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Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk across Victorian Americaby Linda Lawrence Hunt
On Foot to New York
Helga Estby, a thirty-six-year-old Norwegian immigrant, woke early on a mid-June morning in 1896 and slipped on her full-length gray Victorian skirt, simple wool jacket, and new leather shoes. She was eager to leave Boise, Idaho, before 6 a.m. to avoid walking during the scorching midday sun in southern Idaho, a hazard she had failed to consider earlier. Her daughter Clara, an artistic, intelligent, and pretty eighteen year old, helped fill their small satchels with emergency necessities: a Smith-and-Wesson revolver and a red-pepper spray gun to thwart dangerous highwaymen or wild animals, a compass and map, a few medical supplies, a lantern for night walking, photographs of themselves to sell, and a curling iron for Clara's soft hair.
Even when carrying a little food, their bundles weighed less than eight pounds. Wanting to travel light, neither brought a change of clothes, but Helga packed a notebook and pen to record their experiences, and Clara brought materials for sketching. Perhaps more important, they carried a document from Mayor Belt of their hometown of Spokane, Washington, that introduced Helga as "a lady of good character and reputation" and commending her and her daughter to "the kindly consideration of all persons with whom they may have contact." As vital as a calling card to open doors, this introduction was especially useful with people in politics and the media.
They left Boise grateful for the kind considerations shown to them in Idaho's new capital city. The Idaho Daily Statesman had alerted readers of the mother and daughter's arrival and of their brave quest across America. Unlike a small Washington town whose residents refused to let them buy food or find shelter because people suspected the women were "undeserving vagrants," Boise residents showed respect for their "positive spirits and physical energy." They offered the women opportunities to clean and cook and bought their photographs to restore their depleted funds.
For thirty days, the unaccompanied women had successfully traversed by foot more than 450 miles during the wettest spring in thirty-three years. Having left Spokane on May 5, they followed the rail route south through Washington and Oregon, then trudged east through the spring snows and thaws over the Blue Mountain range, and on through the swollen river waters threatening the Boise valley. There had been only three days without rain since they started, and they arrived in Boise on June 5 with the city in alarm as the raging Boise River reached flood stage. Their journey astonished people, especially that "the women did not seem discouraged."
In truth, it was deep discouragement and near despair that set Helga on this dangerous path to solve her family's desperate financial plight. Since the devastating economic depression of 1893, and her husband's accidents, they simply could not pay the mortgage or taxes on their home and farmland near Spokane. Foreclosure loomed during the spring of 1896, sending Helga into a state of fear compounded by sorrow as she also grieved the loss of her beloved twelve-year-old son, Henry, who had died in January.
When she learned of a $10,000 wager offered by "eastern parties" connected to the fashion industry to a woman who would walk across America, Helga decided to try. She could not bear seeing her eight remaining children become homeless and thrown into destitution. She explained to her family and friends, who considered her decision outrageous, that she simply had "to make a stake some way," for she did not want to lose the farm. This was the only way she could see to save it. Most of her neighbors in the Norwegian enclave of farms in Mica Creek considered her choice both impossible and immoral, "not something women do."
The sponsors wanted to prove the physical en-durance of women, at a time when many still considered it fashionable to be dependent and weak. Helga accepted certain stipulations within the contract, even agreeing to wear the "reform costume," a bicycle skirt that sponsors wanted her to advertise once she got to Salt Lake City. She and Clara were allowed to leave with only $5 a piece and then had to earn their way across; were to visit the state capitals in the west; and were to get the signatures of important political persons along the way. When she visited Idaho's Governor William J. McConnell at the State House, a friend of Mayor Belt's, his expression of interest in their walk and his personal note on their introductory document increased her awareness of the importance of their attempt.
As she left Boise with her resolve fortified, and their supplies replenished, Helga began to worry about meeting another stipulation of the contract: The deadline for their walk required they be in New York City within seven months. The rains slowed their earlier days, and it took several days of working in Boise to earn enough money to continue. They needed to arrive in early December, but the sponsors did allow additional days if they became ill. Because getting lost in America's vast continent in the west was one of the dangers, Helga and Clara had planned to follow the railway routes, including the Union Pacific to Denver.
