By Ashley Lodato
If you’re like me, you know Dianne Hope as the public school bus driver with the dramatic hairdos. But driving a bus is just a post-retirement job for Dianne (“Just spicing up my obituary,” she says), and represents quite a shift from her former employment at local and regional sawmills.
Dianne was the first woman hired at the long-defunct Wagner Mill in Twisp, in 1978. “Before she got her job at the mill she was a stay-at-home mom,” says her daughter, Billie Jo. “She never had a job outside the home. She cut hair and did perms or helped neighbors butcher chickens, but her real job was raising us girls and growing a garden.”
But when work slacked off for Dianne’s husband, she stepped right into a breadwinning role, marching herself into the mill with no experience but a solid work ethic, and landed a job in a man’s world. Dianne started on clean up, then moved into pulling green chain (I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up — it’s the assembly line where workers pull green wood off the line and sort and stack it for drying), running a chipper, and working on the mill pond.
Working on the pond must have been terrifying for Dianne, who couldn’t swim. One time she fell in the pond and started to sink. Apparently the last thought she had as she sank below the surface was not “Oh dear, I’m about to drown,” but instead “Close your mouth, all the guys pee in this pond!”
Dianne’s starting rate at the mill was an irresistible $6.92 an hour — top dollar for a woman’s earning capacity in those days. Billie Jo remembers some of the luxuries her mom’s salary afforded them: health insurance, store-bought clothes instead of homemade ones, glasses, braces.
Mill work was hard and dirty, considered by most to be men’s work. Dianne faced considerable backlash from fellow millworkers and community members. One man told her she should have her children taken away from her because no respectable woman would work at the mill. Dianne’s kids were taunted at school for having a millworking mom.
But Dianne “never let anybody make her feel like she couldn’t do something,” says Billie Jo. One day a fellow millworker told Dianne to “get up there on the 966 [heavy equipment] and push fuel” for him. She didn’t know how to do it and her colleague called her worthless (but in more colorful terms). Dianne went straight over to the mill manager and told him “Here’s what you’re going to do today: you’re going to teach me to drive the 966.” A day later, Dianne could add big machinery handling to her skill set.
When Dianne returned home at the end of each day, covered in sawdust, sap in her hair, hands and body wrecked from eight hours of hard work, she took off her green hard hat and started cooking dinner, rolling pincurls in her daughters’ hair, and helping them with their homework. She must have been exhausted every evening, but she never complained.
Billie Jo says her mom was a good role model for her three girls, not only for her work ethic but also for helping them understand that they were capable of solving any problem. One day Dianne’s car broke down and she needed to get into Winthrop from their remote Rendezvous home to hitch a ride to the mill. Without a phone to call a friend or neighbor, Dianne figured her only solution was to ride 10-year-old Bobbie Jo’s Schwinn down to town. So that’s what she did, perching on a tiny bike with a thermos in one hand and a lunch pail in the other, a tenuous grasp on the handlebars as she bumped down Rendezvous Road.
That type of confidence and resilience has served Billie Jo well and led her to accomplishments like buying her own home as a single mom and working in jobs that are traditionally held by men. “Whatever I’m asked to do at work, I’ll figure it out and do it, just like my mom did,” she says.
Billie Jo passed this philosophy of self-reliance down to her own daughter, telling her, “Before you get married I want you to be able to pay your own bills, know how to fix your own car or how to get it to the shop, and how to fix things around the house. You need to know how to do these things so you can make it on your own if you ever want to or need to.” She might have added, “Just like Grandma Dianne did.”
As you can imagine, there are some funny stories about Dianne and her time at both the Wagner Mill and the Omak Mill, where she worked after the Wagner Mill closed. But they’re not fit for print in this publication, so you’ll have to ask her yourself.