty years. She was a graduate of Cumberland College in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and attended Eastern Kentucky State College. She taught school in Gray for eight years. In 1949 she married Gene Mills, an employee of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company. They had no children and were later divorced.

Mills entered the political arena in 1961 when she ran for the Kentucky House of Representatives and won. She served one term in the House and then served as assistant to the Speaker of the House from 1963 to 1965. In 1964 she was the Democratic nominee for Congress in the Fifth Congressional District, but she was defeated even though President Lyndon Johnson won the state by a large margin. She worked for Kentucky Civil Defense from 1965 to 1972. In 1971, she won the nomination for Clerk of the Kentucky Court of Appeals and was elected to her first statewide office. In 1975, she was elected State Treasurer, a position she eventually filled for three terms—1976-80, 1984-88, and 1992-96. From 1980 to 1984, she served as Secretary of State. She was defeated for statewide office only twice—in the 1987 and 1995 Democratic primaries when she ran for nomination for Secretary of State. References:”Lexington Herald-Leader”, October 4, 1994, December 16, 2000.”Louisville Courier-Journal”, October 14, 1994, June 7, 1995, November 1, 1995, May 25, 1996, “Who’s Who in the South and Southwest”, 19th ed., 1984-85 (Chicago, 1984).

  • Juanita Morris Kreps (January 11, 1921- July 5, 2010) served as United States Secretary of Commerce during President Carter’s administration from 1977-1979. Ms. Kreps was the first woman and the first economist to hold a post traditionally occupied by men with business interests. Dr. Kreps, wrote books and taught economics much of her life. She was a daughter of an Appalachian coal mine operator and a child of the Depression who had worked her way through college.

She advanced rather quickly through the ranks of academia to become vice president of Duke University in 1973. Before she was named Vice President of Duke, Dr. Kreps was dean of the Woman’s College at Duke and associate provost from 1969 to 1972. In 1972 she became the first woman to be named a director of the New York Stock Exchange. She also served as a director of many of the country’s best-known corporations, including J. C. Penney, R. J. Reynolds, Citicorp and AT&T.

Her specialty, the labor demographics of women and older workers, infused her articles and books, including “Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work” (1971), which examined employment discrimination and the burdens of working women with families; “Lifetime Allocation of Work and Leisure: Essays in the Economy of Aging” (1971); and “Women and the American Economy” (1976). The source on Ms. Kreps appeared in the New York Times by staff reporter Robert D. McFadden, July, 2010.

The Knox Historical Museum will feature photographs of these women in the Mitchell Store window on the Court House Square. An ongoing display of women who played important roles in the growth and development of Knox County will be showcased as an ongoing project. Come by and see the display. Look for photographs of more great women of Knox County.

Knox County, Barbourville, Kentucky is in many ways the best kept secret around especially when it comes to our local history in other words our Knox Historical Museum. If you’ve never visited the Museum, come find us on Daniel Boone Drive housed upstairs in the Municipal Building. A large sign on the front of the building shows our location. Come visit us and wander from room to room; you’ll be amazed at what you find.