Mrs. Rowe would never have called herself a feminist. A self-made successful restaurateur during a time when most women were still at home, who probably worked harder than any man she knew, Mildred Rowe never had the time to entertain ideas like feminism. Yet, women everywhere can look at the founder of the famous Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant and Bakery, Staunton, Va. as life example and feminist icon.
Born Mildred Craft in 1913, her young world consisted of a tiny, secluded, mountain subsistence farm in Rich Patch, Virginia, deep in the Alleghany Highlands. Words like “gambling” and “divorce” were never whispered in the decidedly Southern Baptist upbringing she shared with her 12 brothers and sisters. Gambling was a sin and once you were married, it was for life. Even as a young woman working in factories in nearby Covington, she knew nobody who had ever gotten a divorce. But things were changing.
As Mildred Craft became Mrs. Eugene DiGrassie in 1934, she married man who was unique to the region. He was French-Italian, Catholic, and Yankee. She was Scotch Irish and German, and Baptist. Most of her sisters and their friends married men who grew up on the same mountain or in Covington. They were mostly farmers, miners, and factory workers. Dapper Eugene DiGrassie was a shoe salesman and window display artist with big dreams. Turns out, he also had bit of a wandering eye. After ten years of marriage, he left her for another woman.
Mildred DiGrassie took their three small children and moved to nearby Goshen, where she would not have to suffer the humiliation of wagging tongues in Covington. There were no regular child support payments from DiGrassie as he embarked on his new life. And during the 1940s Americans did not have social security or welfare. The court system was not really dealing with “deadbeat dads” then. When it came to divorce, none of the support systems divorced women have in place today were there—think about it—there were no Oprah Winfrey’s or Dr. Phil’s helping from the television, either.
She took what she knew—cooking—and started a little restaurant in Goshen, serving up Southern home style food to the travelers that frequented the area. She succeeded in more than taking care of her children. Within 6 years she paid off her loan and had a little money in the bank to invest in her next business with her new husband Willard Rowe. Their little business now serves half a million meals a year and is celebrating 67 years in operation — the most successful family-owned restaurant in the state of Virginia.
Mollie Cox-Bryan, author of Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania. She’s a graduate of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she runs, reads, and writes. Click here for Mollie’s website
For a chance to win a copy of Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies, click here
IMAGE: the late Mrs. Mildred Rowe and the sign outside her legendary restaurant.