Celebrating Women’s History Month
March is Women’s History Month. The roots of this celebratory week date back to 1909, when a group of what we might today call “influencers” met on Feb. 28. Then in March 1910, at the International Conference of Working Women held in Denmark, Clara Zetkin, a German activist, suggested International Women’s Day be recognized as an international holiday. All those in attendance agreed.
By March 1911, Europeans recognized this holiday. However, it wasn’t celebrated in the United States until it was recognized in the 1970s by the United Nations. Later in 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared March 8 as National Women’s History Week. Finally, in 1987, Congress declared the entire month as Women’s History Month.
The purpose has been well stated by www.today.com: “Women’s History Month is a time to reflect on the courage of women in past generations and to celebrate how their efforts and bravery afforded women the opportunities and freedoms they have today.”
Presque Isle has its own history-making women to celebrate. Susan Mitchell Hooper Duff (1814-1887) was the first teacher in Aroostook County. Then there were three women that made it known it was OK to be female, unmarried, and own a business. One of these women was Mary Hazel Oak.
Mary Oak, born in 1891, was one of seven children of James Oak, for whom Oak Street is named. James was a builder who constructed many of the fine homes in Presque Isle. He was also the largest shipper of railroad ties and telegraph poles in Aroostook County.
As a young woman, Mary apprenticed with J.B. Smart, a photographer. She then went to work for George Wright in Caribou and continued in the field for a time in Boothbay Harbor. Oak opened her own photography studio in Presque Isle in the Bolton Block at the age of 21, where she employed a staff of three. Mary operated her photography studio until 1938.
After traveling to Florida for several winters, Mary got the idea to build the Oak Apartments (1937) and Oak Hotel (1941). The Oak Apartments building was considered the most up-to-date structure of its kind in the state when built. The Oak Hotel charged $4 per night for a room, while the Northeastland was charging $8 per night at the time. The hotel burned to the ground on April 12, 1975 under mysterious circumstances.
Mary Oak passed away on June 7, 1962, after a long illness.
Kimberly R. Smith is the secretary/treasurer of the Presque Isle Historical Society.