With her Early-American-style ringlets and silk gowns, already outdated by 1900 when this portrait was taken, white-haired Katherine Sterrett Munra scarcely looks like a highly skilled hospitality professional. And yet she was.
She was a pinch hitter for the Oregon Rail &Navigation Company whose trains ran across Oregon through the rugged Blue Mountains. She worked at many of their establishments as well as overseeing food facilities at Oregon’s hotels and resorts as well as at a university and a department store.
In the 1870s, at the then-advanced age of 44, she moved to southern California from her hometown of Erie PA where she ran a boarding house and raised three children single-handedly. Her marriage had ended, probably through desertion or divorce. In the seven years she lived in California she married twice and ran two boarding houses. After her second husband’s death she married an accountant, Selkirk Munra, and they took a steamer to Oregon, assuming management of a hotel in Eugene.
Next they managed the O. R. & N.’s dining facility at Bonneville. When the railroad closed it down, they returned to Eugene as managers of another hotel there. We then find Kate running the student dining halls at the University of Oregon, Eugene. Next, in December of 1894 she went back to work for the railroad, choosing furnishings for the new log hotel and restaurant in Meacham. She managed it from its inauguration in January 1895 until it was destroyed by fire in 1902.
A publicity agent for the O. R. & N. may have been responsible for dubbing Kate “Grandma,” a dubious title commonly bestowed on women past 60. He heaped praise upon the Log Cabin, calling it a “frontier Delmonico’s” and a “mountain-gulch Waldorf ” where the rugged West melded with the “refined luxury of the metropolis.” “Cabin, tables, linen, china, silver, glass and waiter-girls are all the perfection of neatness and cleanliness, and the cookery is as dainty as that of the daintiest old-time private family,” he wrote. Although Kate learned to cook as a child and could have prepared the meals, her role was to supervise the kitchen and dining room staffs.
After the Log Cabin burned Kate managed the railroad’s hotel at Huntington OR, and then a private resort at Hood River called the Country Club Inn. In the winter of 1904, when the inn was closed for the season, she presided over the opening of a tea room at Portland’s Olds-Wortman department store. She might well have retired at this point, but in 1905 came an announcement that she would act as housekeeper for the Hotel Sommer in La Grande OR. She was 75.
Eventually she did retire, joining her daughter’s household in Portland and living until age 92. She was a suffragist and friend of Oregon suffrage leader Agnes Lane. In recognition of her pioneering role in Oregon’s development a peak in the Blue Mountains was named for her in 1915.
© Jan Whitaker, 2012
Other posts on restaurant women:
Richards Treat cafeteria
Miss Hulling’s cafeteria
Anna de Naucaze
Mary Alletta Crump
Women culinary professionals
Alice Foote MacDougall