Although enduring drenching rains and wading through hip-deep flood waters in Idaho failed to sap Helga's spirits, it did make her receptive to advice on short cuts. Outside of Shoshone they apparently decided to leave the rails, probably hoping to find a shortcut route that had been used by pioneers seeking a faster way from Pocatello to Boise during the Oregon Trail and gold rush days. For three days Helga and Clara wandered "without a mouthful to eat," eventually becoming lost in the Snake River lava beds of southern Idaho, a treacherous maze of cracked lava, crevices, and sagebrush. Jagged rocks tore up their thin leather shoes and temperatures in the mid-eighties smothered them in their long Victorian dresses. Even more troubling, the fear of rattlesnakes hovered around every step in this barren moonscape land.
During these days of gnawing hunger, intense heat, and disorientation, when all the vocal criticism of the folly of their venture looked frighteningly true, Helga may have faced her own fears over the real and present dangers of this odyssey. Her Scandinavian neighbors saw her as a "determined" woman who achieves what "she makes up her mind" to do, and Helga's actions often reflected her inner confidence and quiet faith. She had struggled earlier with anxieties, especially during pivotal challenges, such as the time of a debilitating accident or during prairie fires and tornadoes on the Minnesota prairie. Her belief since childhood in the power of God undoubtedly led her to pray for Divine help as she and Clara grew weaker, seemingly helpless in their own ability to decipher how to get out of this strange land.
But the stark danger of their present situation could have caused her to wonder if she naively underestimated the risks she placed Clara and herself in, and too blithely dismissed the fears of those who counseled her to stay home with her husband, Ole, and their children. This life-threatening detour was a mistake so costly that Clara and she risked leaving their bleached bones on the lava beds as the sole surviving remnant of their courageous venture. Helga knew, because they no longer were near the rails, that if they died her husband and children might never know what happened to them, a fear she had not considered with all the other warnings. As the moon rose over the eerie land on their third night lost among the lava rocks, Helga pondered and prayed. Her hope and faith intermingled with alarm at a seemingly impossible situation that her resourcefulness might not be able to solve.
Motherhood on a Minnesota Prairie
Helga's walk across America was not her first major journey undertaken to create a better life. At eleven years old, Helga traveled from Norway with her mother, Karen, on the ship Oder and arrived in Manistee, Michigan, on August 12, 1871. Her stepfather had gone ahead to America to start life anew and had settled in this lake town, a thriving economic center for the Scandinavians working nearby in the twenty-four lumber mills. Although a devastating fire destroyed the prosperous town that same year, by 1873 two hundred new buildings reflected the expectation and determination of the optimistic population. Helga attended schools in America for enough time to become proficient in written and oral English, and she loved her new country. A bright child, she found great pleasure in reading. As an only child, she enjoyed how her bilingual ability helped her Norwegian mother and father negotiate in their new land.
During the 1870s, with a growing population of nearly 10,000 residents, Manistee was embroiled in raging debates over the "woman question" and a women's suffrage referendum on the 1874 ballot. Given the controversial nature of this topic, as a young girl Helga inevitably overheard conversations on what rights women should have in America. Although the ballot failed at the state level, the vote from the town of Manistee, and the local editorials showed support for the amendment. The failure led to strong determination by local women to "fight out this battle with a zeal that shall know no discouragement, a courage that shall never tire." They invited Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to lecture. In a town this small, their visits introduced Helga to the importance of women's rights.
But something far more important affected Helga directly. At only fifteen, she discovered she was pregnant and her life changed dramatically. In Norway, young women from the rural farmlands sometimes became pregnant before marriage without disgrace, but it usually led to a marriage with the father of the child. However, Helga was not a rural farm girl living in Norway; she was the stepdaughter and only child of an immigrant merchant living in America. Circumstances surrounding the fifteen-year-old's pregnancy remain mysterious. She may have been raped while working as a maid in a wealthy home, or an irresponsible father walked away when she became pregnant, or perhaps she entered a relationship with a man her family did not approve of for religious, ethnic, or character reasons and they intervened. No one knows. What is known is this unplanned pregnancy radically altered Helga's future.
