Bringing Big Vision to a Small Place:
It must have seemed to this adventurous, talented young woman that the whole world of art, music, and culture was open to her—but she needed to earn a living. In that era, even educated women faced a highly restricted choice of jobs, mostly teaching or nursing, and Isabel chose teaching. She landed her first job teaching music and English at Guttenberg, Iowa, and the following year she taught at Spring Valley, Minnesota.
Isabel’s life changed when her brother Mert, a railroad engineer who had settled in eastern Montana, wrote to her and suggested, “Come out and homestead. The government is giving land away.” Isabel found the prospect irresistible, and she and college friend Helen Craft took up adjacent claims fifteen miles from Rapelje, a remote community in the Stillwater County flatlands north of Yellowstone National Park. Homesteading rules required a claimant to live on the land for three years and make certain improvements, so Mert built a shack for them right on the boundary, half on Isabel’s claim and half on Helen’s, allowing them to live together and still fulfill the requirement. To earn their livelihoods, Isabel took a teaching job in the Rapelje school, while Helen landed a post in the opposite direction. Each needed to return every evening to maintain their required residence. For the commute they got two horses from their nearest neighbor, the Molt Ranch, and while Isabel was not an experienced horsewoman, but she was effusive in her praise for Preacher and Ginger. Less friendly were the rattlesnakes; Isabel carried a .45 and killed seven during her stay. After three years they proved up on their homesteads; Isabel owned hers for the rest of her life.
She was now free to move on, and she sought a better teaching job. Stanley High School offered her a position, and in 1915 she arrived to teach music, geometry, girls’ physical education, and German, until it was banned during World War I. She also coached the girls’ basketball team. Irene (“Bird”) Edwards, my dad’s younger sister, was the star center on the team, once scoring twenty-two points in a 47–1 rout of Bowbells. For two years Isabel’s team went undefeated, and in their 1917–1918 season they won the state championship in Minot, defeating Cooperstown 11–5. It was Stanley’s only state title for eighty-one years until the 1999 Bluejays football team broke the string.
Stanley’s 1917-1918 championship girls’ basketball team, coached by Isabel Flath, top right.
Courtesy of Warren Flath Collection.
Isabel’s life changed dramatically when she married G. O. Flath in December 1919 and moved in with the rest of the Flath clan in Anton’s busy house. Scuttlebutt around town was that Isabel had really wanted M. G. rather than Oakley, but she was determined to have a Flath. In her previous life, she had followed a kind of proto-feminist path, making her own decisions, playing sports, performing music and drama, working in a profession, and beginning to accumulate assets. As a married woman, however, she was expected to conform to the era’s expectations for a more constrained life. The first sign of her change in status was the loss of her American citizenship. The Iowa farm girl, native-born to a family whose ancestors had fought in the American Revolution, was stripped of her citizenship because Oakley came from Canada; married women assumed the citizenship of their husbands. Oakley became a U.S. citizen in 1920, and Isabel regained her citizenship after a ten-month lapse.
More permanent was the loss of her career, for schoolteachers were expected to quit their jobs when they married. Isabel found herself somewhat unexpectedly marooned in a small Dakota town without a profession, deprived of the music, drama, and other cultural pastimes that she enjoyed and excelled in. The young woman who had played in Hamlet was now stuck in a true hamlet, and the loss of opportunity and ambition must have seemed immense. One way or another, this was to be her future. How she viewed that future, what private doubts or demons she struggled with, she rarely showed.
In 1924 she traveled to Minneapolis to attend a concert on the world tour of internationally renowned Polish pianist, composer, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a performance that thrilled her. It surely reminded her of the joys of her earlier life in music and drama, and she must have realized that whatever its other rewards, Stanley would never offer an opportunity for the full expression of her talents. Perhaps this was her watershed moment, for rather than lamenting her situation, Isabel was driven to act—she decided to foster the fullest expression of the talent in Stanley.
For the next six decades Isabel would be a force of nature in Stanley. To start, she organized a local MacDowell music club. She became the community’s major musical impresario, willing the town to have concerts and recitals, leading the church choir, and occasionally giving lessons, although her patience did have limits. She was adamant that all people, especially children, could make music. She was active in the Daughters of the American Revolution. With her erect bearing and cultured enunciation, her title of “Grand Worthy Matron” in Eastern Star, a Masonic auxiliary, seemed a natural appellation; she was a formidable but friendly presence whom few in town wanted to disappoint. And she had a profound impact on my family.