A Celebration of Women Writers

"A Business Woman in Kentucky." by Miss Florence Barlow.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 797-803.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 797] 



Some eight or ten years since a pleasant escort and curiosity took me to a ball at the Lunatic Asylum in Lexington, Ky. These balls are given by the board for the pleasure of the inmates. The visitors are expected to dance with the lunatics and assist in making the evening pleasant for these unfortunates. While in conversation with one of the board, he remarked to me that if it should ever be necessary I would make a success as a business woman. He little knew the seed of encouragement he was sowing in the remark, and it pleased me to have him say this. A business woman–that which my heart had most yearned to be for years. But I had been raised surrounded with all the comforts of a delightful Kentucky home, and at a time when it was considered a reflection upon the head of the family for the women to be self-supporting, or do anything out of the ordinary duties allotted to women. But in a few years reverses came upon my family as they will come to the best of us. Then for the first time I realized I must act for myself, for with the loss of home my father, who was nearing seventy, was declining in health and years, and too old to recover from losses, or do anything but submit to the inevitable. And so began my career as a business woman of Kentucky.

Thrown upon my own resources, what were they? I had never before stared the question fairly in the face; and when I did, I saw none; that is, I had no training or preparation for any special vocation. Oh if fathers and mothers could only realize they are killing their daughters with kindness, as it were, by not fitting them for some special life-work, just as they do their boys, how happiness, self-reliance and prosperity would take the place of anxiety, suffering and poverty.

All honor and glory to the great and good women, the projectors of the "Virginia Dare Association," God speed them in their noble work, and crown them with success. Open the hearts and pockets of men and Congress to build these manual training schools for girls all over the land, and endow them as the emergency of the times demand, that they may redound to the credit of the American woman as nothing else ever has. To my mind, it is one of the greatest ideas conceived by the women of our country, and should be nourished by the support of every man and woman. My resources were a very good school education, such as the girls' colleges of Kentucky afford, but I did not feel capable of any adaptability to teach or train young minds.

I speak of those days until some of you may think, as my little niece did when I [Page 798]  tried to persuade her to wear the long white aprons I think so pretty for little school girls, by telling her I wore them when I was a little girl. "Well, but aunty," she said, "you lived in ancient times." Well, I didn't exactly live in ancient times, but you know until the past few years very few colleges were open to girls. I had a general knowledge of housekeeping that I saw no way of turning to a very profitable account. I did have some knowledge of painting and drawing, such as we acquire in boarding schools. I had taken lessons one year when I was about fifteen years of age, but combined with some talent and love for art, I had made unusual progress, and had a greater degree of excellence, probably, than anyone in the little city of Richmond, Ky., at that time my home. I had taught a few friends on china, having had more advantages in that line than anyone else in the town, and had taught so well that one of my pupils took the premium over me at the county fair.

I suppose I ought to have felt chagrined, but I felt pleased and flattered and encouraged to teach art, drawing and painting in oil, water and china. And so I opened a studio, teaching for several years. In that time I found that I was doing a great deal of hard work, with small profits and breaking myself down. I had not learned to teach and save myself. I concluded art in Kentucky did not pay. My ambitions were cramped. I was not satisfied. While in this frame of mind I chanced to attend a press association of Kentucky, and there I met one of the solons from Middlesborough, Ky. I was glad to meet this wise man from this interesting city of the mountains. Newspaper men are supposed to know everything, to be a walking encyclopædia for the public's use, and so I plied him with many questions, as to the advisability of my going into business in Middlesborough, suggesting real estate as a probable opening. To my astonishment and pleasure he encouraged me, and so I decided at once that was the thing I would do, my parents having gone to Southern Florida the fall before to escape the chilling blasts of winter. I returned to Lexington, where I then had a studio, dismissed my class and told my friends I was going to Middlesborough to be a real estate agent. Most of my friends protested. Who is going to chaperone you? Who is going to meet you? Who is going to help you? were some of the more important questions put to me. But I told them I couldn't be having a chaperone all my life; I couldn't always expect the pleasure of someone meeting me, and I had no reason to expect any but Divine help.

It was in the latter part of April, and the May sales of town lots were near at hand. I had no time to lose if I wished to be on the ground and get information necessary to my success. I had absolutely no knowledge of the business, but my father and grandfather, having been most distinguished inventors of the day, and my mother a woman of more than ordinary ability, I knew I had an inherent right to a degree of intelligence, and I had heard Dr. Willets say in his celebrated lecture on sunshine, that one of the most useful and best traits for woman to possess (a good square word; it was found in all the dictionaries), was "Gumption."

