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Bessie Bendt made a name for herself as Sioux Falls' first 'conductorette'

By Eric Renshaw
via the Argus Leader newspaper web site

Bessie Bendt was a trailblazer in Sioux Falls as the city's first 'conductorette' during World War I.

BessieBessie Bendt in front of her Summit Avenue Trolley in 1918. (Photo: GreetingsFromSiouxFalls.org)Bessie Foster was born in Campbeltown, Scotland in 1894. At the age of 18 she came to the United States and ended up in Sioux Falls. After arriving, she was employed as a nursemaid by T.J. Billion, then went on to work as a housekeeper for two wardens at the State Penitentiary.

She met Otto Bendt around the time the first world war had become inevitable, and the two fell in love. They were married in August of 1917. Otto was working for the city’s electric trolley company, the Sioux Falls Traction System, or SFTS, when he was called to military duty in June of 1918. Bessie needed something to keep her busy and wanted to help keep the city going while so many of its working citizens had been called overseas.

Bessie met with Roger Mills, who was in charge of operating the Sioux Falls Traction System, and suggested that she could become a conductor. Roger said he’d have to think about it, but called her back the next day. He told her, “You’ll have to do a man’s work, but you’ll get a man’s pay.” On September 12, 1918, Bessie made her first run as Sioux Falls’ first "conductorette." Her job was to make sure that everyone who had a ticket got it punched, and that everyone who paid in cash knew to put it in the fare box.

Every day, Bessie would wake up at 5 a.m., have a quick breakfast, then hustle downtown to be at her job by 6 a.m. She wore a uniform she made herself, along with a hat provided by the company. Tucked under the bill of her hat were several spare fuses meant to keep the car going. If the car blew a fuse, Bessie would jump down from the car, pull the arm that connected the car to the overhead electric line, replace the fuse, and reconnect the arm. She would then get back up onto the trolley. Bessie did this job for 12 hours a day, seven days a week for $65 a month. This adjusts to around $1,200 a month in 2019 dollars. 

Read the entire article on the Argus Leader web site here:

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