This is a series of 11 interviews about women’s work and a progressive approach in places one may assume “rural” is equated with an antiquated paradigm. Struggle, challenge, and bias still exist – but consider yourself schooled by these gals and their voices: “You can do what you want and how you want, work well with others, stand up for yourself, believe in yourself, you are responsible for what happens to you…”
The women I spoke with love perfecting their domain, they express deep ownership in their work. They take a great deal of pride in their roles in the mill, in their community, and their families. Any one of them will assuredly tell you their work is done as well as – or better – than a man. They are not wrong. Turnover is minimal, the pay is good, and the work is steady in a small town with limited opportunities outside of mill work.
Necessity opens the door to equal opportunity and innovation that serves everyone. It often requires a re-evaluation of the status quo – and a shift in a class culture that has alienated and defeminized women who make a living getting their hands dirty. Many generations had no difficulty wrapping their heads around a women doing what men did – or men doing what women did. There was a job to do and all that was there – were the hands that were available. Your gender was secondary to need.
“A woman’s work is never done,” was the old adage. The truth is – women’s work is the work that gets done by a woman.
Welcome to Hulett, Wyoming…
Hulett, Wyoming is a town of 383 – give or take a few. Like most small communities there are those who live outside city limits, but suffice to say – it is small. This little hamlet sits ten minutes from Devils Tower which was the the location for Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Bob Coronato, well-known and very talented artist-in-residence, runs Rogue’s Gallery – a museum/gallery/antique store in town. The museum is a time capsule of the area with a large selection of original art and antique artifacts for sale.Some of Coronato’s most well- known work includes very recognizable posters that illustrate rodeos from all over the country. His Russell Means portrait now hangs in the Smithsonian.
Bob’s older brother Dean will tell you he is the “best brother,” and runs the Ponderosa Café and Bar – a Sturgis ride destination. Dean’s wife runs “R” Deli right next door, serving mouthwatering sandwiches that bring a little bit of Jersey to Wyoming – paper thin slices of meat and cheese, piled high, topped with coleslaw and homemade potato salad on the side.
For a small town there are a surprising number of businesses. The tourist traffic associated with Devils Tower and the Sturgis ride support the economy in the summer. There is even a local golf course and club, but the largest year-round employer in town is Devils Tower Forest Products – a mill that belongs to Neiman Enterprises.
The mill sits on the southern edge of downtown Hulett, just off State Highway 112. The original mill was built in 1958 but has moved from its original site and undergone many technological upgrades. It employs 90-100-plus men and women –a good portion of the town of Hulett.
Where Women Work…
We were in Hulett working on an update of “Case No. 1 Turns 100,” a special edition of Evergreen Magazine initially published in September 1999. Our focus this visit was to record the success of a phenomenal collaborative effort by stakeholders at the local, state, and national level that has preserved the Black Hills National Forest in the face of a devastating pine beetle epidemic spanning 20 years.
Neiman Enterprises has several mills in the region.They are a staunch advocate of collaborative efforts between forest industry and forest conservation and management stakeholders that support resilient forests. Per usual, we took a tour of the local mills and in Hulett I was struck with the number of women behind the controls. I have been in a lot of mills, and I have never seen so many women in jobs that are generally filled by men and assumed to be “a man’s job.” My curiosity was piqued.
When I spoke with Jim Neiman – President and CEO of Neiman Enterprises about the high proportion of women working in his mill, he responded matter-of-factly, “We have 383 people that live here – we hire who wants to work.”
I also discovered that the mill does not put partners who have children on the same shift. Shifts are arranged so that one parent can be at home. Mill time is scheduled so that family members can be cared for, families have time for dinner, games, and school activities. Employees are encouraged to participate in civic and community activities. A very modern model that reflects the needs of the community.
This is where I began to hatch my idea – I wanted to know more about these gals and the world of women working in mills. I wanted to tell a piece of their story and share these experiences with young women entering adulthood.
Let’s expand the options for young women who might be wondering what to do next, whether or not to go to college, or if they can afford it. Offer an alternative to women who are considering a career change, women who like to work outside, with machines. Celebrate women who love the smell of dirt and diesel and sap, who take satisfaction in the mechanics of things – women who are drawn to patterns, and appreciate the rhythm of parts that work together for the good of the whole.
A trade job for a woman can be a career, a summer job, a part-time job, a way to make sure your family has insurance, a second job, or a college fund. Financial stability, job experience, and self- esteem are worthy recommendations.
What I found in the Hulett mill, is the heart of where resiliency starts. It is where the stone is dropped in the water and the rings of influence begin to fan out. It is an example of the connection between resilient lands and resilient communities.
Turns out, inclusion is a key component to community and forest health.
Deb – To the best woman in every woman
Deb was the first person we met when we walked into office of Devil’s Tower Lumber. It didn’t take long to learn that if you needed anything she would make it happen. Deb is Jim Neiman’s administrative guru. The word “assistant” doesn’t do her justice.
Deb originally hails from Louisiana but has made Hulett her home. Her husband Sampson works for Devil’s Tower Lumber, as does a granddaughter and several other family members.
There isn’t anything Deb cannot do. Juggling schedules and meetings, she specializes in the artful handling of personalities and can prepare you with a heads up on who’s who, their relatives, and a little local lore.
Hungry? Wait ten minutes, food is on the way. Shore you up with a positive word? Done, and she’ll add in a hug and keep you on task all at the same time. Deb and Sampson are even known to orchestrate the occasional rescue when one’s truck and trailer break down on the freeway. And don’t forget her legendary cupcakes and cakes from Reveille Bakery – infused with love and the true spirit of celebration.
I should mention, there is a look – “the look.” I would advise not eliciting it. It doesn’t last long, but it keeps order in the universe and delivers the message: You best fix it – whatever “it” is.
This gal makes the Neiman Enterprises trains run on time. She does it with grace, good nature, an unending reserve of patience, and a little sprinkling of the divine. Deb is universally loved and respected. My Aussie dog Huck even has a crush on her, and that is high recommendation.
Deb was my first stop when I came up with the idea to do a piece on women who take on what was once the exclusive world of men. She became my champion, and my friend. We share a great deal, not the least of which is having been raised by Marines and sharing a deep love and respect for our Dad’s.
I have an incredible amount of regard for Deb. I love how she moves through the world – and the positivity and strength she fosters in others.
It seems only fitting that I dedicate this series to Deb and the resilient, best woman – in every woman.
Author’s Note: I am looking for more women to interview who work in trade and non-traditional roles. If you or someone you know would like to talk with me you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org – Attention: Women’s Work.
About the Author: Julia Petersen is managing Director for Evergreen Magazine. She also writes and photographs for the magazine. You can also find her in the garden, behind a cello, fly-fishing with her husband Jim, whipping up yummy food and cocktails to a full house of family and friends, or volunteering with at-risk kids and families.
All photos – copyright Julia Petersen, 2019