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Coming out in Southern Oregon in the 1970s:
an interview with Estelline O'Harra and Nance Schaefle

Portland Town Council
Community Profiles
By Alan Coogan

Published in the PTC newsletter, Oregon Gay Rights Report, in two parts
Part one in February 1982 and Part two in March 1982

 

Ten years ago, Estelline O’Harra and Nance Schaefle were ranch wives in Southern Oregon.  Today they are lovers and woodworkers, owners of The ½ S Cabin Company in Portland.  In this issue they talked about their work and about changes and experiences in their lives during the past decade.

GRR (Gay Rights Report): There are at least two things I’d like to find out about.  One is your business, the 1/2S Cabin Company.  But I think I’ll start with the personal side of things and ask when it was you two got together and how you met.
Estelline:  We met at the PTA meetings in Klamath Fall --- well, in Bonanza, actually . . .
Nance:  It was Harper Valley, and you know it !!
Estelline:  But we were both active in the PTA. There are seven children between us, so we had children in the same school, and we met.
Nance:  It was a super-small, redneck town just outside of Klamath Falls.  We had a lot of problems.  It was our first relationship, for either of us.
Estelline:  It was the first time we even thought . . .
Nance:  We even choked when we said the word “homosexual.”
Estelline:  We went to the library and looked it up together.
Nance:  We had a terrible time hiding the books inside of other books so the librarian wouldn’t know what we were doing.
Estelline:  And of course, at that time there was nothing positive you could read on it anyway.  So, it was a real trauma for both of us, because we knew no other gay people.
Nance:  And no one would talk to us about it, except to say that it was evil, and it was perverted – the usual.  Of course, the kids all went to a very small school, and the word spread very rapidly though town.
            We knew each other a year before we realized we were falling in love. And we didn’t know what else to do, and being very naïve and honest people, we both told our husbands.  Estelline was immediately sent up here to a psychologist, who said she was not crazy, much to the dismay of her husband.
Estelline:  It was very fortunate that the psychologist I happened to come to was very positive.  He said, “The only problem you have is that you’re going to have to make up your mind which lifestyle you’re going to choose, and go from there.”
Nance:  Neither marriage was an unhappy one; neither marriage was a bad marriage at all.  Both of us were friends with our husbands, and we had respect for them.  Estelline had been married 15 years, and I’d been married 17 ½ years.  That’s a long time – that was half of our lives at that point, or darn near.  And it was very difficult to break all the habits and all the little ruts you get into. . .
Estelline:  Anyway, I was served with a divorce the day after I moved in with Nance.
GRRHad you been expecting that?
Estelline:  No.  It came as a real surprise.  And, of course, homosexuality was the ground for the divorce.  Our case was one of the first cases to go to the appellate court.
GRR:  Nance, were you named in the divorce papers?
Nance:  Yes, I was the one with the black hat.
Estelline:  What happened was that I had three sons.  Two were just starting high school, and one was in grade school.  When I was first served notice, I didn’t have any right to see the children unless their father was around.  After the first hearing, I was allowed visitation rights as long as they were not held anyplace Nance was --- in the home Nance and I occupied.  Anyhow, I had a $20 bill, one of the family cars, and my clothes, and that’s all I had when I left.  I sold the car and, with the leftover money, retained a lawyer.  Then Nance sold the horse before we left . . .
Nance:  We both lived on ranches down there.
Estelline:  So, that’s all we had, cash-wise.  About $200.  That’s real difficult --- that’s very tight.
Nance:  And we had three of the seven kids with us.
Estelline:  We had never worked outside the home.  I had done a little bit of work for my husband’s business – I was familiar with books and things like that. But we had never worked anywhere . . . We both found jobs and both started working, and I guess that’s one of the things that started us on woodworking: the fact we didn’t have any furniture.  We didn’t own anything, because we left everything behind.
Nance:  We began making Christmas presents --- that’s really where we started.  We didn’t have the money to buy anything and we found that we could haywire some things together.  We had done a little bit of work with tools, as mothers on ranches have to do in order to survive, because the cows never get out until your husband in on his way to work and the kids are off to school.
Estelline:  But Nance’s divorce was settled between the two of them.  They both went to the lawyer and said, “All right, we agree to this.”  The children could to wherever they wanted.  It didn’t matter.  They could live in either place.  ----  My husband got custody of everything:  he got the children, he got the house – everything.
GRR:  What was it like being a gay couple in the Klamath Falls area 10 years ago?
Nance:  The little town of Bonanza is in a valley.  It’s kind of like one of those soap operas where everyone is a relative of someone else.  And because of that, the word spread very fast.  The kids knew in school; our kids were hassled a lot, there were questioned a lot, they were felt sorry for, they were pampered --- depending on whom it was they were speaking with.
            A couple of the teachers in the school even participated in the trial, where it concerned the schooling and the whereabouts of the boys, and where they would be better off.  So, it was a community project, you know, for a very long time.  We were known as “The Lesbians of Langell Valley.”
Estelline:  It bothered us to go back there for the first couple of years, because we were very insecure.  It doesn’t bother me to go back now.
Nance:  I rather enjoy it now.  We’ve been to the graduations as the kids have progressed and graduated from the school down there, and we’ve walked in together and we’ve had no problems.
Estelline:  Well, I think that we’re so comfortable with where we are that other people’s reactions – I don’t feel we have to deal with anymore.  If they can’t accept us, then that’s something they have to live with; we don’t have to live with it.
Nance:  I think we were fortunate not knowing anything about the gay world, and not knowing anything about the real social pressures of homosexuality.  We were both fairly sheltered in that area.
            We were told when we were little kids: “You shouldn’t go to the bathroom in the shows alone, and that evil people would get you.”  All of those things that mothers imply to keep you out of bad places.  It was hard for us to feel – in fact, for quite a while, we didn’t feel – that we were homosexuals.  We denied it.  Not because we were afraid of it, but because we didn’t feel that the love we had . . .
Estelline:  Nothing we read: anything that we found – any literature we found at the time – didn’t have anything to do with the way we felt.
Nance:  What we felt was like watching black and white television and turning on the color.  It was so different from all the evils and perversions you read about.
GRR:  What do you think would have helped the two of you back in Klamath Falls – what would have made your situation more tolerable?
Nance:  Somebody to talk to.  Even our good friends didn’t have the slightest idea what to say, or how to advise us – or didn’t even want to get into the subject.  There were an awful lot of really crummy stories spread.  There were rumors that somebody was trying to have me committed to a mental institution.  At that time, everything we heard said they could, that homosexuality was grounds for commitment.  And we didn’t have any idea --- we didn’t have anybody to bounce everything off of, as far was what they had gone through, as far as what they had heard.