The word embraces a great deal; and so I determined to cultivate gumption, and bring into use all the intelligence I could command.

I shall never forget the night I left the city of my birth, Lexington, Ky., and bade farewell to the most beautiful, the most hospitable and devoted people the sun ever shone upon. To give this in exchange for a new town in the mountains, among total strangers, to embark in business I had no knowledge of whatever, with no financial backing, defying as it were the code of Southern usages in sundering the bars and going into new fields of business not before tried by a Kentucky woman, I knew it was a venture and I was taking desperate chances, but the occasion demanded this at my hands and I determined to risk it. Nothing ventured, nothing won, an adage worth remembering. These and many more were the thoughts that passed through my brain when I was given time for reflection as the 10 o'clock train rapidly lengthened the distance between those I loved and myself.

When I had taken my seat I discovered I was the only lady in the coach, with about twelve or fifteen men, principally rough men of the mountains, for we had by [Page 799]  this time gotten into the knobs of Kentucky. They were going to Middlesborough to gather tanbark for the tannery there, the largest in the world. More than once, when several of them grew loud or boisterous, one would say: "Keep quiet; there is a lady in the car," showing they respected my presence, which pleased me.

After a few stations an old colored woman got on. I beckoned her to take the seat in front of me that I might not feel so alone. I saw she was a nice old-fashioned darkey, and asked her if she knew anything about that part of the country. "Bless your heart, honey, I was born and raised in these parts." "Well," I said, "I am glad to know that. I am a stranger here and I want you to take care of me until I reach my destination." We who have been raised with black mammies have learned to trust them, and know them to be loyal to the charge. The bonds that exist between an old-fashioned mammy and the white mistress must be felt to be appreciated, and it has been felt only in the South.

After we had changed at Corbin, at 3 o'clock in the morning, the most desolate, forsaken spot to be found, where the answering of whip-poor-will to whip-poor-will, at the silent hour of 3, was the only sound to be heard, I gave her my ticket and told her I was going to take a nap, and she must hand in my ticket, so I would not be disturbed. I saw she was pleased with my confidence in her, and when we reached her station, just before Middlesborough, she passed out so quietly I never knew when she left.

Six o'clock found our train pulling in to Middlesborough. I had had a refreshing nap. It was a glorious morning early in May. Everybody was hustling and bustling. The steam plows worked day and night, moving young mountains, building roads and streets, digging canals; hundreds of men working in relays, building a city. I felt the inspiration of the surrounding scene, and felt anxious to be at work doing something. The very atmosphere was exhilarating, and I seemed to breathe a new life. I seemed to be in a new and different world from any I had ever known. The city was in the shadow of early morn covered with the snowy mantle of fog, waiting for old King Sol to climb yon distant mountain, and with his warm caresses and soft blandishments entice it up into fleecy cloudlets, bearing them away over the mountains, into other, but I am sure no fairer, scenes. I wish I had time to describe to you some of the enchanting views and historic points of this interesting place. I soon found a room to my taste in a new hotel, just opened, and kept by a widow from Central Kentucky. I counted myself fortunate in being so pleasantly located, and rendered thanks unto my Maker for all His goodness to me, invoking His Divine guidance and protection in my new career.

The first thing was to secure an office. The demand for offices was already in excess of the supply, often two, three and four going into one office. The city had a few weeks before gotten out a city charter, and had just had its first election of city officers; mayor, three councilmen, etc.

One of the councilmen, hearing of my arrival, came into the parlor before breakfast to meet me, and extend to me a most cordial reception, and to offer any assistance he could give me. That was encouraging, and he proved to be one of the stanchest and best of friends, often rendering me invaluable assistance. The news soon spread that a real lady real estate agent had come to town. I was scarcely through my breakfast before a business man called to extend to me a cordial welcome, handing me his card, saying he was an abstract man; I would no doubt want abstracts, and he solicited my patronage. This struck me as being very funny; how could I be buying an abstract; what was an abstract, anyway? I hadn't the slightest idea what he meant. I mention this because there are plenty of young ladies with finished education who are no wiser than I was. Of course I knew what abstract meant, but I couldn't understand his application of it. But I waited my time, and soon learned he meant abstract of title to property I was expected to sell. The Kentucky gentlemen is ever ready to be courteous to ladies, and ofttimes will put themselves to great inconvenience to serve or favor them. I have had frequent evidence of this in my varied [Page 800]  experience. A young man offered to vacate his office that I might have that, the best and only office in the city suitable for me, on the first floor, he going in an upstairs room with several others.

