The Sheep and the Tar Baby or A Woman’s Work is Never Done

I bought my daughter a sheep for Christmas.  No, we don’t actually have a four legged baaing creature tethered in the back yard, but we do have an entire fleece from one sheep.  It arrived in a large box in all its multicolored, lanolin rich, greasy, smelly glory.

One snowy New England day Sara and I stayed home together and did women’s work.  Sara has been spinning and knitting and generally working with wool for years.  Now she is taking the process of turning a sheep into sweater one step further back. As Sara washed some of the wool and carded it I made several loaves of dark rye bread that we have come to call the tar baby.  Never have I worked with such sticky dough.  I added flour and kneaded and prodded and scrapped dough off of my hands and every surface it had been in contact with and then did it again and again and again.  Ultimately a shower, a complete change of clothing and a load of laundry were required and I won’t even tell you about the kitchen clean up.

At the end of a pleasant day together we had a fluffy pile of snow white wool ready to be spun into yarn, perhaps enough to make one sock, two delicious loaves of slightly sweet, chewy dark bread, and the certain knowledge that if we had been responsible for caring for a family on a farm in the 1880’s we would all be both naked and hungry.

The sheer volume of work those women did is staggering and our relaxed day of craftiness in our centrally heated home complete with stand mixer, dish washer and washing machine certainly made me appreciate it.

If you are still reading by now you are probably saying to yourself, “I thought this was a genealogy blog.”  It is, and all this domestic bliss put me in mind of our ancestor, Annie Costello, and her story. Credit for the research for much of this story goes to our cousin Dick who has worked on the family genealogy for years.

Follow the link to see a timeline of Annie’s life and the events that surrounded and informed it.

Anna Donahue Costello was born in 1841 in Belfast, Ireland, the daughter of Felix Donahue and Kate McCrystal.  Family lore says that she emigrated to the U.S. with her brother Felix about 1850, stopping in Boston or New York and then coming “round the horn” to San Francisco as a teenager.  The family stories tell us that Annie worked as a domestic for a survivor of the infamous Donner Party.  I have no direct evidence of Annie’s arrived in San Francisco or of her employment there, but somehow she met John Costello and married him in San Jose in 1867.

Annie Costello and her husband John D homesteaded 160 acres of land in the farming community of Sprague in Washington Territory in 1880.  By 1880 they had 5 children under the age of 10.  Between 1880 and 1883 another child was born and died in infancy; their seven-year-old son Joseph died as well. Through all of this they moved north from California to Washington Territory and started and nearly lost their little farm.  Annie did it all, everything that was necessary to keep a family going through all those difficult years and through it all she was either pregnant or nursing or both and caring for her young children. Gardening, canning, sewing, knitting, cooking, keeping the wood stove going for heat and food, and helping with everything that needed doing to sustain a farm in its infancy.  Between 1880 and 1883 they survived a plague of grasshoppers, unusually cold winters, birth, death, and all the harsh realities of this new and growing territory.

But 1883 brought Annie what were perhaps her most difficult moments.  On February 22, 1883 John D relinquished his homestead claim, selling his land to J.D. Irvine.

In the words of the commissioner of the Colfax Land Office here is Annie’s story.

“ In support of said application it is alleged that John Costello is a confirmed and habitual drunkard and sold and relinquished said homestead while in a state of intoxication; that the improvements upon the premises where procured with her earnings and that the support of the family, embracing several minor children, devolves entirely upon her.  It is also alleged that J.D. Irvine to whom Costello sold, filed DS2993 for said tract March 26 alleging settlement February 24, 1883, but had not improved or established his residence upon the land prior to filing. …If Mrs. Costello however desires to make an entry in her own right as the head of the family, the filing of Irvine is not a bar to her application.”

Mrs. Costello did indeed wish to make an entry in her own name and was successful in doing so, retaining her land and her 12 by 20 foot home for herself and her children.

Annie and John were divorced in 1898, but continued to live together until his death.  I believe she pursued the divorce to protect her land and her family, not to abandon her husband of 31 years.

Annie found work wherever she could, while her son John T and perhaps her husband managed the farm. On Dec. 5, 1890 Annie received her Final Certificate fulfilling the requirements of the homestead grant and allowing her to receive a final patent for the land from the federal government in 1891.  She had saved her farm and her home and secured her children’s futures. But Annie wasn’t finished pursuing her dream of a prosperous farm.  In 1893 she bought an adjacent 160 acres from a neighbor.  Then in 1901 she obtained another 160 acres from the Northern Pacific Railroad.

John D died in 1903, his obituary states, “Mr. Costello was one of the pioneers of that section and had the reputation of being the best farmer in that country.”

John T and his wife Elizabeth took over the farm.  Eventually they expanded the farm to 480 acres and built a solid two-story house for their growing family.  Annie lived in Sprague until 1923 surrounded by and cared for by a loving family.

Annie and John D.’s descendants have multiplied and prospered.  The original farm outside of Sprague remains in family hands to this day.  Members of this family live in many states and countries around the world.  They all owe their success to the strength and perseverance of one remarkable woman who refused to give up her dream.

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14 comments on “The Sheep and the Tar Baby or A Woman’s Work is Never Done
  1. Kate says:

    Really interesting! My mother was a Costello by birth and I’m just beginning to research them.
    Although she was born in Northumberland her family came from Ireland.
    Thanks for sharing your story!
    Kate (UK)

  2. Judy says:

    Hi John,
    Hoping to mke it. Will email.


  3. John Costello says:

    This is very well done. I hope you can attend the family reunion this July in Spokane.

  4. Judy says:

    Hi Lisa,
    I sent you an email with a contact for me. Hope to hear from you.


  5. lisa says:

    I have been trying to find info on Anna or Annie Donahue Costello
    she is my great great grandmother.. My jaw dropped when this story was posted. How lucky and I to have information like this about my family so easily..
    I have a newphew who starting to get involved in genealogy. Who wrote this story ?
    Who can i email to get more information?

  6. Judy says:

    Thanks Judith,
    I love Annie’s story of determination and Hard work


  7. What a great role model she was for her descendants! You’ve told a wonderful story and given us a good timeline. Enjoyed reading it.

  8. Judy says:

    Thanks Joan,
    Always good to heare from a northwesterner.


  9. Joan says:

    Judy, Nice to hear your story — and loved the beginning. The northeastern corner of Oregon and the southwertern part of Washington are familiar to me so it was sort or like hearing about neighbors. Thanks.

  10. Judy says:

    Thanks J.M. Everything I do seems to remind me of something in my family history.


  11. J.M. says:

    Great post, loved the beginning!

  12. Judy says:

    Thanks so much Jasia and thanks for hosting the COG. I enjoy it every time.


  13. Jasia says:

    Nicely done! Annie certainly had true grit!

  14. Interesting story – particularly since my dad and grandfather both grew up in Cheney. Thank you for sharing.

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