This post is one in a series of stories we will be sharing about Cambridge women, in honor of Women’s History Month.
Susan Howlet Butcher was born in Cambridge on December 26, 1954. As a child growing up in Avon Hill, Susan grew to relish the outdoors and often preferred the company of dogs over playing with children of her age. Susan first became interested in sled dogs around age 16. Speaking about this time in her life during an interview with the Academy of Achievement, Susan remembers:
“I really feel I had a strong sense of myself from the earliest memories that I have. I knew very much who I was, approximately what I wanted to do. I didn’t know I wanted to be a dog musher. And I feel there are many things in life I could have done and had as much satisfaction as I am having. But I knew the type of things that I wanted to do, and I also knew that I wasn’t going to let anybody come in the way of that. When I got my second dog, and I was living in my mother’s house in Cambridge, and she said, ‘You will not get a second dog. I won’t let you have two dogs in the house.’ Instead of saying, ‘Okay, I won’t get a second dog,’ I got my second dog and moved out. So it was always a matter of… (being myself) and happily, and with a good relationship with my mother. This was not a negative thing towards my mother. This was not something that she even took as… I was very lucky to have parents that supported my ability to be responsible.”
At just 20 years old, Susan relocated to Alaska where she moved into a log cabin in the remote wilderness. She began teaching herself to become a professional musher, dog breeder and trainer. Susan’s family had a long tradition of self-determination and autonomy. Her great-grandfather, Charles Butcher (1846-1916) emigrated to New York from England in 1867. He and his wife, Mary, moved to Boston a few years after the birth of their son, William Laramy (1875–1952).
Charles was a carpenter by trade, but according to an account by his granddaughter, Helen Elizabeth “Betty” Butcher (1914–1994), was appalled at the typical Bostonian’s method of cleaning the wood floors he installed–scrubbing with soap and water. With this in mind, Charles set out to manufacture a wax for cleaning floors, much like the product and technique employed in Europe.
This led to the development of Butcher Polish Company. Charles began manufacturing the product in the barn behind his property at 197 Lakeview Avenue near Fresh Pond. Butcher’s Wax was first sold in Boston in 1880.
After Charles passed in 1916, his sons William Laramy and Charles Howlett (1884-1951) inherited the company and ran it much in the same way as their father. Later, their sons, including Charles’ son, Charles II (1916-2004) took over the business. Charles II, known as Charlie, married Agnes and together they had a daughter, Susan Howlet Butcher (1954-2006).
Above: Charles II (Charlie) portrait at Harvard (1939) and Susan Howlet (no date, Alaska Sports Hall of Fame)
Susan Butcher became known as a highly-skilled dog musher and in 1986 became the second woman to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an annual sled dog race of around 1,100 miles. In 1990, she became the second four-time winner and the first to win four out of five sequential years. Butcher died in 2006 at age 51 after being diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2005. Two years later, the Alaska state legislature established Susan Butcher Day, observed every year on the first Saturday in March.