Three women and their gifts to Washington

Published 11:00 am Wednesday, March 22, 2023

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By Clark Curtis for the Washington Daily News

Editors Note: During Women’s History Month, Clark Curtis will be taking a look at some of the women, past and present, whose stories and lives have contributed in some way to the deep and rich history of Washington. 

There are countless stories over the years of women who have played a significant role in the making of Washingtons’ history. That some of the names may not be all that familiar does not diminish the contributions and the long lasting impacts that they have had.

Mrs. Elizabeth Betts

On March 17, 1911, Mrs. Elizabeth Betts was elected by the City of Washington to become the city’s first librarian, when the city leaders decided it was time for the town to have a library.  The space chosen was above Browns’ Drug Store. “Fast forwarding to 1923, the city decided to form a library board,” said Stephen Farrell, historian at the Brown Library. “Upon the formation of the library board to oversee a new library, Mrs. Betts was again selected to lead the board. And with that appointment, the reorganization of the library would begin.”

Betts worked tirelessly with the state librarian, Mrs. Palmer, as they began the process of putting together Betts’ vision of what a permanent library should be. “Mrs. Betts was adamant about what a library would mean to the cultural life of the town. Her early vision was instrumental in establishing the library as a public institution.”

When it came time for citizens to vote for a library tax, Betts spent many a day visiting offices and stores asking people to vote in favor of a new library, which they would do. Betts would remain the head librarian until her death in 1943. “It’s doubtful that the citizens of Washington realized at the time how in debt they would become to Mrs. Betts’ courage and tenacity,” said Farrell. “Mrs. Betts saw the need for cultural preservation and the need for the arts and literacy here. Her vision of what a library could be in Washington blossomed into what we have today. Her impact can be seen daily and will continue into the future.”

Mrs. Mary Tankard

Born in Washington 1889, Mrs. Mary Tankard would go on to be best known in her day as “the lady who worked the ticket line at the Turnage Theatre. “She was beloved by children and adults alike,” said Farrell. “They all had fond remembrances of their interactions with her as she operated the ticket line before the movies. In fact, on her death certificate after her passing in 1978 at age 89 it read, ‘ticket sales lady at the movie theatre.'” 

However, Tankard would also become a trend setter. She was the first woman in Washington to purchase her own vehicle. “Her banker tried to talk her out of it, but being as persistent as she was, and not willing to take no for an answer, she went ahead and did it,” said Farrell. “This was a huge deal at the time!” 

During a recorded interview many years later when she was well into her 80s, Tankard spoke about the day she purchased that red Studebaker in New Bern. “I couldn’t bring it home for two or three days because the roads were too bad. But I sure enjoyed it after I got it home.” As for a drivers license, “I had one because you needed it to drive, but I never took an examination,” she chuckled.

Added Farrell, “she broke the proverbial glass ceiling, which speaks a lot to me. She was a very independent woman, a lover of the arts, someone who dedicated her life to the Turnage theatre, and was the fist woman to purchase a car in Washington. She empowered many other women moving forward.”

Mrs. Margaret Blount Hoyt DeMille

Mrs. Margaret Blount Hoyt was born and raised in Washington, North Carolina. She would go on to marry local businessman, Edwin D. DeMille. “They built and resided in what was believed to be the first brick home in Washington,” said Farrel. “The Antebellum period home was located at the corner of Bridge and 2nd Streets. It was also used during the Civil War as a Union Army hospital prior to Elmwood Hospital.”

The DeMille’s would go on to have ten children, five of whom reached adulthood and would marry.  One of their grandchildren happened to be renowned filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, who would often visit his grandparents here in Washington. However, Mrs. DeMille is probably best known for Mrs. DeMille’s Finishing School for young women, that she and other educators ran from her home for over 30 years. “She and the other educators saw the need at the time to develop these young women,” said Farrell. “They would train and educate them in order to establish a foundation that they could carry on with them for the rest of their lives. People came from all over the state to attend the school.”

All of these women were groundbreakers in their own way. “It is so important to remember the stories of these women and others like them and the impact they have had on future generations,” said Farrell. “People come to Washington from all over the U.S. and even abroad, and are able to enjoy the legacies of what these women worked for and what they were able to accomplish so many years ago. They helped to make Washington what it is today.”