This month, 89 years ago, Wisconsin dairy farmers debated a coordinated strike to protest the low milk prices. The day after Valentine’s Day, the first of three strikes began. The day before, I take readers to fictional Eagle, Wisconsin in To Stand in the Breach. Read on for an excerpt from the first chapter.
Monday, February 13, 1933
He found her.
Desperately clutching the paper, Dr. Katy Wells slipped into the sheltered area between two of the buildings at the center of the small town of Eagle, Wisconsin. She placed a gloved hand on the worn plank wall of Town Hall and squeezed her eyes shut to block out the words on the letter. Fear’s insidious claws sank into her chest. Fourteen years of running, of staying one step ahead of her uncle and other men who wished her harm … and she’d finally found security here, in this town, hidden as it was in the middle of the United States.
Farmers she knew from her veterinary rounds passed along the walk in front of the buildings, coats closed against the chilly wind despite the bright sunlight. None of the men glanced her way. Still, she stepped deeper into the shadows. She couldn’t face any of them. They only knew her as a competent large-animal doctor, someone who—apparently, miraculously—saved countless creatures these farmers thought past help. Not a one would guess her a girl given to fits of panic.
She tried to iron the wrinkles out of the letter with a trembling hand. It came from the matron at the boardinghouse where she had lived while studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. The matron had written what she obviously considered good news based on her cheery tone. Katy’s family had been searching for her—of course they had, as Katy had vanished fourteen years ago … on purpose. They had tracked her to Ithaca, New York. Now, they were on a train to Wisconsin, if the matron was to be believed.
Och, why had she opened the letter before the farmers’ meeting? She needed every ounce of her courage to stand up in front of all those men. If only that New York newspaper hadn’t published an article on the handful of female veterinarians who had graduated from Cornell in the last couple decades. The reporter focused on the first woman in America, who had received her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine just twenty-three years ago, but mentioned other graduates as well. Graduates like Katy. That must be the way her uncle had tracked her to Wisconsin.
She pushed from the wall, carefully folding the letter before tucking it into her medical bag. Then she smoothed the gray fabric of her skirt, as if that action could smooth her troubled heart. She needed to put the letter, her uncle, and her past out of her mind. This afternoon’s meeting was not about her. In fact, knowing these farmers as she did, they likely wouldn’t appreciate her interrupting their meeting. Normally, she’d happily leave them to their own devices. She’d rather face down an ornery bull than walk the gauntlet of men inside.
But this meeting affected her patients, which meant she needed to speak up.
Chin held high, she stepped into Town Hall and allowed her eyes to adjust to the dark interior before entering the assembly room. Angry shouts blurred with the rushing in her ears. Animals she could manage. This?
Eagle’s Town Hall comfortably held the collection of dairy farmers, but Katy couldn’t drag in a deep breath. She pinned her eyes on the American flag that hung behind the podium. The symbol of freedom laughed at her. Even an ocean hadn’t hidden her from Uncle Patrick. Put it out of your mind.
Step by step, she made her way down the center aisle. For my patients, she told herself, for the cows. Two-thirds of the way toward the front, men began turning their attention on her. Whispers stung her ears. She could guess what they were saying, what they were thinking. They might trust her to save their ill horse or deliver a breech calf, but when it came to business, she wasn’t welcome. If not for the cows …
“Dr. Wells?” The sound of her name snapped her eyes from the flag to the man behind the podium. Mayor Rolland. “What are you doing here?”
She squared her shoulders against the accusation in the man’s voice. “I’m here to speak for me patients.”
Deep, male laughter rippled through the room, raising the hair on Katy’s neck. She hated being a lone female, and it didn’t help that nerves deepened her accent. Sweat dripped down her back. She tightened her grip on her medical bag, which held emergency medical supplies and a few personal items. It promised the security of her profession.
“We know our cows, missy.” A man beside her leaned close enough for her to smell the tobacco chew tucked into his cheek. Farmer Wallace. He owned her least-favorite farm to pay house calls to. He might have a wife and nine kids, but he had a wandering eye that made her distinctly uncomfortable.
