Strong, Harriet (1844–1929)

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Strong, Harriet (1844–1929)

American agriculturist and civic leader. Name variations: Hattie Russell. Born Harriet Russell on July 23,1844, in Buffalo, New York; died on September 16, 1929, in an automobile accident near Whittier, California; daughter of Henry Pierpont Russell and Mary Guest (Musier) Russell; attended Young Ladies' seminary of Mary Atkins (Benicia, California), 1858–60; married Charles Lyman Strong (a mine superintendent), on February 26, 1863 (committed suicide in 1883); children: Harriet Russell, Mary Lyman, Georgina Pierpont, and Nelle de Luce.

Harriet Strong was born on July 23, 1844, in Buffalo, New York, to a father who eventually took his large family across the country in a series of job-hunting moves. The family made it to the Pacific coast when Harriet, a self-described semi-invalid due to a spinal affliction, was around eight years old. While physically confined due to her condition, she studied music, literature, history, and art. From 1858 to 1860, she attended the Young Ladies' Seminary run by Mary Atkins in Benicia, California, where she continued her studies, particularly in music, English and French.

By 1861, Harriet's family had moved to Carson City after a discovery of silver in Nevada's Comstock Lode. From among her many admirers, she married Charles Lyman Strong, superintendent of the Gould and Curry mine, who was almost twice her age, on February 26, 1863. Although Charles was committed to Harriet and later to their four daughters, he was seldom at ease and overworked himself. Following his first breakdown not long after their marriage, he ended his employment with the mine, and the family moved to Oakland, California, where Charles alternately rested and continued to overwork. In 1883, despondent over a bad mining investment, he committed suicide.

Shortly before her husband's death, Harriet's health had assumed a new vitality under the care of a famed neurologist. Now faced with the prospect of supporting herself and her daughters, she is said to have undergone a fundamental change of personality which made possible her accomplishments in the years to come. Four years into untangling her husband's investment affairs in litigation (yet another four would be required), Strong turned to farming the 220 acres her husband had purchased in southern California. She undertook a study of irrigation, water storage, and flood control to successfully grow walnuts, citrus fruits, pomegranates, and pampas grass on her Rancho del Fuerte which would become more popularly known as the Strong Ranch. She later used her understanding of water control for the benefit of Los Angeles County as an advocate of flood control and specific water-supply measures. Her 1887 and 1894 patents on sequential water storage dams were followed by patents for a number of household inventions. Known as both the "walnut queen" and the "pampas lady," Strong won national attention in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Her achievements earned her distinction as the first woman member ever elected to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. A staunch feminist, Strong instructed other women in the importance of business dealings and public affairs through her establishment of the Hamilton Club in 1920, and she was involved in many cultural organizations, including the Ebell Club of Los Angeles, which she founded to encourage women's cultural opportunities; the Ruskin Art Club; and the Los Angeles Symphony Association, of which she served as vice president. She also participated in the founding of a Christian Science church in Whittier after her conversion to that faith. An agriculturist and civic leader, Strong died near Whittier in a car accident, age 86, in 1929.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Helga P. McCue , freelance writer, Waterford, Connecticut