13

EARNING THEIR OWN WAY

They are certainly a strong testimony of woman’s

endurance and ability to care for herself.

—PLYMOUTH (INDIANA) REPUBLIC NOVEMBER 19, 1896

For the first time since crossing the western mountain ridges, Helga and Clara encountered snowstorms as they walked toward Chicago. With the chilling winds and sharp drop in temperatures, their short wool mackintosh jackets gave them limited protection from freezing weather.

On the plains near Chicago, hoboes tried to accost them, following the women for three-fourths of a mile. “Clara and I walked backward pointing our revolvers at them to save ourselves from harm,” stated Helga. Clara shot them in the face with her pepper gun, an insect powder box filled with cayenne pepper and “the cayenne made them desist.” The tramps that attempted to molest them “begged for mercy.”1

During their rush to Chicago, the culminating days of the Presidential election reached a fever pitch. By the day American’s cast their ballot, Bryan had traveled over 18,000 miles and given 600 speeches.2 While Bryan’s campaign took him directly to the voters, McKinley brought hundreds of thousands of voters directly to him in a “front-porch” campaign. Also wanting that face-to-face contact with voters, McKinley conducted a steady campaign at his home in Canton, Ohio. In well-orchestrated visits, delegations converged on Canton from many states, brought in through the support of the railroad barons. In these festive visits, replete with welcoming brass band fanfare, McKinley presented his platform to over 750,000 persons, including thirty delegations on one day when he gave fourteen formal speeches.3 Delegates liked the distinguished Civil War veteran’s calm appeal to reason and common sense. As a former United States congressman and governor of Ohio, he offered mature experience to voters. He stressed building unity and harmony in the nation, not social or regional conflicts.

The Republican party also had a far richer campaign coffer which enabled them to print over two hundred million brochures and pamphlets to promote McKinley.4 Major corporations contributed to assure that McKinley and the gold standard won, including $500,000 from Standard Oil and J.P. Morgan alone. This exceeded the entire amount of the Democrat’s fund.5

On November 3, when Helga and Clara were just southwest of Chicago, they witnessed one of the largest election turnouts in the United States. Nearly eighty percent of eligible voters came to the polls.6 To Clara’s delight, McKinley won decisively by around six hundred thousand votes. Bryan’s message, however, resonated with well over six million Americans, and he won in twenty-two states, including most of the West and all of the South. Although big money clearly helped McKinley win the election, other important factors appealed to citizens. His personal character and his reasoned message that promised stability, rather than the dangerous experiment with free silver, appealed to urban Northeasterners and even many Midwest voters.

As they neared the outskirts of America’s great Midwest city, where the Great Lakes link with the Mississippi River system, dirty smog hovered in the horizon from the factories of industrial America, a startling change from the clear skies of the plains. Shanties housing the poor stretched into long slums along the route into Chicago.7

Needing to live on the least amount of money possible, Helga and Clara arrived in Chicago on November 7, “footsore and travel stained,” with only a dime to their name and “their clothes about in rags.” The Chicago Evening Post announced their $10,000 tramp, and noted “the women are poorly clad and will make an effort to secure money in the city to purchase winter clothing before proceeding further.”8 To replenish their funds, Helga and Clara modeled their reform costumes in a progressive department store, a novel change from the washing and cleaning they did in the West. They earned enough for much-needed new outfits and shoes.9

Chicago illustrated in a microcosm the extremes of wealth and poverty in the United States that the presidential election highlighted. In the heart of Chicago’s resplendent commercial district near the beautiful Lake Michigan shore, Helga and Clara saw the abundant wealth concentrated in the bustling business center. Barges carrying grain, coal, salt, iron ore, limestone, and steel exemplified the powerful transportation role the great inland port played in the world. The department store where they modeled their reform dresses carried the latest high fashions for Chicago’s rich society women. Designers created elegant Victorian dresses and hats with exquisite fabrics from around the world, sewn with yards and yards of organdy, lace, silks, satins, heather wools, furs, and feathers. As a seamstress, Helga was fascinated by the sheer abundance of beautiful textures and cloth.

Yet, like in most industrial urban centers in America, the financial Panic of 1893 threw thousands of capable Chicago working-class men and their families into destitution and despair. Over 100,000 remained out of work in the winter of 1893–94, yet transients continued to ride the boxcars into the city in search of jobs.10 These men, unable to find employment, ended up in flophouses or homeless on the streets. A burgeoning immigrant population from Europe poured into the city, too, often living in crowded, disease-ridden tenements. This contributed to the outbreak of diphtheria that occurred during the month of Helga and Clara’s visit, with over 5,000 diagnosed with the disease.11

These destructive conditions affecting the lives of many of America’s newest immigrants drew the abiding interest of Jane Addams, a young woman who began a settlement house amid the urban misery of Chicago’s slums in 1889. Born in America the same year as Helga, Jane benefited from the new educational opportunities for women and attended Rockford College in Illinois. An excellent student with a strong moral code, but physically frail, she longed to be “useful” in the world. After graduation, however, very few professional occupations were open for educated women.

During her early twenties, while Helga was gaining confidence homesteading on the prairie, Jane often lamented that the idle leisure life of privileged women left them with no significant work to do. In her early twenties, after back surgery ended her medical school ambitions, Jane traveled twice to Europe on “grand tours,” a favorite diversion for women of means in the late nineteenth century. Often traveling for a year or more to pursue culture by visiting museums, seeing theater and opera, learning languages, or going on shopping sprees, it also provided a means to fend off boredom or depression. However, after an encounter with the wretchedness of urban poverty in East London, she visited Toynbee Hall. Educated young men in England lived and worked here, striving to ease the life of the poorest in the East End, and this model became a catalyst to Addams’ solution of something useful to do.

