A Frontier Schoolhouse Story
This isn't your typical Good News item, but isn't it interesting that at the turn of the century we had our Wild West version of Teach for America? Only the tenure of that Ivy League placement program for the wealthy elite was only for one school year.
The women improvised their way into teaching, nervous and unaware.
By Maria Russo
NOTHING DAUNTED: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West
By Dorothy Wickenden
Illustrated. 286 pp. Scribner. $26.
In the spring of 1916, two society girls from Auburn, N.Y. Ă˘€” Smith graduates who, having already done a European tour, were iffy about charity work but picky about husbands Ă˘€” found by chance the answer to the question of what to do with themselves. A lady whoĂ˘€™d come for tea mentioned a friend who had a brother, a Princeton man, who was looking for two college-educated women to teach at a schoolhouse heĂ˘€™d built with his neighbors in the Elkhead Mountains of Colorado. Instantly, both knew they wanted to go. One of them, Dorothy Woodruff, was the grandmother of Dorothy Wickenden. And in Ă˘€śNothing Daunted,Ă˘€ť Wickenden has painstakingly recreated the story of how that earlier Dorothy and her friend Rosamond Underwood embarked on a brief but life-changing adventure, teaching the children of struggling homesteaders. Mining a trove of letters as well as oral histories and period documents, including an autobiography published by their employer, Farrington (Ferry) Carpenter, Wickenden lets their tale of personal transformation open out to reveal the larger changes in the rough-and-tumble society of the West Ă˘€” Ă˘€śa back story,Ă˘€ť as she aptly puts it, Ă˘€śto AmericaĂ˘€™s leap into the 20th century.Ă˘€ť
On both ends there were parties who needed convincing. The girlsĂ˘€™ parents had to be reassured of the relative safety of the plan. Carpenter wanted to know about their gumption. Ă˘€śWill they take the grief that goes with such a job,Ă˘€ť he wondered, Ă˘€śand have they the pep to shed it off and go right on like nothing happened?Ă˘€ť Yes and yes: The two women from whom nothing much had ever been expected proved unfailingly cheerful and open-minded, beginning with the long train journey to Elkhead, which culminated on the treacherous Moffat Road (the hair-raising history of which Wickenden pauses to tell, noting that itĂ˘€™s Ă˘€śstill the highest standard-gauge railroad ever built in North AmericaĂ˘€ť). Ros and Dorothy even loved their drafty, cramped lodgings with the surprisingly well-educated Harrison family and relished the two-mile trip on horseback to school each day, sometimes through snow as high as the horsesĂ˘€™ withers. Ă˘€śYou simply canĂ˘€™t conceive of the newness of this country,Ă˘€ť Dorothy wrote home.
The women improvised their way into teaching, nervous and unaware, Wickenden writes, of the Ă˘€śawe with which college-educated teachers in such far-flung areas were regarded.Ă˘€ť They were alternately smitten and exasperated by the children, and amazed at their own capacity to rise to an occasion. Later, both looked back on their year in Elkhead as the best time in their lives. As the months went by, their confidence grew as they toured a coal mine owned by their new friend Bob Perry; traveled to Steamboat Springs to take their state teaching exams; visited the Rocky Mountain Dancing Club, the first performing-arts camp in the country; and attended a raucous all-night party for CarpenterĂ˘€™s birthday. At one point, Perry was kidnapped by disgruntled miners, providing thrilling fodder for letters home.
Known in Denver as Ă˘€śthe wild country,Ă˘€ť Elkhead was a kind of last-chance outpost for settlers taking advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act, the governmentĂ˘€™s offer of up to 160 acres to anyone willing to stake a claim in the untamed West. The areaĂ˘€™s Ute Indians had been Ă˘€śdispensed withĂ˘€ť by the Army, force-marched to a desolate patch of Utah, but the land itself was barely habitable. (Today Elkhead has just three year-round residents.) The Harrisons arrived there only after their cattle ranch in a more fertile nearby valley had failed.
Elkhead, Wickenden explains, was Ă˘€ścovered by snow for six months of the yearĂ˘€ť and springtime brought nearly impassable mud. The homesteadersĂ˘€™ children had had little schooling; many lacked basic necessities like warm clothes and shoes. But thanks to Ferry Carpenter, who had worked on a ranch during his summer breaks from college and had staked his claim on his 21st birthday, the schoolhouse became an inspirational community center.
Carpenter emerges as a fascinating character, both high-minded and practical, generous and self-interested. Ă˘€śI felt that this remarkable system of land distribution,Ă˘€ť he later wrote, Ă˘€śwas the keystone to the success of American democracy.Ă˘€ť Neither Dorothy nor Ros comes across as an exceptional personality, yet they were clearly ready for something more than the staid milieu upstate New York had on offer. Even their well-chaperoned grand tour of Europe, while eye-opening, was not life-changing. (At Amiens Cathedral, we learn, in one of many unexciting anecdotes, Dorothy looked up at the ceiling and Ă˘€śmy head went back, my hat dropped off Ă˘€” in my hurry I had come away without any hatpins.Ă˘€ť) The romance of the West was the perfect medicine.
Wickenden, who is the executive editor of The New Yorker, begins and ends the book by describing her own efforts to round up the sources of the story, but her writerly presence is restrained, even a bit stiff. For the most part, she lets her material speak for itself, so the effect of reading the book is almost like visiting a museum. The tale of Dorothy and Ros is often gently put to the side while Wickenden explains, say, whatĂ˘€™s involved in the process of coal mining or the ins and outs of licensing teachers in early-20th-century Colorado.
Ă˘€śNothing DauntedĂ˘€ť is pretty much the polar opposite of Jeannette WallsĂ˘€™s Ă˘€śHalf Broke Horses,Ă˘€ť which presents an account of WallsĂ˘€™s own grandmotherĂ˘€™s rugged life in the West in an emotional, freewheeling fictional form. Wickenden doesnĂ˘€™t seem overly concerned with the interior lives of her subjects. More than halfway through the book, for example, as youĂ˘€™re wondering how Dorothy felt about the fact that Carpenter and Perry were openly competing for RosĂ˘€™s affections, Wickenden reveals that Dorothy was already secretly spoken for when the two women arrived in Colorado.
Yet thereĂ˘€™s often a surprising imaginative power in WickendenĂ˘€™s approach. At its best, this book can recall Laurel Thatcher UlrichĂ˘€™s classic Ă˘€śA MidwifeĂ˘€™s Tale,Ă˘€ť which pioneered the method of teasing out an expansive story from the record of Ă˘€śunremarkableĂ˘€ť womenĂ˘€™s daily lives. Individual scenes emerge with a lovely, almost pointillist clarity Ă˘€” like a Christmas party at the schoolhouse in the midst of a blizzard, with rustic dancing and gifts for the dazzled children sent by DorothyĂ˘€™s and RosĂ˘€™s families Ă˘€” while we never lose track of the larger forces at work, including the removal of the Indians and the brutal fights for mining and railroad riches.
Although WickendenĂ˘€™s gaze remains steadily on her well-to-do subjects, she makes us aware of the human and environmental toll of the homesteaderĂ˘€™s life. In the end, the community that gathered around the Elkhead schoolhouse was short-lived as families moved to friendlier terrain. But perhaps something about its improbability brought out the best in many people, so it seems fitting that the schoolhouse became the centerpiece of this book, a historical rescue effort as impressive in its way as Dorothy and RosĂ˘€™s adventure a century earlier.
Maria Russo is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.
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