Local woman goes against the odds to become attorney

The Palace Furniture Store on the east side of upper Broadway Avenue about 1907 with owner John Dauwen at right. Later, it became the site of the Golden Rule Variety Store of John Spinks.
By : 
Mary Jo Dathe

Helen Spinks Henton, a 1919 graduate of Spring Valley High School, died in 1986 in Olivia, Minnesota.  Her life story is one who "went against the grain" to "do it," often despite odds that were not in her favor.

She and her brother, Russ, came to Spring Valley in 1915.  Her parents, John and Lillian Spinks, operated the Golden Rule Variety Store, housed in the location seen in the accompanying photo that shows the east side of upper Broadway Avenue. Her father had very little capital but did have a line of credit with a company that could replace items he sold, such as dishware, clothing, and other household items.  She recalled most of their trade was with farmers who went over their stock of goods; there was a bushel basket full of cloth-topped overshoes for men, women and children -- 25 cents a pair!  He sold “warm, serviceable” coats, stylishly outdated, but prized by practical housewives watching their pennies.  Spinks also sold jewelry, mostly rings, bracelets and brooches, carefully choosing his customers, encouraging them to buy a gift for a loved one.

Helen describes the women's dresses:  "Fashion was no problem:  the house dresses were the Mother Hubbard type, all one style, one piece, straight, with a plain square neck.  The only choice was size -- small, medium or large, and color?  Mostly dark percales tending toward navy blue or dark gray."

Helen remembered classmates as well.  "John Osterud, John Barber, and I were neck and neck for top honor in the class.  We were marked by numbers at that time, instead of the more flexible letters, and I came out a part of a percentage ahead of John Osterud, and both of us not far ahead of John Barber.  No one envied us, for even then almost anything was ahead of scholastic excellence. I was regarded as definitely odd, for girls were not expected to be smart; and if they were they kept it to themselves."

Helen decided at age 12 to become a lawyer. She reported that with parental support, approval and encouragement, she managed to pay for college on $600 a year, majoring in English and creative writing.  After getting her academic degree, she got cold feet about law school, noting it was not an easy field for a woman. However, in her own words, "I saw what was happening to girls who went out to teach -- unenlightened school boards in small towns ran your life in exchange for $125 a month for nine months.  You had to remain in town three Sundays out of four; were not permitted out after 10 p.m. unless the town gossips knew it was for some wholesome purpose; and if you were married -- you were automatically out. I thought I would rather starve than live that way. The uncertainties of legal practice didn't look that bad!"

Helen forged ahead, the only female in a class of more than 90 law students, and her frugality, managed on $900 a year.  After many “put-downs,” her determination to become a real lawyer was realized in a practice in Franklin, Minnesota, the first and only attorney in town. She later worked in St. Paul for Legal Aid where she felt she impacted lives in a positive way.  She married fellow law student Bob Henton, who served as a probate and juvenile judge for 20 years.  After his death, Helen took up his business of farm management and enjoyed her hobby of painting, becoming a well-respected artist.

Other recollections included memories of Molstad's Store, First State Bank, the Farmers Store, Beagle's Grocery, and the Carnegie Library "which we used constantly and gratefully."  She was wondering who remembered trying to make bread in the war years without enough wheat flour to make it rise. " Mother always baked bread, but she gave it up when she had to substitute oatmeal, and it came out like bricks.  So, we went to baker's bread, which was made of wheat flour, but for some reason it did not taste the same.

"I have all the more respect for my training in the law, because it has taught me that you can do anything you set your mind to do.  I figure years do not make maturity.  It's what you're doing and what you've learned and what you take with you today."  What a remarkable lady. 

To learn more about another remarkable lady, Rose Wilder Lane, stop in at the Methodist Church Museum, on Courtland Street, hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day after Memorial Day.