Louisiana Foster: Not Your Usual Debutante

Everybody loves a rebel. Well, I do, anyway. Especially female ones.

One of my favorite rebel girls was Louisiana Foster, whose life was as unusual as her name.

She was born on July 18, 1887 in San Rafael, in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Her family was both wealthy and philanthropic, and she seemed destined for a debutante’s life. She went to all the country club parties she was supposed to when she was young, but she preferred to spend her time doing things that weren’t on the agenda for a woman of her class.

Her family had a country house in Hopland, a rural area about 100 miles north of San Francisco, and Louisiana took her girlfriends there to go camping in the summer. Newspaper society page writers were horrified. Those girls were supposed to be out dancing with marriageable young men, not fishing in filthy lakes and sleeping on the ground. Frowns from the older folks didn’t keep her from these wilderness excursions, but she still attended the social functions which supported her family’s charity work.

Her charmed life was not immune to tragedy, though. Between 1914 and 1915 she lost two brothers to accident and illness, and the wife and child of a third brother also died. Then, in September of 1915, Louisiana had her own brush with mortality.

Marin County was crossed by electric trains which took passengers to and from the ferry terminals and points north, and the Northwestern Pacific Railroad carried passengers and freight all the way to the Oregon border. On September 9, an electric train collided with an NWP locomotive, injuring over twenty people, many of them seriously. Louisiana was on the electric tram, and saw the bodies of the injured scattered around the broken rail cars. She told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle that she was bruised and scratched after being thrown off her feet, but “…I was able to get up immediately and assist others.”

What effect this experience had on her is impossible to gauge, though helping others defined the rest of her life. She obviously had steady nerves and a cool head, and kept on using both.

In February of 1916, for example, she was driving her own car in downtown San Rafael. Women drivers were still rare, though thanks to the invention of the self-starter, more ladies were getting behind the wheel. (In 1916 the Girl Scouts debuted a badge for “Automobiling.”)

Louisiana saw a woman in another car hit Daniel Schneider, chief of the San Rafael Fire Department, as he was walking across the street. He fell to the ground, and Louisiana jumped to his aid. She ran to the injured man, put him in her car and drove him to the nearby Cottage Hospital. She knew the place well: her mother had donated an ambulance to the hospital in 1905.

In 1918 Louisiana was 31 and still unmarried, which was probably an irritation to her family. America and the world were dealing with the great influenza pandemic, and in the autumn she heard that a lot of people in rural Marin County were sick and couldn’t get into nearby towns for needed supplies. So, she joined the motor service branch of the Red Cross and drove all over the county to bring food and comforts to needy residents.

A couple of weeks later she got back into her car and drove to Camp Fremont, a new military base near Palo Alto on the peninsula south of San Francisco. Nearly 30,000 soldiers were quartered there, being trained for combat in World War I Europe in specially-dug trenches and at an artillery range (where people still find unexploded bombs today). The war ended before most of the troops were sent overseas, but many of the soldiers had already been felled by the flu.

Louisiana had no nursing training, but she just showed up to volunteer. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she “…displayed so much skill and efficiency that she was given entire charge of a ward with only orderlies to assist her. Naturally the work was exacting and fatiguing, but Miss Foster continued at her post until the last of her patients was convalescent.”

She returned home to San Rafael in December of 1918, went to a Red Cross meeting, and then dragged herself to Hopland to recuperate from exhaustion.

In 1921 she joined the staff of the Arequipa Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Fairfax as a volunteer radiographer, taking x-rays of patients’ lungs. She also helped manage the Presbyterian Orphanage in San Anselmo, ran its yearly charity benefit, and was on the board of the California Conference of Social Work.

The Arequipa Tuberculosis Sanatorium, as it looked when Louisiana was a volunteer x-ray technician

Then she took a different turn. Again.

Between 1929 and 1940 Louisiana managed hotels in Yosemite National Park and Big Trees State Park. In 1940 she was the business manager for the Sandia School, a private girls’ school in Albuquerque, though she still considered Yosemite her home. After that job ended she ran the club house of the Pasatiempo private golf club near Santa Cruz, California. She took time to visit relatives in Arizona in the early 1950s, and then came home to San Rafael.

She spent months every year helping to organize the Grape Festival, the annual benefit for the Presbyterian Orphanage, renamed Sunny Hills in the 1930s. Anyone who grew up in Marin County in the 1950s and 1960s will remember what a huge bash the Grape Festival was.

Sometime in the late 1960s Louisiana went into a rest home in Carmel, and died there on March 18, 1970, at the age of 83. Her family brought her back to Marin County, and she is buried in Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery in San Rafael.

Louisiana Foster is just one of the untold number of anonymous women of the West who gave their time, energy, money, and heart to institutions and individuals. I’ll continue to bring these women into the light, where they belong.

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