Women in Charge: The Weather Bureau and Harriet Grasse

Harriet Grasse: in charge the Moorhead Station
River observation form from Moorhead, as completed by Harriet Grasse from July 1920.
Courtesy: MNDNR State Climatology Office.

According to the National Weather Service, the first female Meteorologist in Charge (MIC) in the Weather Bureau was Hazel Tatro who was in charge of the weather bureau stations at Winston-Salem North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Bristol, Tennessee.

But was she the first woman in charge of a weather station? The first female weather observer in the Weather Bureau was Margaret E. Conway. She was appointed at the Narragansett Pier Rhode Island Weather Station on July 1, 1891 and was in charge of the station. She remained at the station until her death on May 25, 1918.

However, there was another woman who took observations, ran a busy weather office, battled arctic outbreaks, cranky weather customers, and persevered even when the rain gage tipping bucket cables were stolen for scrap and her door mat was pilfered from her front door. Her name was Harriet Grasse, and her official title was: "Special Meteorological Observer" Her education background is unknown but likely she had "on-the-job training" working with her husband, who was in charge of the Moorhead Weather Bureau Station station for over a decade.

Every major metropolitan area in the country with an “interesting” climate has that one signature weather station that is the “hub” of all meteorological and climatological information. In the early 20th century, the Moorhead station was one such hub. Across the river from Fargo, it was oddly located in a rented home close to the soon-to-be-built post office, with easy access to the bridge over the Red River.

Harriet Grasse took over the duties from her husband, Herchmer when he passed away due to complications after surgery in 1912. Harriet was 59 years old and in charge of a weather station.

Her lively correspondence with U.G. Purssell, the section director of the Weather Bureau station in Minneapolis has been preserved. In it she discusses the day-to-day operations of the weather station and also provides comments about local elections and debates to make the counties “dry” (forbid the sale of alcohol.) Harriet had a dim view of the Fargo “saloons.”

During one cold outbreak on January 27, 1915 (The low was -31F and maximum temperature was -15F) Harriet handled over one hundred calls. In between observations she also had to keep the furnace going. Just before 6pm an irate man who tried to call to the office all day phoned and said that he would report her absence to Washington. Harriet reported the incident to Purssell who called the man “..a yellow dog and miserable coward,” and confessed that in order to get work done in Minneapolis they sometimes left both their phones off the hook.

Harriet was also essentially the Hydrologist in Charge (HIC), responsible for keeping daily river readings at the station following one of the weather bureau’s budget-cutting episodes. She stressed the importance of daily river measurements and noted that she was a long-time resident of the area and understood the importance of monitoring the river's water quantity. She was able to convince the accountants and administrators, and thus, river monitoring continued. If she was not the first female in this hydrological role, she certainly was among the first and a pioneer in any case. 

On the occasions that Harriet fell ill or took leave, her daughter, Eydth would fill in and received permission as an “emergency assistant" for one dollar per day.

During World War I, more women began to fill roles in the Weather Bureau, as men departed for the war effort. A February 4, 1919 article in the Joplin Missouri News-Herald noted that “...the honor of the farthest northern weather prophet among the women observers goes to Mrs. Harriet Grasse, who is a special meteorological observer up in Moorhead.” The article did not recognize that unlike the many new female observers enrolled during the war, Harriet Grasse's tenure began much earlier in the decade. 

In September, 1920 at the age of 67, Harriet resigned her duties. In the final assessment of her work by the weather bureau she was noted as having a rating of “excellent,” the highest rating possible. After retirement, Harriet stayed in the area until she passed away in 1941.

Updated March 3, 2022

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