I fitted up my office; that is, I had a new carpet put down. Then a new friend came in and said, "Don't buy a desk; I have two; one is in my way, and you will do me a kindness to use it. I'll send it in for you." Another said, "Don't buy chairs; I have half a dozen extra ones; they are yours." Another sent his bookkeeper to open my books, put up my maps, tag me a hundred or so lots for sale with prices and terms. Another, and another, and another called to extend the right hand of fellowship, as it were, and proffered their assistance, until in less than a week nearly half the men in town, married and single, had enlisted in my behalf, and declared they would rather see me sell a lot and make money than do it themselves.

Well, I thought, this is delightful. If this thing keeps up they'll do the selling for me next and hand me the commission. But it was gratifying and encouraging to me to be so well received and have the approval of these splendid men. The sales came on the next week; the city was full to overflowing with strangers from all parts of the country, and many from abroad came to invest in city lots and build industries. Everybody was in a state of feverish excitement. Bidding ran high. Corner lots ran up to $410 per foot, and many believed that this city, which in less than two years had grown from an open cornfield into a population of five thousand people, would in five years be twenty-five or thirty thousand souls. Fabulous prices were offered for center property, some few taking advantage of it and selling, others holding on for still more advance.

After the Town Company had continued their sales for four days, selling many thousands of dollars worth of lots, the real estate agents declared it was time they should have a chance now, and the company should take their property off the market, which they consented to do on Friday. Everybody was buoyant, feeling good, going to make more money than they had ever heard of. The real estate agents, of which there were something less than a hundred, were busy making their arrangements to reap a rich harvest in the next week, and all time to come. Property was already beginning to change hands at a good profit to the seller and promise of better to the buyer. Dozens of newcomers were locating every day. Houses could not be provided for them fast enough. They crowded into the hotels and into every available space, paying enormous rent and board.

An agent for the United States Building and Loan Association of St. Paul came in to establish an agency. He asked me if I would take it. I told him I knew nothing of the workings of building and loan; that if he could teach me I would take it.

He was pleased to find that after I had read the matter put into my hands, and heard him talk "building loan" an hour, I was able to talk "building loan" intelligently. Small posters were struck and distributed, "$200,000 to loan by Miss Barlow," and I at once became the most popular woman in the city. (Money makes the men move.) Men thronged my office to borrow money, but when they found they must give a first mortgage on real estate, and could only borrow fifty per cent of the most conservative valuation of their property, they gave the matter more deliberate thought. But we had no trouble in organizing a good board, and I launched into the "building loan" business, in connection with real estate, with the brightest prospect of doing a splendid business.

You must not think I had gone thus far without having to overcome an immense amount of embarrassment and timidity. No one can ever know what I have suffered from timidity, and what a fight I have had to overcome it. I had never been thrown with people before, except in a most cordial, social, and home-like way; and all this was so new to me, and I was so timid I many times wished I could hide. But I had a certain feeling of pride that I must not fail at anything I undertook; that often came to my rescue. I remember one of the first would-be customers who came into my office was a man from Massachusetts. He introduced himself, and said he had come to Mid- [Page 801]  dlesborough to invest in improved property, and he had come to me first as a lady, preferring to buy from me, as he knew women were more honest than men, and he didn't intend to be fleeced by those real estate agents. He was a great, splendid-looking man, about six feet two inches high, weighed about two hundred, age about forty-five, handsome to a remarkable degree; in fact, a magnificent specimen of manhood. To say I was embarrassed and overcome would be putting it mildly. I had had my office, probably, a week, and had not had a genuine customer, and my ability had not been put to a test. Here was one who meant business, and I must talk real estate to him intelligently. Embarrassed! Why, the room turned round, the blood all rushed to my eyes. I looked at my map on the wall, and for the life of me I couldn't distinguish a single lot for sale, though there were a hundred of them tagged right before my eyes, and as many more listed in my books; and so, as soon as I could command my voice, I told him: Really, I did not think he could buy any improved property; that those who owned it appreciated its value and did not care to part with it at any but the most extravagant prices, and I would not advise him to buy. Of course this was stunning to him. "Well," he said, "I have great faith in the outcome here, and I am very anxious to invest." "Well," I said, "you can't buy property now unless you pay the most enormous prices, and you'll be sure to lose if you do." I had rather have lost a thousand dollars than to have tried to make a sale in my embarrassed condition. And so we chatted a few minutes pleasantly, and he left. I was heartily glad when he was out of my sight, and hoped another man would never come into my presence again to buy lots.