(End of part one of the interview)
(Start of part two of the interview)

GRR:  How did your children react to the breakup of your marriages and to your relationship?
Estelline:  We found one interesting thing.  We found the fact my children were told they had to live with their father, while Nance’s kids were given the option, meant it was a lot harder on Nance’s kids.  They had this constant tearing ---“Who am I going to live with?” or “I can always go live with Mother if things are going badly . . . “ My kids had to stick it out where they were.
Nance:  The security aspect was much better for the kids in her case.  They worried about her, and they were very close to her, but they didn’t have the decision on their heads.  I think my children had a lot of problems because of the fact they didn’t know . . . they felt like they should be with me, yet they felt they should be with their dad.  After all, there were two of us and one of him.
Estelline:  I think they feel that whichever parent they choose to live with means that they love that parent more, which is not true at all.  Sometimes the situation is just easier to live with, or hat parent is easier to get alone with.  I don’t think it qualifies how much love they have for either parent.  ----  My kids said, “You know, I have to stay with Dad.”  And so it didn’t make them feel like they had to prove to one or the other of us that they loved us more by living with us.
Nance:  The kids were very comfortable living with us, because the kids grew with our relationship.  As we realized we were falling in love and we realized there was definitely an attraction that was something bigger than we could deal with as married people, we did an awful lot with the kids, just like we always did.  The fact that one of us could actually fall in love with another woman didn’t seem to throw them, like it would have if we had just come in and sat down one day and said, “I’d like you to meet this woman – I’m in love with her.”  They watched the feelings grow.
            But I think they suffered from the same things that any kids do with any divorce.  It was their family, and their home, and it was a very difficult time to give up the fun things that they had.   Still now the children are very comfortable.  It seems to be a topic of conversation with most of the kids and their friends.  They’re certainly not afraid to mention it.
Estelline:  It didn’t bother my youngest two; they didn’t take that much of a hassle in school.  My oldest son, who is gay, was very hassled.   He was one of the big contentions in the divorce, because at that time, they termed him as a “latent” homosexual.  They had two psychologists there; one saying that if he lived with his father, he would straighten out; the other saying that he would handle it better if he lived with us,
GRR: Do you have any thoughts about how your experiences have been conditioned by the fact that you are women?

