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Column: These Nobles County women were heroes

WORTHINGTON -- Benjamin Woolstencroft, who is buried at Slayton, is a pioneer of Kinbrae. Benjamin Woolstencroft was a cavalry soldier joining in a charge against an Indian village in 1863, when he was 16. Ben's father was a veteran of the U.S. war with Mexico.

As Memorial Day approaches and the region prepares its annual salutes to fallen veterans, it can trace a path through at least 10 American wars. Add to these what is commonly called the Spirit Lake massacre of 1857, plus the Dakota War of 1862 -- the local region has been home, at one time or another, for veterans of at least a dozen conflicts. We are a warrior nation. There always have been veterans among us.

Veteran. You know what veteran means -- veteran means a man. There were WACs in World War II. There were WAVEs. Ann Johnson, Dr. Jake Casareto's dental assistant, was a World War II veteran, but she never quite got a veteran's recognition. Today, women are filling the ranks and the files. Women are joining in frontline conflict, and they will come to have veterans' status. Our tradition of saluting men will be altered.

There were area women who became prominent through the long succession of wars, though they were not combatants. Lavina Eastlick lost her husband and three of her five sons in that bloody day in 1862 at Slaughter Slough near Lake Shetek. Lavina was shot in the back and received other wounds, including a bullet that lodged under her scalp. The hero of the incident was Lavina's son Merton who, with his mother's instructions, carried his baby brother Johnny all the way from Shetek to New Ulm.

Later, Lavina wrote a book, "A Personal Narrative of Indian Massacres, 1862," which is among the finest books of its kind and which remains a basic and essential text for anyone who wants to learn of the 1862 conflict on Minnesota's border.

When the talk is of women and wars, it seems to me Belle Webster's name should be on the list. Belle Webster lived in the now old-fashioned house with the open porch on two sides at 1320 Third Ave. Belle was a graduate of Worthington High School (1916) who took a job at Hart's clothing store. She didn't like the work.

"It was my cousin from North Dakota who thought of it," Belle remembered. America's men were going off to war -- 1917 -- and the government was encouraging women to fill the gaps in the government's work force. "These were Civil Service positions and you had to take an examination.

"Well, my cousin came to Worthington. But she didn't want to go to the courthouse alone. Women did not go around the courthouse much in those days." Women did not have a right to vote.

Belle accompanied her cousin. They both took the examination, and they both passed. They made a decision to head for Washington and to take jobs there.

"But not without a lot of protest, let me say. Oh. My parents did not want me to go out there. Not at all. And our neighbor lady came to my mother and she said, 'Don't you let her go!' There was a lot of resistance. But I went."

Belle had been ill, although she was fully recovered. "But because of the sickness I had short hair. It was curled." The fashion of the day.

The Worthington girl kept the home folks informed. She saw President Woodrow Wilson right out on Pennsylvania Avenue, in formal dress, with a tall silk hat. And he was smiling, almost laughing. She saw doughboys marching by, passing under a special arch outside the U.S. Treasury Building.

Belle took a job in the Arlington Building just across Lafayette Square from the presidential mansion. The girl who hesitated to enter the Nobles County courthouse went to work in the shadow of the White House. "We were right there where everything was happening."

Belle was dealing with veterans' records and veterans' papers. There was not yet a U.S. Veterans Administration. Belle Webster was among those who pioneered in dealing with the problems and questions of U.S. veterans returning from war.

She really belongs on the list of veterans of Nobles County.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.