He evidently divined my feelings and was much amused, and related the incident at the table of one of the hotels much to the amusement of some of my friends, who came into my office and joked me considerably over it. We afterward met often and became good friends. He did invest $50,000 in improved property, which he holds to this day, and, no doubt, has wished many times he had taken my advice, he would have been $50,000 better off if he had.

The next day was Saturday; the people had scarcely slept, so full were they of the feverish excitement incident to the scenes and experiences of the past week–everybody talking of the industries that were already planned for, of the wonderful mineral resources, of the great financial backing of English capitalists, building of a canal at a cost of $150,000, planning waterworks, one of the finest in the South, enlarging the electric-light plant, and extending lights away out into the fields and woods.

Capitalists had come from far and near to consult with the President of the American Association (Limited) and Middlesborough Town Company with regard to locating industries, and almost every hour word was given out that a new industry had been negotiated for–planing mills, tanneries, shoe factories, glass works, clay-pipe works. wood works, furniture factories, foundries. The great Watts Steel and Iron Works were already well under way. The South Boston Iron Works were to be transplanted in our midst and make cannons for the government. Almost every known industry had been encouraged to come. The hopes of the people ran higher than the old man of the mountains, perched on the pinnacle 3,300 feet in the air, looking down upon us with an approving smile.

I had gone home to dinner feeling I could scarcely take time to eat. As dinner was being brought in the cry of fire rang over the city. You people of Chicago know better than any people on earth what the cry of fire means. With us it meant as it did with you–nearly our all. I looked out of the window and saw the flames leaping high from a shed of hay back of one of the business houses. I knew the city was doomed; built largely of inflammable material it burned like tinder. The splendid new engine refused to work; some villain had plugged the hose and piston, and the fire only ceased with the blowing up of several houses with dynamite. In four short hours the whole business portion of the city, with the exception of about a dozen houses, had been swept away. [Page 802] 

And now the people were as distressed and depressed as they had been buoyant and hopeful a few hours before. Hundreds were rendered homeless, no provisions were at hand. But you know the distress following a fire. Hundreds of people left the city as rapidly as the trains could take them away, going back to their old friends and homes. Tents were provided by the government for those who remained.

What must I do? The question came to me again. I shared with others the depression. To go back to my friends in Central Kentucky, with failure written on my face, I would not. I could not lend money for my building and loan, because all this property had been bought on payments of one, two and three years, and could not give first mortgage, and no one had money to take stock in building and loan as an investment.

In a few days they began talking of rebuilding the city. The city council met and passed an ordinance that no frame houses should be built within a square and a half of the principal street, Cumberland Avenue. I reviewed the situation and knew if they did build, it would create a demand for building material of all kinds. It was then I conceived the idea of going into the building material business on commission, as ignorant of the business as it was possible for a woman to be. But by the time they had cleared away the rubbish I had corresponded with various firms, and made satisfactory arrangements to furnish my customers to be with brick, lime, sand, doors, sash, blinds, lumber, mantels, grates and iron fronts. I had also taken the agency for Hall's Safe and Lock Co., and sold a number of safes.

One thing I always kept before me, and that was to represent none but the best of whatever I handled. I didn't want my customers to be saying somebody else's material was better than mine. I studied and worked hard. I found the lumber business the most difficult to learn and manage, on account of the great variety of woods and measurements, and so pushed that branch of my business less than any, and generally when I had a customer sent for a lumberman to come and take the order, and I would not advise a lady to take up this business. But I did splendidly in all the other branches, selling thousands of brick, a large number of mantels and grates, many car loads of sand, and a number of iron fronts, now to be seen in Middlesborough. I compelled my mind to remember the different grades of brick, and the prices of each, their weight, how many a car would hold, how much the freight would be, the rebate allowed on an extra quantity, etc.