She returned to Chicago and founded Hull House with her friend, Ellen Gates Starr. As with Helga’s choice to walk across America, Addams’ choice to live amid the poor was unheard of in her era. But she insisted that this work “saved” those who were serving, giving educated women like herself meaningful work, as much as it helped immigrants. Living among Italian, Polish, Greek, Russian, and Bohemian immigrants, the women in Hull House offered friendship and services for their neighbors. They opened kindergarten and daycare facilities for children of working mothers, an employment bureau, art gallery, playgrounds, libraries, and classes.

By the time Helga and Clara came to Chicago, Addams’ innovative efforts as a social reformer were becoming well-known. As she saw the wretched living and working conditions of her neighbors, she wrote and spoke persuasively for more humane and just conditions. She also befriended influential clergymen who taught that Christians needed to help change the unjust structures that brutalized the vulnerable, not just provide individual charity after the fact. This “social gospel” offered an intellectual and spiritual framework for Addams’ efforts to abolish child labor and to improve conditions in unsafe factories, sordid tenements, and garbage-filled streets.12

Even during the depressed years of the 1890s, Chicago manifested the raucous confidence of a pivotal city standing on the brink of a new era at the turn of a century. Despite the nation’s financial collapse, Chicago hosted over twenty million visitors at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, financing a 586-acre tribute to American ingenuity. This fair demonstrated the newest technological wonders for farms, factories, and homes, reassuring nervous Americans to expect a positive future. It even included a Women’s Building exhibition that highlighted women designers, scientists, writers, architects, and artists; it was here that many women were first introduced to bicycle skirts like the ones Helga and Clara wore.

Helga’s contract stipulation only required they visit mayors after they arrived in Chicago, so they made their way to the mayor’s office in City Hall. Here Mayor George E. Swift’s “Private Secretary Minkler” signed their credentials for the mayor to show they had visited the city.13 The Chicago Journal, also featuring Helga and Clara’s arrival on page one of the newspaper, stated that the $10,000 reward was “offered by a New York weekly syndicate,” probably referring to the New York World that first announced their trip.14 Now accounting for illness, Helga states that “to accommodate this feat” they must walk twenty-nine miles a day to reach New York by December 13, actually an overestimation of the mileage.

Cold, bone-chilling days lay ahead as they left the windy city and traveled through the increasingly populated states of Indiana and Ohio. On November 14, they walked twenty-five miles from Hanna, Indiana, to Plymouth, Indiana. Coming into town hungry and tired on a Saturday evening at 8:15, they stopped at the Ross House and asked for supper and accommodations. They were so browned by the sun and exposure to the weather that “Landlord Bowel” held some doubts as to “whether he was being imposed upon by some Gypsies or tramp women.” But he became intrigued with his guests and notified a reporter from the Plymouth Republic who wrote a lengthy article on the women and their wager.15 For the first time, an article mentioned “a wealthy lady of Spokane, Washington” who wanted to test women’s physical endurance, as well as her ability to provide for herself, had “made an offer.”16 A wealthy Spokane woman connected to the “eastern sponsor” might have known Helga, provided the contact with Spokane’s mayor, and paid the money for the formal portraits taken in Spokane to send to the New York World newspaper.

In these populated areas, Helga and Clara were now earning enough by selling their photographs to nearly meet expenses, which so far, totaled around $195. Interested in their physical appearance and short skirts, the reporter noted that “smoke and dust was grimed into their necks,” but admitted “little else could be expected from following the railroad for so many months.” Observing the women were “of medium height and would probably weigh 112 or 115 pounds,” they “seemed only slightly fatigued” after walking twenty-five miles from Hanna. Even their hairstyle garnered attention, perhaps to show newspaper readers how “normal” or feminine Helga and Clara seemed. “The women have brown hair, the mother doing hers up in a knot while that of the daughter is frizzed or curled.” The fact they had worn out seven pairs of shoes each and wore a rainproof gossamer or mackintosh as their only wrap also interested this thorough reporter.

When earning travel funds by cooking, cleaning, and sewing took up too much time, Helga began writing ahead to city newspapers seeking opportunities to speak and sell their pictures.

Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection. Detail of this photograph on this page.

Clearly impressed with their journey, the reporter concluded, “While they were not at all backward as ladies, they were not immodest, and seemed to have the respect of those who met them. They are certainly a strong testimony of woman’s endurance and ability to care for herself.”17

The women reached Atwood, Indiana, on Sunday, November 15, and spent the night. Walking along the Pittsburgh Railway for almost fifty miles to Fort Wayne, they arrived on Wednesday, November 18. They checked into the Bradley Grand Central Hotel and spent the evening at the major drugstore in town where “quite a number of photographs were sold in the city.” “As only 800 miles remain to be traveled,” stated the reporter from the Fort Wayne Sentinel who became convinced of their eventual success, “Mrs. Estby and her daughter already have the prize assured them.”18

Once again, a reporter speaks of a Spokane connection but with a new twist. “This long journey was the conception of a wealthy woman of Spokane, who is an ardent advocate of woman’s suffrage, and it is intended to test the power of woman’s endurance.”19 Never before has Helga mentioned a connection to women’s suffrage, although she consistently refers to the goal of proving the endurance of women. In an earlier interview with the Idaho Statesman, she mentioned they were walking to New York on a wager “put up by parties who do not care to have their names divulged until we reach our destination.”20 The female sponsors appeared to keep their identity secret even from Helga, a term she accepted. For whatever reasons, these sponsors encouraged Helga and Clara to gamble with their very lives, engaging them in a desperate feat.

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