It was late one evening in 1984 when I read eighth-grader Doug Bahr’s seven-page essay entered in the Washington State History Day Contest. This farm son from Wilbur, through the encouragement of his mother, Dorothy, and older sister, Darillyn, told a stunning story in “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast.” This brief family story of a mother and daughter’s walk captivated my imagination and curiosity. Who was this Norwegian immigrant, Helga Estby? Whatever gave Helga and her daughter Clara the courage to attempt such a journey? I recently had read Peter Jenkin’s observations and experiences on his contemporary cross-continent trek in A Walk Across America, a story that attracted immense national interest. I felt certain a mother and daughter’s observations and experiences across an unsettled continent almost one hundred years earlier would prove compelling. Was there more to the story?
In subsequent investigation, I found that little was known about Helga’s audacious gamble to earn the $10,000 wager offered by unknown sponsors for completion of the journey. Behind on paying taxes and the mortgage, she was desperate to save the 160-acre Mica Creek farm and home built by her husband, Ole, for their family of nine children. Hers was a woman’s story, and like most ordinary mothers of her era, her active participation in life was not valued as part of America’s historical record. Even more telling, Helga’s choice to leave home, and the subsequent tragedy of loss, led to such anger in the family that they did not value her remarkable story either. Her walk across the United States with her daughter Clara remained a silenced topic within the family for over seventy years.
Because of this lack of recognition, the most difficult aspect of rediscovering Helga Estby’s life is the paucity of primary resources. For example, no diaries, letters, or art sketches remain from Helga and Clara’s trip, although Helga wrote many letters and kept a diary. Nor do the hundreds of manuscript pages she wrote still exist. Her children are all dead. Furthermore, the children’s lifelong condemnation of their mother’s actions led to fateful choices about her memoirs. It was unfathomable to them that Helga’s writings might contribute significantly to a fuller picture of American history. Like the history of most women at the end of the nineteenth century, her life story became silenced partially by what I call “negation through neglect.” But it was silenced also by intention.
A short poem from a Scottish psychologist, R.D. Laing, in Vital Lies, Simple Truths, addresses this neglect and the failure to recognize the importance of family stories of all people, not just the culturally privileged. It speaks also to the truth that, until recently, academia ignored the history of most women in the American story. The poem states:
The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds
Because Helga’s immediate family “failed to notice” the importance of her endeavor, they did not keep any letters from the trip, or pass her stories orally through the family. Even more distressing, they destroyed the hundreds of pages of her first-person account. The necessity for creative historical detective work to unearth her life inaugurated years of research.
I call this approach to the reconstruction of Helga Estby’s life a “rag-rug history.” In Scandinavia, resourceful women historically collected the discards and remnants of previously used fabrics from all possible sources. From these worn castoffs, often considered of little value to others, they wove together a weft of rags to create incredibly strong and durable artistic rugs. In contrast, early American women usually made quilts from good-quality remnants intentionally saved and treasured. Frugal immigrants continued to create rag rugs to warm their pioneer homes. Contemporary rag-rug weavers still go on hunting expeditions to search for the fabrics from ordinary lives, such as torn and tattered chenille bedspreads, blue jeans, corduroy, and calico. Often weavers will alert their friends and family to help discover old fabrics that others rarely find useful. From these they collect the textures and colors that provide the beauty and interest for today’s creations. The weaver takes these piles of ripped rags, packs the strips tightly together to prevent unraveling, and then, using a beater bar on a loom with warping thread, creates a durable, useful family rug.
My search to find as many remnants of her story as possible led to my own trips across America, and to Norway to learn about Helga’s childhood. Scraps of information gathered from our nation’s rich resources in local historical societies, community and university libraries, and museums became the fabrics of her story. The strong golden thread that wove the rag-rug remnants together came from newspaper accounts of Helga’s visits with reporters along the railroad routes. These eyewitness accounts verified her itinerary and provided a general timetable. More important, they offered a rich vein of stories, although admittedly, they were limited by what a reporter asked and by what Helga and Clara chose to report. Little existed in these accounts of the ordinary daily challenges the women faced in meeting basic survival needs, such as finding food, water, and shelter during the long distances between towns in the West. Nor do reporters show how they coped with the life-threatening extremes of cold and heat, sore muscles and feet, women’s hygiene, electric storms, or dangerous wildlife. Nor do we read of the many specific human kindnesses they say eased the journey, or of the ways nature sometimes refreshed their spirits. However, the varied tone and observations within the reporter’s accounts did provide insights into the attitudes the writers held about the two women “globetrotters.” The tenor of a newspaper, whether primarily interested in international and national issues or local and human-interest stories, affected the coverage. Whether scant or lengthy articles, newspaper errors sometimes emerged. It is also impossible to know if Helga or Clara embellished their adventures. The consistencies of their accounts throughout the newspaper coverage, however, suggest genuine experiences. If anything, their reporting of the travails seem understated.
Whenever people heard portions of Helga’s bold trek, they worked eagerly to help me find additional rag remnants of this nearly discarded life story. The generous gifts of memory and artifacts from the remaining Estby family, a family that does “notice” the importance of Helga’s achievement, augmented these institutional resources.
During this research I discovered a refreshing image that symbolizes the new scholarship emerging on previously neglected women. When Norwegian artist Aasta Hansteen came to America, she was enchanted with the sunflower image that some early American feminists used as a symbol of a woman’s claim to light, and air, and an optimistic spirit. She introduced this symbol on her return to Norway, and the Norwegian Feminist Society adopted it as their official symbol right about the time of Helga’s walk. Helga’s courageous story, once shrouded in silence, now can be linked with other women’s stories emerging in a new American history, a history open to giving light and air to the many voices in our land. My hope is that Bold Spirit contributes an enduring remnant that reflects the irrepressible spirit, intelligence, and abundant love for family and America that Helga Estby’s adventurous life illuminates.
—Linda Lawrence Hunt