I ordered my common brick from Knoxville; they were not smooth, but very hard and a little over size, which made them popular with the brickmasons. Some of my pressed brick came from there, too, and some from Findlay, Ohio. I handled the white marble lime from Knoxville; it was a few cents higher than the limestone lime, but was much purer–being ninety-eight per cent pure carbonate of lime–was whiter and worked more smoothly, and when they once use it they would use no other; and so I soon established a good trade in lime. I supplied them with better sand than they had been getting. They had been using sand that had earth in it, so that several houses had to be taken down to the foundation on account of it. Mantels, grates and iron fronts came principally from Chattanooga and Louisville. They have a furniture factory there now, and foundries making all these. I made friends with the contractors and the workingmen, they ofttimes giving me their orders in preference to a man. Of course this business brought me daily in contact with some of the roughest workingmen, but in all my business relations I have never been treated with the slightest discourtesy or rudeness. I never forgot I was a lady bred and born, and others always remembered it.

My attire was thoroughly feminine. I do not believe in, nor do I think it necessary, for women to adopt masculine attire for business. When her business is such as to demand masculine dress, then she should take up some other business. I believe woman should be thoroughly womanly and men should be men. It isn't necessary for a woman to adopt a stiff shirt-front, a vest and a mannish hat to succeed, and men are not better friends for this poaching on their preserves. [Page 803] 

In this new town there were no pavements or macadam roads, and we frequently had to go through mud a foot deep in rainy weather. For such occasions I had gum boots and a cloth dress eight inches short; this was also a comfortable costume for roaming over the mountains, boots being a protection against snakes, briers and insects, and very comfortable to walk in. I frequently needed the services of a notary public, and so I obtained suitable credentials and wrote to the Governor for a commission as notary public. I remember the first occasion I had to make use of it was with one of the native mountaineers, a member of the notorious Turner family, a family in which one or two are killed every year, and they pride themselves on dying game. I remember how dreadful it seemed to me to have a man hold up his hand and swear, and how I impressed on him the solemnity of an oath. Although he was a native mountaineer, fifty years old, worth sixty thousand dollars, he could not write his own name, and had never taken a drink of whisky in his life. Some of these men are as simple and as easily managed as children, and would come to me with their domestic troubles. One man was going to leave his wife, and told me of the trouble between them. I preached him a regular sermon and told how wrong he was doing; that he had taken her for better or worse, and that God would not countenance such proceedings on his part, etc. He said he had never had anybody talk to him like that, and he guessed I was right about it. He brought his wife in to see me a few days after that, a fine looking young mountain woman of about twenty-three. A woman really often has an opportunity of doing a great deal of Christian work in being thrown with this class of people, and can exert a wonderful influence for good.

With the knowledge of business came confidence, self-reliance and perfect self-possession. I always made my customers feel welcome and at ease in my office. I soon learned that the workingmen generally were as diffident about coming to me as I had been on some other occasions. When I found this out I hunted them up, had a few pleasant words to say to them, let them know I was interested in their work, arid wanted their custom. I then had no further trouble; they came to me without any hesitation, always taking off their hats on coming into the office, and apologizing if their coats were off, as work often demanded they should be.

Time rolled on, business flourished; I did well in business. Middlesborough was handsomely built up. Elegant business houses, beautiful stone pavements twenty feet wide on the main avenue, and all modern improvements provided, when the financial crash overtook the whole country, and our brave little city once more succumbed to the inevitable. Business was again dead. I returned to my former home as business manager of the Lexington Observer, a weekly paper, and later went on the staff of the Illustrated Kentuckian. Woman's greatest discovery is herself. If anyone had ten years ago told me I could accomplish what I have I would have laughed at them. Every little accomplished fits us for further attainments.

I am now with "The Southern Magazine," edited by Gen. Basil Duke. It gives me the benefit of travel, which is a fine schooling for me, from which I derive great benefits and profit. My experiences are a parallel to the experiences of nearly every business woman of Kentucky. They are always given a most cordial and hospitable reception, and every encouragement. If any of you young women anticipate entering the field of workers, come to Kentucky; we will give you a hearty welcome, and the field is broad.

[Page 797] 

Miss Florence Barlow is a native of Lexington, Ky. Her parents were Milton Barlow, Sr., and Anastasia C. Thompson Barlow. She was educated in Richmond, Ky., and has traveled through the eastern and southern portions of the United States. Her special line of work has been in the interest of newspapers and magazines. She is a professional business woman, in religious faith a Presbyterian, being a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Ky. Miss Barlow is a beautiful; cultivated and most charming woman, whose lovely character and winsome manners always surround her with a host of admiring friends. Her postoffice address is Lexington, Ky.

* The full title of Miss Barlow's address was "The Experience of a Business Woman in Kentucky."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom