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Tom Ross: A school year in Elkhead

Dorothy Wickenden, author of “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” will read from 4 to 6 p.m. July 9 at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.
Courtesy Photo

If you go

What: Author appearance for “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” with numerous historic photographs, by Dorothy Wickenden

When: 4 to 6 p.m. July 9

Where: Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp





Dorothy Wickenden, author of “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” will read from 4 to 6 p.m. July 9 at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp.

If you go

What: Author appearance for “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” with numerous historic photographs, by Dorothy Wickenden

When: 4 to 6 p.m. July 9

Where: Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp

— For anyone who has longed to time travel back to the early 20th century in Northwest Colorado, when the land was freshly settled, Dorothy Wickenden’s new book, “Nothing Daunted, the Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” will punch your ticket.

Wickenden, executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, might seem like an unlikely writer to tackle a fresh take on the pioneer history of the Yampa Valley. As it turns out, she is uniquely positioned to tell the story of two young women from upstate New York, who in 1916 summoned the nerve to travel beyond the end of the railroad line in the Colorado Rockies. Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood left behind well-off families to teach in the tiny rural community of Elkhead north of Hayden.

The author’s discovery of the detailed correspondence of the two women was the genesis of the book. Woodruff was Wickenden’s grandmother, and Underwood was her best friend.

The letters to their families, retrieved from a forgotten folder in the author’s desk, and others from a box in an attic in Norwalk, Conn., provide a first-person account of the early settlers of West Routt County that has not previously been heard. And Wickenden’s skill as an editor allowed her to broaden the story to place it in the context of not just Colorado but American history.

The story unfolds just before the United States’ entry into World War I, when the daughters of the long suffrage movement were redefining their early adulthood. It was also in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson promised that the Democratic Party platform would endorse suffrage.

And in that sense, this meticulously researched piece of nonfiction is about more than two women who made the unlikely decision to spend a brief part of their lives teaching the children of pioneer farmers and ranchers in untamed Western Colorado.

Party all night long

The book shares the details of Farrington “Ferry” Carpenter’s all-night birthday parties, the early days at Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp in Strawberry Park, and the violent kidnapping of coal mine manager Bob Perry, who escaped his captors by shooting one of them in the chest.

But mostly, this is the story of two young women who enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the Finger Lakes district of New York, who sought adventure and an opportunity to serve before leading the traditional female roles that were expected of them.

Their trip was so out of the norm that it shocked Cayuga County’s “blue bloods” and generated headlines in the Syracuse Daily Journal, as the author reports:

“Forsaking their beautiful homes … for the life of a school teacher … the Misses Rosamond Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff, leading society girls, left for Hayden. The announcement of the departure for the lonely place in the heart of the Elkhart (sic) Mountains, 18 miles from a railroad station, surprised society when it became known today. Both have figured prominently in the many social events which have taken place in this city in the last few years.”

After all, the young women had graduated from Smith College and made a grand tour of Europe. What were they thinking?

During an extended answer to that question, Wickenden weaves in the stories of historical figures such as railroad visionary David Moffat, legendary cattleman J.B. Dawson, modern ballet great Agnes de Mille (think “Rodeo”), Frederick Jackson Turner and, yes, even Woodrow Wilson.

Carpenter, who solicited the women to make the long trip from New York to Colorado, was devoted to improving the education of youngsters in remote Elkhead. But he had ulterior motives, as well, and Wickenden has ferreted them out.

Carpenter, who literally brought the law to Northwest Colorado, also was interested in increasing the number of eligible young women available to the ranchers and miners of the region. Wickenden delicately describes the unfailing politeness of the lonesome cowboys and how her grandmother and her best friend gently kept the would-be suitors at arm’s length.

Elkhead was not so much a town but a widely spaced agricultural community about 18 miles north of Hayden and about nine miles south of Bears Ears Peak, straddling Calf Creek.

Wickenden has captured what it was like for the two society girls to wake up in the loft of a ranch family’s cabin with fresh snow on their bed covers. She relays, in their own words, how they learned to ride cow ponies through the drifted snow of a Yampa Valley winter to a little stone schoolhouse.

But this book is about more than that.

A gift to residents of Northwest Colorado and those who must settle for loving the region from afar, Wickenden’s book also has much to offer readers who have never come west to cross the Great Divide.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com


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