Girls Gone Wild: Two Proper Ladies Who Went West And Won

If you've ever wanted to ditch city life and flee into the wilderness (or if you sometimes fear you might have to), check out this story of two women who did just that in 1916.

According to Dorothy Wickenden's story in this week's New Yorker, Rosamond Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff were both twenty-nine, both well-to-do Smith graduates, and both "uninspired" by their suitors in Auburn, New York, when they responded to a search for schoolteachers in remote Elkhead, Colorado. The mastermind behind this search, cattle rancher Farrington Carpenter, had a secret agenda — luring educated East Coast women to Elkhead to marry local men. It worked — Rosamond married local mine supervisor Bob Perry and, forty years later, Carpenter himself — but this marriage scheme doesn't negate the impact that the women had on Elkhead, or that the town had on them.

Elkhead was a mountain town seventeen miles from the nearest train station, and its school was a single room serving the families of homesteaders in the outlying areas. Dorothy taught the younger children, ten boys and a single girl, while Rosamond instructed the older kids. One former student of Rosamond's wrote, "I don't believe there was ever a community that was affected more by two people than we were by those two girls." Another, who went on to become Missouri's chief forester, wrote, "their impact was immediate, but above all lasting." And although graduation rates in the late teens and early twenties were extremely poor, all six of the ninth-graders Rosamond taught went on to either college or professional school.

But what Elkhead offered Rosamond and Dorothy was perhaps greater than what they offered it. Before they left for Colorado, the women's lives were circumscribed by the expectations of their class and time. "No young lady in our town had ever been hired by anybody," Dorothy wrote. And both women, says Wickenden, "were considered by friends and family to be hopeless spinsters." In Elkhead, they learned that, far from hopeless, they were capable of freeing a horse from a snowbank (wearing snowshoes all the while), cracking the ice in a bucket to give it a drink, and then taking a swig of whiskey each to restore their own strength. Though both later married and had children (Dorothy Woodruff was Wickenden's grandmother), they seem like the kind of spinsters Sadie would approve of. And though their tenure in Elkhead only lasted a year, their story remains inspiring: two women whom no one could imagine even having jobs traveled across the country, made their mark on a group of students (without ever having taught before), and learned to "rough it" along with men.

Dorothy Woodruff's husband died in 1930, leaving her to face the Great Depression with four children. Rather than despairing, she took typing classes and pitched in to help flood victims. "She took life by the throat and dealt with it," says her daughter. Her time in Elkhead may well have prepared her for the hardships of her later life. Now that hardship is upon all of us in one way or another, it's comforting to read about women who learned to do without some of what Dorothy called "the frills, which fill up so much of our lives at home" and were strengthened rather than demoralized by it.

Roughing It [New Yorker]

Earlier: Old Maids And Spinsters: The Best Female Role Models A Teen Girl Can Have