12

AN ELECTRIFYING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Miss (Clara) Estby says she is sick of the trip.

No doubt these two ladies would pull custom like a

span of mules, if any manager here had the nerve to

play them.

—DES MOINES REGISTER OCTOBER 17, 1896

Helga, now a William Jennings Bryan supporter, shared the excitement of Nebraskans who found pride in the meteoric rise of interest in their politician from Lincoln. The women entered Nebraska through Ogallala. Encouraged by the receptions they received from governors, Helga decided to visit Bryan’s home in Lincoln and add his important signature to their document. Their trek continued along the South Platte River, running through the towns of North Platte, Kearney, and Grand Island, backtracking the Oregon Trail. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, where the turbulent crystal water of the Spokane River cut a dashing swath through the city, this flat muddy river must have surprised her. Known by locals as a mile wide and an inch deep, it was even too shallow for navigation, yet wide enough to have islands throughout. But locals knew never to underestimate the river’s power; it could be perilously unpredictable.

William McKinley supporters began to question if they had underestimated this other Nebraskan wonder, the thirty-six year old with the silver voice. Because Bryan was young, openly critical of America’s major power centers, and lacking the campaign funds and political organization of the far-wealthier Republicans, at first his candidacy seemed as shallow a threat as Nebraska’s Platte River. But the currents of his conviction and prodigious energy ran deep. Bryan also tapped into the wellspring of discontent in the agrarian west and south that led to earlier calls for change from the Populist Party. The Populist reformer, Mary Elizabeth Lease, expressed the pent-up anger many felt toward abuse from corporate power. “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, for the people, by the people, but a government of Wall Street, for Wall Street, and by Wall Street.”1 Bryan carried on this Populist mantle in his own campaign.

Bryan chose to go “to the people,” riding the railroads to bring his fiery brand of campaigning to twenty-seven states. Not only farmers wanted to hear him as he barnstormed the country. In Boston, over 75,000 came to listen to him, a sign that sentiment was growing for his “free silver” cause, even in the East.2 However, it was the heartfelt response he engendered that alarmed his opponents. In Red Cloud, Nebraska, novelist Willa Cather described seeing “rugged, ragged men of the soil weep like children” when he addressed them.3

William and Mary Bryan’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska, decorated for a celebration during the Presidential election year of 1896.

Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections, RG3198:22-6. Detail of this photograph on this page.

Helga understood. She knew firsthand the economic devastation during President Cleveland’s administration and valued Bryan’s expressed sympathy with the farmers and working-class families. She witnessed the collapse of the Spokane banks, the foreclosure on businesses and neighbor’s farms, and felt her own husband’s shame and helplessness at being unable to earn an honest living to support his nine children. Many Bryan supporters saw maintaining the gold standard as a conspiracy of the rich, of Wall Street, and the Republican party wanting to maintain the status quo.4William McKinley ardently upheld the gold standard.

Bryan, who once wanted to be a Baptist preacher, used potent religious imagery that electrified his supporters. This also resonated with Helga’s Lutheran upbringing and strong knowledge of the Bible. She likely read the newspaper accounts and cartoons that either supported or lambasted his religious rhetoric, especially his famous “Cross of Gold” speech given at the national Democratic Convention. Warming his audience up, he insisted that upholding the gold standard had “slain the poor,” and hurt “the producing masses of this nation,”… and the “toilers everywhere.” Then, in a thundering conclusion, he railed against big business interests, Republicans, and McKinley, who advocated the gold standard. “We will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”5 This speech threw down the gauntlet of a campaign that riveted the voters throughout the summer and fall of Helga’s and Clara’s bold venture.

Helga favored attorney, orator, and Congressman William Jennings Bryan for president, who was only thirty-six when his Democratic candidacy and concern for the poor galvanized interest in the 1896 election.

Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections, RG3198: 17-10.

Clara did not share her mother’s enthusiasm for Bryan, preferring William McKinley. Republican supporters of McKinley and the gold standard were outraged by what they saw as Bryan’s sacrilegious and inflammatory manipulation of sacred Christian symbols. But they, too, couched the election in religious and moral metaphors as they argued against the proposed silver legislation they saw as a disastrous solution. McKinley believed restoring silver in America’s coinage would lower the dollar’s value to fifty-three cents, thus being an act of “stealing.” Many prominent ministers supported the gold standard, and some linked this to the Ten Commandments, reminding their congregations, “Thou shalt not steal.”6 Also seeking to appeal to the anxious working class, McKinley assured a “full dinner pail” for all citizens, rather than the half pail of free silver. To repay loans with a reduced-value dollar would mean cheating the lender, therefore it was “an issue of integrity and honesty.”7 Keeping the gold standard was essential to revive America’s prosperity, the only “honest dollar” and “sound currency.” McKinley proposed protective tariffs as the best way “to get work for the masses,” which particularly appealed to urban factory workers in the East. Clara, known for her sensitive gentle spirit, found McKinley’s calmer, less divisive campaign more appealing. She looked forward to going to McKinley’s home when they arrived in Ohio.8

As Helga and Clara continued their walk on the flat lands along the Platte River, they saw places where the Conestoga wagons left their deep wheel ruts, a permanent imprint of the importance of this river that guided settlers along the Oregon Trail. Helga knew this river served as a sustaining friend when pioneers journeyed to Oregon during the 1840s and 50s. But she and Clara found it cooling, too, as they crossed over three hundred miles to Bryan’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

When Helga and Clara arrived in Lincoln, Mary Baird Bryan, the presidential candidate’s wife, warmly welcomed them. He was away campaigning in the East, but she invited the two for dinner.9 Helga and Mary Bryan, almost the same age, shared some common experiences. Mary also pursued an unconventional course for women when she studied law and took the bar exam, and likely she admired the women’s undaunted determination. Both grew up as the only child in their families, and both immensely enjoyed being mothers. But their opportunities as young women in America differed dramatically. At sixteen, when Helga became a mother and wife, Mary entered the Jacksonville Female Academy and graduated as valedictorian in 1881. During her college years, she met William Jennings Bryan, a young attorney, and married him in 1884. By this same year, Helga had dropped out of school, birthed and nurtured four children, and lived in near poverty in a one-room dirt floor sod home. Though women with vastly different economic choices, they still shared the common desire to help their husbands and give their children good futures.

Mary Baird Bryan welcomed Helga and Clara into her home for dinner and bought several pictures. Her husband, William Jennings Bryan, was away campaigning.

Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collection, RG3198: 2-8.

When new opportunities for professional schooling opened for women in America, Mary Bryan, a mother of three, chose to study law. But, “she never dreamed of practicing it.” Instead, she saw it as a way to help her husband. “My sole object was to keep pace mentally with Mr. Bryan as far as my ability would permit. I believe that this is the only way in which a wife can keep the affection and sympathy of an intellectual husband.”10 She took the bar exam both in the District and Supreme Courts of Nebraska, something rarely done by women. Instead of practicing law, she became active in women’s clubs, especially Sorosis, which encouraged thought among women. An enthusiastic advocate for college education for women, she likely encouraged Clara, who was bright and articulate, to consider college if they received the $10,000. Before Helga and Clara left, Mary bought several pictures and added her signature to the document.11

From Lincoln, they walked northeast to Omaha. Here Helga and Clara saw the grand Missouri River and a flourishing town for trade and commerce. But in Omaha, Clara fell sick, perhaps from food poisoning. Unfortunately, this laid them up for several days, causing Helga to revise their expected arrival date to December 13, providing allowance for illness as the contract stipulated. Now into September, they still had several states to cross before reaching Manhattan.

When Clara felt better, good fortune aided them as temperatures hovering near the 70s created a far better climate for walking. Along the riverbanks, they could rest under the shade of the cottonwoods, and finding meals, housing, and work became easier in these more populated areas. They stayed in Atlantic, Iowa, the home of the Rock Island Railroad depot, and then followed the tracks east. Wearing straw hats to protect themselves from the sun, they passed by rural family farms and Midwestern towns that exuded a sense of peace and stability. As Helga and Clara’s accomplishment of traversing halfway across the United States became known, reporters took interest in their expected arrivals into a new town. On October 15, the Des Moines Leader reported that the women were somewhere between Atlantic and Des Moines after having covered almost 2800 miles already. The reporter described their short gray skirts “reaching only to their shoe tops,” heavy shoes, and leggings, and said they should be arriving soon to sell pictures of themselves to earn money.12

To earn money along the route, Helga and Clara sold formal portraits of themselves, an effective fundraiser.

Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection.

Then, early frosts and cold weather in October sabotaged Iowa farmers and gave Helga a vivid reminder of the vulnerability of farmers everywhere. What looked bucolic belied the full truth. With the onset of cold weather, the market demand for watermelons abruptly ended and thousands of beautiful ripened melons rotted in the fields south of Des Moines. Like the ways a hailstorm or grasshopper infestation destroyed crops in Minnesota and unseasonable rains ruined the grain fields near Mica Creek, she knew intimately how such crop failures sank farm families deeper in debt.

They followed the Rock Island Railroad through Dexter to Des Moines where they arrived on October 17 and stayed at the Savery Hotel. After announcing Helga’s and Clara’s arrival and the $10,000 wager, the Des Moines Register reporter noted that they were “being watched by agents of the woman who has made the offer and therefore prevented from stealing rides,” and that they continued to have confidence in their eventual success. “They said last night that they expected to win it.”13

The reporter also mentioned that in addition to the wager, the women were writing a book of their experiences. From their early interviews in Washington, through to the final interviews in the East, Helga attached importance to her plans to write a book. An avid reader, she expressed confidence in her ability to capture this intrepid journey. But, she saw this in addition to winning the $10,000. Although probably Helga’s original idea, not the sponsors’, they may have agreed to help her make essential contacts in the New York publishing world. Helga also stated that the purpose of the feat they were attempting to perform “on the part of the lady who is putting up the $10,000 is to demonstrate the endurance of women.” Helga and Clara clearly demonstrated this strength. But Helga makes it equally clear that this was not what motivated her to walk. The controversy between “new women” and those advocating that women need to live a protected life were not her concerns. As she stated their purpose to the reporter, “as far as they are concerned it is to earn the $10,000.”14

They worked odd jobs in Des Moines long enough to replenish their depleted funds and to buy new shoes and mackintosh raincoats. Cinders on the railroad tracks quickly destroyed their shoes, so now they planned to walk along the dirt roads beside the Rock Island Railroad into Chicago. By now Helga no longer lived with so many of the fears that people planted in her mind before she left. Instead of threats, almost every day in their encounters with ordinary citizens, men and women alike, they received kindness. Most people wanted to help them. As an Iowa reporter wrote, “They say, however, that their reception has always been satisfactory and that they have had no troubles.”15 Even so, the article concluded with reference to Clara’s candid comment, “Miss Estby said she was sick of the trip.”16

Before leaving town, they met with Governor Francis M. Drake and he added his signature to their document.17 Frustrated by the delays and needing to raise money with as brief a stay as possible, Helga began writing ahead to towns, asking them to set them up in a public place where they could tell their story and sell photographs. On October 22, when Helga and Clara traveled through Marengo, Helga wrote a letter to the Davenport, Iowa, newspaper. She announced that they expected to be there the following Tuesday, October 27. She wanted to know how much the manager of the opera house would be willing to pay her and her daughter to come there “as an advertisement,” intimating that they needed to make their expenses en route. Anticipating her arrival, the October 24 Davenport Democrat reporter wrote that the city will be “honored” by her call: “We hereby refer the matter to the managers of the many places of amusement in this city. No doubt these two ladies would pull custom like a span of mules, if any manager here had the nerve to play them.”18

The two walkers cross the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa, on the brand-new railroad and wagon bridge.

Courtesy Rock Island Arsenal Museum.

Shortly outside of Marengo, Helga and Clara passed the experimental Amana Colonies. These German communities that sought religious freedom and the opportunity to practice their distinctive communal farming system settled along the Iowa River in 1855. Rather than live on isolated farm homesteads as Helga and Ole did outside Canby, all the farm families lived within the village and contributed to creating a self-sustaining community. Each person over school age held assigned tasks in the kitchens, fields, factories, or shops. Helga and Clara admired the craftsmanship of the sturdy timber and native sandstone homes, and they knew that Ole would have shared in their admiration of the well-built homes, shops, and churches—even the barrels made at the cooperage. The villages exuded a sense of abundance, with bountiful vegetable gardens, beautiful flowers, and grape vines climbing up each house arbor. It is possible that women invited Helga and Clara to a meal in the common dining areas where the women cooked together and then ate in quiet contemplation at tables separate from the men. A farm feast of homemade breads, hams, and berry wines would have energized them for the next stretch ahead. Or they may have been shunned, seen as a worldly influence, unfit for associating with the children and women.

They walked along the Millrace, a seven-mile canal used to power the Amana Woolen Mill, a major source of revenue for the villagers. Seeing women leisurely boating and hearing the laughter of children playing with their mothers along the waterway inevitably brought memories of family outings by the Spokane River and picnics in the parks. In the silent hours of walking, Helga’s mind often drifted to images of Ole and each of her children and a longing for the familiar comforts of home. Almost every single day in the last twenty years, motherhood had shaped the rhythms of her life. Tucking children into bed, reading them stories, and listening to their daily pleasures and worries provided joy amid the labor of caring for a family of eleven. Even with all their difficulties, she had felt a comfort in these familiar family patterns.

Now each day brought something new, challenging her in unexpected ways. She liked that walking had made her stronger and liked having time for lingering discussions with Clara and all those who befriended them. On some days, she even enjoyed the many hours of solitude in nature and the time for reflection, something she rarely knew when caring constantly for children. But the family was so far away, and she missed them each and every day.

When Helga and Clara arrived in Davenport and saw the sheer size of the famous muddy Mississippi, it provided visual proof they were over their halfway mark. In 1896, a marvelous new steel government bridge connected Arsenal Island to Davenport, Iowa, replacing the old iron bridge. Clara fell ill again for a brief time, adding one more delay. But soon they crossed the river, joining the pedestrians and teams of horses that walked on the ground level while trains roared overhead. Destined for even more densely populated land, they knew finding food and shelter should no longer be a problem. However, Helga now carried a new worry as she wondered if the good weather, so essential for their success, would hold.

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