 

Nance:  I think it was a lot easier for us, because I think that the fellows take a bum rap as far as the housing and living together.  I think it’s much more common to see two women – especially divorced women – room together, to share rent, to work together in order to beat the economy.  I think that having children put us even further from people’s minds.
Estelline:  I think we might have been a little bit better prepared financially, because we probably would have worked --- we would have had a little more security than being housewives for 15 years and all of a sudden finding out that you have to earn a living.
GRR:  How did you begin to meet and know the Portland gay community?
Estelline:  Our lawyer called us – this was before our second hearing – and she said, “There are going to be two women talking here in town, and I think you ought to go listen to them because they’re going through a similar trial up in Seattle.”  That was Sandy Schuster and Maddie Isacson.  And they were coming down, and they were going to talk at MCC, and so she gave us the address.  ---  We built our courage up, because we were terrified.  All we knew about other gay people was what we had read. We went over and parked in from of this older building. . . .
Nance: We still don’t know where it would be . . .
Estelline:  We were living out in Newberg at the time; we don’t even know how we got there.  But we sat out in front of this building for a long time before we even got up enough nerve to get out of the car.  And then we walked up the front steps of this great big building, and there was this rock’n’roll band playing inside, and this music was just booming out, Nance and I were standing on the front porch of this building and some kid walks by . . .
Nance:  We had talked ourselves into the fact by this time that we probably weren’t as obvious to other people as we felt.
Estelline:  And this kid walks by and flips off to us – he says, “Your gig is upstairs. . .”
Nance:  We got right back in the car.  It took us another 45 minutes to get out and go to the meeting.
Estelline:  Well, we came upstairs and everybody was out in the front – they were having some hors d’oeuvres and things – and all these people were standing around.  Nance and I stood way back in the corner, where nobody would notice us, and we just sort of watched everything that was going on.  When everybody sat down, we sat clear in a corner all by ourselves, and we listened to Sandy and Maddie talk.
            The minute they were through talking, Sandy came over.  She stomped over to us, turned this chair around, and plopped herself right down in front of us and she said, “All right --- what newspaper are you from?”
Nance:  We were so uncomfortable, and we looked so uncomfortable, she thought for sure we were reporting for somebody.
Estelline:  But we because very good friends – they wound up staying at our apartment.
Nance:  We stayed up till five o’clock talking, and we found we had so many similar experiences.
Estelline:  Then we met Fran Hamilton and Nita Gates, who lived out in Newberg also, and they started us into church and introduced us around.  It was really a life saver to us, because up to that point . . .
Nance: We’d probably still be hiding in Newberg.  Then we decided we’d more to Mount Hood.  For some reason or another, the mountain just kept drawing us.  We’d leave to go to church on Sunday morning and we’d end up on the mountain.
Estelline:  I think what finally sent us up there was my last hearing, when I found out my husband was going to get everything . . . We were renting a big home out in Newberg then, with the supposition that if we wound up with any of the kids, we would have room for them, and they’d be close to school.  Then all of a sudden there weren’t any --- we just had Nance’s one son with us.  I felt that I needed to get away.
Nance:  So we moved up there.  We both left jobs, good jobs, and went up on the mountain and didn’t have any idea what we were going to do.  We found a little old ramshackle cabin on the Salmon River.  The first year we cleaned houses and took care of the lodge at the Timberline Rim.  We cleaned a lot of houses, and we did a lot of grunt work.
            One day a friend of ours had gotten hold of a whole truckload of egg crate lids, from the old wooden egg crates.  They were boxes that they used to ship 15 dozen eggs to stores from the farms in.  She was going to burn them for kindling, apparently.  They were just nice old wood.  Before we even got it home, we had a few ideas of things we thought we would build out of it.
            It started out with us banging a few things together, and kind of saying “Wow, maybe this would work; maybe this would be fun . . . “  So, we did a couple of little stands and chests for friends out of them, and pretty soon they wanted to buy them, and people wanted to pay us for them.  We were really surprised, so we built a few things and we took them down to the Sandy Mountain Festival.  This was when you could get into it at any time, when you could walk in and say, “I’d like a space,” and go down the next weekend.
            It was funny, because Estelline was waitressing at that point, and she was waitressing that day.  We went down early, before her shift started, and set everything up --- everything – we took everything we could find that we had built.  And, by golly, even it the rain --- Estelline went off and left me there, and I felt very much alone --- we sold everything we took down.  We sold so much the first day that we went home and beat together a few more things, and dusted off Estelline’s night stand . . .
Estelline:  That’s the last time I’ve had a night stand . . .
Nance:  We took it down, and everything sold, including her night stand, which I haven’t heard the end of.  But we found that things did sell.  Things just fell into place.