On October 12, 1876, sixteen-year-old Helga married Ole Estby, a twenty-eight-year-old non-English speaking immigrant from Grue Solor, Norway, who had arrived in America in 1873. He worked in logging camps near Manistee, Michigan, although he initially trained as a carpenter in Germany. Grue Solor is the same region her stepfather came from in Norway, so they likely knew each other earlier. Her marriage to Ole, a Norwegian bachelor, seemed arranged to solve a family problem and avoid shame. Helga gave birth to a daughter she named Clara on November 26, and Ole Estby was probably not the father of her child.
Soon after their marriage, Ole and Helga joined the quest of many Norwegian immigrants who had been drawn to this country by the promise of free land. They started their new life together homesteading in Yellow Medicine County near Canby, Minnesota. Within one year of young Helga's life, she became a wife, a mother, and a pioneer homesteader on the barren prairies near the Minnesota-Dakota border. After their move west, Helga and Ole presented Clara as the child of their own marriage. This family secret was a fiction that Helga and Ole maintained until Clara became a young adult.
For a child raised in the cosmopolitan city of Christiana and during the boom times of Manistee, Michigan, the new challenges of motherhood and farming in an isolated prairie must have been daunting. As she left her family and home and drove off in a Conestoga wagon with her new husband and infant daughter, Clara, she likely had mixed feelings. She may have been enamored with "Western fever" like so many land-poor Norwegian immigrants, lured with the promise of potential riches for homesteaders, and grateful for the marriage with Ole that gave her and her daughter respectability. Or the sudden turn of events in her life may have left her feeling desolate and scared.
Her husband surely saw his future success linked to settling a 160-acre homestead, a general belief confirmed in many letters sent back to Norway by friends and relatives who had immigrated to the United States. The fervency of these American letters enticed Norwegians to leave their families and venture to America, a migration so great that by the early twentieth century, Norway lost as many citizens as had comprised her total population in 1800.
The Estbys were among the early settlers to Canby; the first had arrived only five years earlier in 1872 after the end of the Sioux War. Their farmland was about seven miles north of the city of Canby, a city populated in 1877 primarily by Norwegians. It offered a community where Ole could feel at home with his limited knowledge of English.
Although Yellow Medicine County promised fertile land, grasshoppers had devoured farmers' crops for the past four years, causing many bankrupt farmers to abandon their homesteads and their dreams. It proved fortuitous, however, that the young Estby family filed in 1877, a year before the infestation ended and a large influx of immigrants arrived. This likely reinforced young Helga's trust in risk taking as a way to solve problems.
Helga and Ole arrived in a land bereft of trees. They could see miles and miles of high-grass prairie, with cottonwood and ash trees found only along the river. A vast expanse of sky and land prevailed with nothing to break the wind. Coming from Norway and then Manistee, which nestled near the shores and forests of Lake Michigan, it was a dramatic geographic shift. With no seas, no nearby lakes, no forests, and no mountains, they saw none of the familiar landmarks etched in their memories of earlier days in Norway or Michigan. On the Canby prairie in the 1870s, pioneers battled the wind that at times blew like a cyclone, a sweeping wind that Helga could feel coming from miles and miles.
But the prairie soil was rich, with gravel on the kames, which were short ridges formed by accumulated stratified drift from glacier waters. Scattered wetland marshes and ponds drew a multitude of waterfowl such as mallards, commonteals, rails, sand cranes, and Canada geese. Wild raspberries, prairie turnips, prairie peas, and gooseberries provided additional food for settlers.
Because of the wind and the coming winter, Ole and Helga's immediate concern was to build a sod home into one of the kames. They cut three-foot strips of sod from the untilled ground and laid these in brick-like courses, grass-side down. The hillside banked their sod home, a one-room structure with a dirt floor. Most sod dwellings provided very little light or air in the poorly ventilated rooms, often having just one door and window. Compared to the frame and brick homes Helga lived in before, a sod home was a crude construction that proved difficult to maintain.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2003 by Linda Lawrence Hunt
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