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Sayre, Ruth Buxton
(January 25, 1896–November 23, 1980)

–popularly known as "the First Lady of the Farm" for her advocacy for improved quality of life for farm women first in her native Iowa and later, as president of the Associated Countrywomen of the World, for women around the world—was born in Indianola, Iowa, the daughter of a local banker and granddaughter of an important early benefactor of local Simpson College. A rambunctious child, Buxton taught herself to drive the family car. She attended Simpson College, where she majored in German and was strongly influenced by the socialist outlook of her English professor, Aubrey Goodenough. Graduating during World War I, she found German teaching jobs hard to come by in the fierce nativist climate of the time.

    After Buxton married Raymond Sayre on October 4, 1918, the young couple moved to the Sayre family farm near New Virginia in southern Warren County. There Sayre encountered rural life for the first time. She struggled to adapt from the life of a small-town banker's college-educated daughter to that of farm wife, without running water or electricity. Sayre helped her husband make hay, shock oats, and drive horses–everything, she later remembered, but milk the cows.

    In early 1922 Sayre became involved in the Farm Bureau, an organization then in its infancy. She volunteered to help organize the women's branch of the Farm Bureau in her county, driving the country roads in her Model T Ford with her two young children in the backseat. She urged women to improve their lives. Sayre's gifts as a talented speaker and organizer within the women's division of the Farm Bureau did not go unnoticed, and she rose quickly through its leadership ranks, becoming county chair in 1925 and district chair in 1930. She tirelessly promoted the ideals of the Farm Bureau women, such as better schools, libraries, and rural health care. She organized new groups, gave home demonstrations, and was active in 4-H.

    In 1929 Sayre and her family, which now included children–Bill, Helen, Alice, and John–moved to a new farm near Ackworth, close to her childhood home of Indianola. Receiving strong support from her husband and her mother, Sayre expanded her role in the Farm Bureau to the national level, attending national conventions, serving on the Iowa School Code Commission, and, in 1938, becoming the midwestern director for the Women of the American Farm Bureau. (At one point, in 1937, Sayre was simultaneously chairing Farm Bureau groups on the county, district, and state levels.)

    In the 1930s Sayre became involved with the Associated Countrywomen of the World, eventually becoming president of that international organization in 1947. As president, Sayre traveled the world, visiting a number of the 34 countries represented in the organization's membership. Her travels led one London newspaper to headline a profile, "Globe-trotting Grandma Wakes Up Women."In 1949 Sayre also became president of the Associated Women of the American Farm Bureau, meaning that she was simultaneously head of the 1.5 million women of the Farm Bureau and the 6million-member Associated Countrywomen organizations.

    In the early 1950s Sayre was briefly touted as a possible senatorial candidate. Instead, she served as the only woman on President Eisenhower's Farm Advisory Committee, at the same time as her husband, Raymond, served on the National Farm Credit Board.

    Following the death of her husband in 1954, Sayre retreated into a more private life, eventually moving from the family farm near Ackworth to a smaller home in Indianola. She continued to write numerous articles for farm publications, to travel, and to promote the new Des Moines Arts Center. In the early 1960s she served as rural chair of the Iowa Heart Association, Iowa chair of Women for Nixon-Lodge in 1960, and Simpson College trustee. She died at age 84 in an Indianola care facility, shortly after the publication of a biography by Julie McDonald.

    Called "the First Lady of the Farm" during her lifetime, Sayre was known as a genuinely humble, "homey kind of person" who never forgot her Iowa roots or the farm women who looked to her for continued leadership.
Sources The primary sources for Ruth Buxton Sayre are the 32 boxes of her papers at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. Secondary sources include the biography by Julie McDonald, Ruth Buxton Sayre: First Lady of the Farm (1980); and Peter Hoehnle, "Iowa Clubwomen Rise to World Stage: Dorothy Houghton and Ruth Sayre," Iowa Heritage Illustrated 83 (2002), 30–46.
Contributor: Peter Hoehnle