By Margaret Snyder, Vicksburg Historical Society

Woman-owned businesses fuel today’s economy nationwide, now representing around 42% of all businesses of all types. Vicksburg’s women are doing their share to keep these numbers growing.

Early Vicksburg had its share of women who owned businesses – and today’s ladies would probably enjoy sharing a cup of coffee with at least two of them.

Vera Penfield

John L. Penfield, publisher of the Vicksburg Commercial, died suddenly in 1931 just as the paper was beginning to recover a bit from the Great Depression. His wife, Vera, was encouraged by the family to keep the newspaper going even though she knew very little about its day-to-day operation.

Because her main interests before her husband’s death had been her home, flower garden and various cultural pursuits, she had to catch on quickly, and she did. Meredith Clark, who worked for Mr. Penfield before leaving for college, came back to help until he and his wife, Bernice, bought a Tekonsha newspaper in 1936. Following Clark’s departure, Vera carried on alone, except for one employee in the press room. She did the bookkeeping and wrote all the copy, with only the aid of two local women who sent in local news items and another woman who sold advertising.

Mrs. Penfield’s aim was to serve her community with news of school, library, business, and village affairs. She successfully managed to do just that, even though the difficult days of World War II created paper and printing ink shortages. Mrs. Penfield soldiered on until August 1947, when she sold the business to Meredith Clark.

Both hard work and tragedy were taken in stride by the delicate Vera Penfield, who was apparently endowed with a plentitude of hidden spirit and business sense. Vera’s efforts are why, after many twists and turns, South County News exists today. She died November 23, 1953, at the age of 70 and is buried along with her husband in Vicksburg Cemetery.

Maggie Ellsworth

Another successful local woman was Margaret E. (Maggie) Ellsworth. While there is a bit of evidence she may have been born in Vicksburg, she first appears in local print sometime during the 1890s. The Vicksburg Commercial reported, “Maggie Ellsworth moved her bakery and restaurant to Prairie Street and plans to open a boarding house, too”.

The building we most associate with Maggie, 125 East Prairie, was built around 1884 for a carpenter shop. Apparently, it didn’t last long because by 1902 various sources tell us Maggie opened a hotel there. She managed to avoid the 1900 and 1910 Federal Census, probably because she was very busy. 1904 finds her in a Kalamazoo County business directory as the manufacturer of a hair grower and scalp cleaner. Her interest in ladies’ hair grew – or perhaps the hotel business didn’t – as another business directory lists a M. E. Ellsworth of Vicksburg as a hairdresser from 1905-1908. She was still hard at work manufacturing hair restorer in 1907 and 1908, but the directory also includes a listing for Margaret Ellsworth as a hotel operator. Still looking for ways to increase her business, A Tale of One Village notes, “Maggie Ellsworth’s hotel, on the north side of Prairie Street just the second door west of Kalamazoo Avenue, was closed in 1908 and she started a bakery. However, after two years she had second thoughts and re-opened the hotel using the first floor for a restaurant and lunch counter”. Apparently by this time she’d given up on all aspects of ladies’ hair services. The Federal Census finally caught up with her in 1920 and listed Maggie as widowed with her occupation as cook at a hotel.

Things seemed to roll along more or less smoothly for Maggie until 1921. A Tale of One Village tells us, “A screaming fire alarm shattered a very windy Sunday night, July 21, 1921. …. Flowers Restaurant collapsed into a burning heap…. (while) on the east (side of Flowers), Maggie Ellsworth lived on the second floor of her building up front…The entire contents of both upper and lower floors were burned, and the building’s interior was a total loss”. But Maggie apparently patched things up and kept herself in business.

Four years later, at the ripe old age of 62 – all hard years – she’d had enough. According to A Tale of One Village, “In 1925 Fred Rapp bought the Ellsworth Hotel…and moved his grocery over there. Maggie Ellsworth had run her hotel-restaurant-hotel back and forth for thirty years, but that stint finally took its toll and she sold the property.”
What later happened to this hardworking, ingenious, and inventive businesswoman? We don’t know where (for sure) she came from, and we don’t know where she ended up. But we DO know by the evidence left behind that she was one of several women taking care of business on their own during the early 1900s.

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