(Her)story: Businesswomen of Winchester

(Her)story: Businesswomen of Winchester

Winchester has certainly been home to many remarkable people, including many women over the decades who owned and operated their own businesses. Several in particular stand out for the unique ways they showed strength in their careers as businesswomen.

Upon the death of her father in 1926, Lucy Fitzhugh Kurtz (1874-1968) inherited not one, but two businesses: the Kurtz Furniture Store and the Kurtz Funeral Home. The two businesses were incorporated in 1947 under the name of George W. Kurtz, Inc. Lucy remained the company president until 1968, the year she died at the impressive age of 94.

Elizabeth Grim Lillis (1858-1936) founded a curtain making business. She was dedicated to both her family and her career, and would not compromise on either. Rather than leaving her family to go to Philadelphia to study the art of making drapes and slipcovers (which was the expected course of action), she thought outside the box and hired seamstresses to come to her to train her. She was clearly effective at growing her business while balancing family life in this way, because her products came to be used in mansions around the state.

Ruth Miles Jackson (1896-1953), along with her husband Boyd F. Jackson, started Ruth’s Tea Room which operated from 1925-1999. Ruth’s Tea Room was the only racially integrated restaurant in the city, demonstrating Ruth’s determination to break barriers and challenge the accepted norms.

Mary McKenzie Henkel (1910-2001), her husband Carroll Hess Henkel started a business manufacturing furniture with the help of their friend, John Harris. When her husband died in 1969, people encouraged Mary to sell the business, doubting that she had the ability to run the company successfully. Defying everyone, she took over the business herself and expanded it after bringing her workers to Williamsburg to learn from master craftsmen. Under her direction, the business was named one of the premier reproduction furniture companies in the United States.

Just a little bit of inquiry into local history will uncover everyday heroes such as these women. More information on local businesses is available in the Businesses of the Area Collection:1598 WFCHS/THL.

The image here is of Ruth’s Tea Room, 39-504 THL.

Sources: Foreman, Michael M. Some Worthy Women. Winchester, VA: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 2007. The Handley Library Collection, 39 THL, Stewart Bell Jr. Archives, Handley Regional Library & Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society.