Archaeologist digs up answers to laundry mystery at Old Fort Meade

The late evening news on KEVN Black Hills Fox Sunday
Published: Sep. 5, 2022 at 8:00 PM MDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KEVN) - An archaeological excavation began Saturday to explore an area once used by the laundresses at Old Fort Meade.

The area was referred to as “Soap Suds Row,” which was the general term used at frontier forts where hired laundresses cleaned the soldiers’ uniforms.

One of the reasons for the exploratory project is to start telling the story of those laundresses who helped the men stationed at Fort Meade.

“When you’re talking about a military post, there’s lots of swashbuckling history about the military men, but the support system which was really essential for the mission, you can hardly find anything about it,” said Linea Sundstrom, an archaeologist on the project. “Of course, you can imagine a cavalry post and the type of laundry that they were generating,”

Sundstrom’s research showed there was a row of 13 houses along Bear Butte Creek where the laundresses lived and worked. Many of the women working for the military post were the wives of enlisted and, according to Sundstrom, most of the time the women actually got paid more than the men.

According to the National Park Service, up until 1878 the U.S. Army allowed women to accompany troops as laundresses. After the ban, the change had a huge impact on military families of the time.

But Sundstrom believes the laundresses at Fort Meade might have continued even after the 1878 ban.

“They kept it longer than most western military posts. The debate on why they did away with was because some felt it gave women too much economic power,” said Sundstrom.

Whether the Soap Suds Row remained longer than the ban is a question Sundstrom is hoping to find an answer to with the excavation project.

As for the artifacts, they will be processed at the group’s headquarters at Lamphere Ranch Campground. After they are cleaned and cataloged, the items will go to the state archeologist’s office in Rapid City.