William Smith alumna traces the path taken by her grandmother more than 100 years ago
by Belinda Littlefield ’11
fter graduating from Smith College in 1909, Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, two society girls from Auburn, N.Y., became disenchanted with the rounds of society luncheons, charity work and young men who filled their lives. Worried at the thought of settling into life with neither adventure nor intellectual stimulation, the two young women learned that two teaching jobs were available in a remote mountaintop schoolhouse in Elkhead, Colo. They applied and were accepted —shocking their families and friends. “No young lady in our town,” Woodruff later commented, “had ever been hired by anybody.”
Almost 100 years later, New Yorker Executive Editor Dorothy Wickenden ’76 came across her grandmother’s letters home, written by Woodruff during her stay in Elkhead. Granted a window into the past, Wickenden committed her grandmother’s adventure to paper, writing an article for the New Yorker in 2009. Her curiosity far from satisfied, Wickenden wanted to do more thorough research into her grandmother’s world, from her birth in Auburn, N.Y., the home of renowned abolitionists and suffragists, to the development of the West, including the railroad, coal mining and the small community of Elkhead.
Collaborating with family, historical experts and the descendents of Elkhead, Wickenden embarked on an extensive research project that culminated in her first book, Nothing Daunted. The book, a New York Times bestseller, was voted one of the best nonfiction books of the year by the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and the Atlantic.
In addition to the support of friends and colleagues, Wickenden credits the curiosity instilled in her during her time at Hobart and William Smith. “My professors – Mary Gerhart, Katy Cook, Grant Holly, Claudette Columbus, Frank O’Laughlin, John Lydenberg, Eugen Baer and others - all goaded me and made me curious about subjects I might otherwise have had little interest in,” explains Wickenden. “Thinking about it now, I remeber Rosamond's comment, after taking a personal tour of a coal mine in Oak Creek. She remarked, ‘I never appreciated coal before.’”
Did this book change your view of your grandmother?
I’d never known how she’d transformed herself from a pampered society girl into the frank, fearless woman I knew. Now I do, thanks to the extraordinary opportunity to get to know her through letters she wrote when she was in her twenties.
Did your grandmother pass down any of the lessons she learned in Elkhead to your mother and you?
She impressed on both of us the importance of what she learned from the homesteaders in Elkhead: a willingness to work hard, to appreciate sometimes fleeting moments of happiness, and not to complain. Through her stories about growing up in Auburn, she also inspired my love of American history. My aunt Caroline probably put it best when, in describing Dorothy’s difficult years during the Great Depression, said, “She took life by the throat and dealt with it.”
How did you balance firsthand accounts of Rosamond and Dorothy with the formative events of the time they were living in?
I worked from their experiences outward. They described arriving at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver after an extremely hot trip across the Great Plains. I went back and explored the history of the Brown Palace as a way to write about Denver’s early ambitions to be a world-class city. In another letter, Dorothy wrote of taking a perilous train ride over the Continental Divide, and called the railroad “the most gigantic accomplishment I ever saw. We went through and over sheer rock, high mountains, and superb canyons— and I can’t imagine how they ever did it.” I wondered too, and decided to discover the answer. In the book, I move from a scene of Dorothy and Rosamond hanging out of the train window to a short section about the engineering feat – and the human toll – of building a railroad over the Rockies.
What was the most moving aspect of your research?
Finding the children and grandchildren of the homesteaders, and learning about how they, too, had heard from their parents and grandparents about the year that two Eastern ladies arrived in Elkhead to teach in the new schoolhouse on top of the mountain.