Estelline:  The money that we got from that, $300, prompted us to go ahead and rent this little cabin that they had up there, that was right on the main highway.  And it was in rough condition.
Nance:  Well, that’s where the name “The  ½ S  Cabin Company”  came from.  We figured it was a pretty ½ S Cabin, and we were a pretty ½ S company, and the two of us deserved each other.
            It was kind of a three-room building – tiny, tiny room – it had a little, tiny room that we built in, and we built a work bench very quickly, and we bought a Sears sander, and a little router we bought with our Green Stamps.
            But we ended up with people finding that the things were kind of interesting, and they were different.  We tried to do things that came right out of our minds, worried that as we would use up an idea, that maybe we wouldn’t get another one, and that would be the end of it.  But we’re still coming up with ideas that are different, and that haven’t been done or seen yet.
            We use primarily the old boxes, and I think probably it comes from old egg crates.  They were so neat to work with, and the wood is so old and has such a warmth to it.  We enjoy wood, because we feel that a person’s home is generally more comfortable and more friendly – it’s warmer – with wood items in it.  It kind of makes you wonder what the past was like, and where the piece was.  It’s a very comfortable medium.  There aren’t a lot of women in wood, although I guess there are more now than when we started.  We’ve been doing this probably four years.
GRR: When was it that you finally moved to Portland and established the business in the house?
Estelline:  Two years ago --- it will be three years this October.  We got to the place on the mountain where we didn’t feel we were growing any. We were so far away from the Portland area, from most of our friends.
Nance:  It’s been kind of a growing and learning experience – we decided we’d move off the mountain and come down to civilization.  We felt we were beating our bodies to death, too, up there.  In Portland we could go to church more often, and be a part of the gay community.   The Good Lord’s been really good to us . . . Both of us have a very strong faith, and we both believe very greatly that the Good Lord’s got us where he’s got us for a purpose and a reason.
GRRWhat kind of community activities are you involved in in Portland?
Estelline:  We have done a lot of speaking, long before they had the speakers’ bureau, through Claudia Webster, who was running some sexuality workshops.
Nance:  I guess probably the reason that Claudia kept calling us is because we presented a little different form of gay life.  We presented not only two lesbians in a middle-life class, rather than the younger set; we also represented mothers.  Susie Shepherd once asked us whether we were lesbian mothers or mother lesbians.  And it was an interesting question. We are probably mother lesbians, because we were mothers first, and lesbians second, and I think that our learned responses are mothers’ first.  So we’re probably a little straighter gays than a lot of the kids who dated a lot and who have had a lot more experiences.
Estelline:  So far we have always met somebody who’s come up afterwards and said, “I need to talk,” or “ I have a brother . . . “
Nance:  But our plans got waylaid by the business, because we do work here at the house probably eight days a week yet.  We’ve been involved in the church.  We did some lobbying in Salem.  Estelline happened to go to school with Fred Heard in Klamath Falls, so we went and talked with Fred Heard.  And Wayne Fawbush.
Estelline:  It was very interesting.  What we got from both of them is that they’re not going to represent anything that threatens their position.  They were both very honest about it, and unless they feel that a majority of voters are supporting them . . .
Nance:  Wayne Fawbush was our representative when we lived on the mountain, and his comment really hit home.  He said, “All I hear about – all I hear from – are the little old ladies.  I get enough letters from these people that contradict what you feel.  I never hear from the gay people.  All I need is to be able to say, ‘My constituents are behind me, and they want me to vote thus and so . . . ‘  If I knew there were enough of you to help me win the vote,” then he said, “there’d be no problem of where I stand.”   And I really believed him.
GRRI guess the last question I have is – How would you describe what the ½ S Cabin Company builds?
Nance:  Sawdust.
Estelline:  Well, the nice thing about our business is we can burn all our mistakes.
Nance:  We try to turn old boxes into usable items.  We try not to damage their authenticity or their value.  We try to make them pieces of your everyday living that are comfortable.  We like the boxes with the labels that remind people of the time I the past when things were sent in boxes.  The things we build from scratch we do to look like they have been around for a long time.
            It’s really hard to describe our pieces, because each thing is a unique piece – each one is different.  They’re things that go with antiques.  And I think that because we’re mothers, we probably are practical – everything has a purpose, but each has a personality.  We make planters, we make plant stands, we make letter holders, we make trunks, boxes, jewelry boxes; things that can be used to contain almost everything in your house – from your waxed paper to your hundred-dollar bills.

End of interview.
 (In 1982, Fred Heard was a Senator in the Oregon Legislature. Wayne Fawbush was a Representative in the Oregon Legislature. )

  

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