“I reckon you do, but she’s the doc.” Joey Moore, her dearest friend’s twin brother, gave her a subtle wink as he stepped out of the crowd, looking as dashing as ever in his black suit, his policeman’s badge shining on his shoulder. “If Doc Holland gave his medical advice, we’d listen to him. Why not extend the same respect to our animals’ doctor?”
“Stay out of this, copper.” Mr. Wallace spit tobacco juice at Katy’s feet. “You left your pa’s farm, so you ain’t got no say.”
“He’s right, Officer Moore.” Mayor Rolland tapped a gavel on the podium. “You’re here to keep the peace, so keep your opinions to yourself.”
Joey inclined his head and moved closer to Katy. His presence solidified her courage. Ever since his twin, Lily, had met Katy at an animal husbandry class several years ago, Katy had felt welcomed into the Moore family. She felt a kinship with Lily, who left her family’s dairy farm to train hunting dogs. Her late grandfather willed her the house she lived in and the property where she conducted her business. In fact, it was the same grandfather who got Katy set up as a veterinarian here in Eagle, too. He’d reminded her so much of her own grandfather that, for the first time since escaping Ireland, she’d felt as though she’d finally found safety.
“My son is right—Dr. Wells is my veterinarian.” Joey’s father crossed his arms as he stepped into view. Overalls hung on his thin frame. “I want to hear what she has to say.”
Joey gave her a nudge and Katy ascended the platform. Mayor Rolland did not give up his podium, so Katy stood to the side, silently rehearsing her speech as she waited for silence. The farmers, who paid her in coin and produce, who called her when their knowledge of animal care was expended, gathered before her. She was a veterinarian. University trained. She could do this.
“I’m not here to be influencing you for or against striking.” Katy wrapped and unwrapped her fingers around the handle of her medical bag as she got directly to the point. “As you said, the business of dairy farming is not my area of expertise. The cows, however, are what I know. I’m here to make sure that if you decide to strike, you’ll still be caring for the cows and the calves about to be born.”
“What do you take us for?” Mr. Wallace spit another stream of tobacco juice, sending a jolt of disconcerting apprehension up her spine. “Half the cows are dry, and we aim to dump the rest of the milk. We ain’t giving it over for such a low price.”
“He has a point, Dr. Wells.” Mr. Moore spoke with more civility than Mr. Wallace, even if he seemed to agree with the man. “The current price of milk is pure thievery—almost half of what we were getting just a few years ago. That’s why we must join with the Wisconsin Cooperative Milk Pool in an organized strike.”
“And the cows?” Katy willed her voice not to quiver. “You will continue to amply feed them? Keep watch over the cows ready to drop a calf? Care for their udders to avoid infection? They mustn’t grow ill over this.”
“If we don’t make enough money and this drought continues, worrying about whether the cows are being properly cared for will be the least of your worries, Dr. Wells.” Mr. Moore leveled stern eyes at her.
“Hear, hear.” Mr. Wallace pounded his fist in his hand. “Them calves may not have a farm to belong to if we don’t dump the milk.”
“You’re really all right wasting good milk?” Appalled, Katy stared at Mr. Moore, then scanned the room. “When so many are going hungry and your dairy products could feed them?”
“Our families are hungry, too,” said another farmer, Mr. Broader, sounding more sad than angry.
Mr. Moore clapped the man on the shoulder. “Exactly. It’s the leanest time of year. It costs more to bring the milk to market than dump it on the side of the road.”
“Why should them processing plant owners like Booth get rich off our backs?” Mr. Wallace adjusted his trousers.” The government ain’t doing nothing, so we have to.”
Other farmers agreed.
“That’s good enough, now.” Mayor Rolland banged his gavel. “The government is doing all it can. And I think you have done enough, Miss Wells. We do not need to get off topic.”
Off topic? To the medical issues cows and calves could face if not properly cared for during the strike or the starving thousands throughout the United States? Mayor Rolland gave her a pointed stare, and she swallowed down the words begging to escape.