The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Elizabeth Durfee, a trailblazing law enforcement officer who challenged the perception of gender norms in Randolph County, will be inducted into the 2021 class of honorees.
Elizabeth Ackermann was born in rural Red Bud in October 1895. The granddaughter of German immigrants, she and her siblings were raised on the family farm and educated in both German and English in local schools. She worked hard to help her parents on the farm, doing chores and ferrying milk to the creamery in town. A talented shot from a young age, she learned early on how to handle a gun safely and accurately. She loved to hunt and fish with her brothers, and she was dedicated to outdoor pursuits like riding, skating, and bicycling.
An early tragedy shaped her life significantly. Her older brother, Herman, died in the influenza pandemic of 1918 while serving in the army. In her grief, Elizabeth decided to embark on a new life for herself. She left Red Bud for St. Louis, where she quickly found work in an unexpected profession. She became one of the city’s first female streetcar conductors, working on the Jefferson, Cherokee, and Tower Grove lines. The job was sometimes physically demanding, but Elizabeth persevered, working in the city for a decade.
By the 1930s, Elizabeth had returned home to Red Bud. There, she met and married a local widower, Winsor Lee Durfee. He sold farm machinery and automobiles and ran a filling station in town. For decades, he had also served as a constable. His duties serving summonses, collecting court fees, conducting evictions, and repossessing property. Only four years after they married, however, Winsor died suddenly in 1940 at the age of 62. Because she was familiar with the responsibilities he had held as constable, Elizabeth was tapped in the summer of 1940 to serve as his temporary replacement until an election could be held that November.
Without hesitation, 44-year-old Elizabeth pinned the constable’s badge to her dress and stepped into her late husband’s shoes. Very few women in state, let alone the country, served as county constables, but just as she’d done on the streetcars of St. Louis, Elizabeth took on her new responsibilities fearlessly and with determination. She had inherited Winsor’s 1938 coupe and his .38 pistol, and she used both in her new job, which involved facing her fellow citizens at some of their lowest moments. One journalist described her can-do attitude succinctly: “She takes on all assignments and neither expects nor gets help from anyone.”
Through her genuine care for the people of her community and her fair approach to justice, Elizabeth quickly won the appreciation of those with whom she lived and worked. Still, it was a shock to many when she decided to run to keep the job of constable in November 1940—and an even bigger surprise when she easily won the election. She would go on to be elected to the post several more times, holding the job for a remarkable eighteen years. She approached her duties with candor and determination, not backing down from challenges in tough situations. But she also tried very hard to be kind when she could, offering outreach to local citizens who needed it very much. After serving an eviction notice to a local family, she found them secure housing, as well as a loan to help them establish a firm foundation.
Elizabeth worked for a local mailbox manufacturing company and conducted her constable duties on nights and weekends. By the 1950s, the press began to catch wind of Elizabeth’s unusual job. She was featured in multiple major news profiles, which were syndicated across the nation. But the sudden celebrity didn’t change much about Elizabeth’s life. When her constable duties ended in 1958, shortly before the state abolished the role and reassigned constable duties to sheriffs’ departments, Elizabeth maintained an active life. She lived to the remarkable age of 99, passing away in September 1995, just a month before her 100th birthday.
Elizabeth’s long life of self-assured work in areas traditionally not open to women provided a fantastic example to those around her, allowing them to adjust their expectations about traditional gender roles in the workplace. Her commitment to fair, humane law enforcement also offers all of us a model to follow in our interactions with our fellow community members. With determination, fearlessness, and confidence in her own abilities, Elizabeth Durfee blazed a trail for working women that continues to serve as an inspiration today.