They are so anxious to gain time that they made no
stop here at all.
—OHIO STATE JOURNAL
UPPER SANDUSKY, NOVEMBER 24, 1896
They called on President-elect McKinley at Canton
last evening and were genially welcomed by the Major
and his pleasant wife.
—ALLIANCE DAILY REVIEW NOVEMBER 30, 1896
When Helga first proposed the walk across America, she heard all the negative predictions. “It’s an impossible trip.” “Women can’t do such a thing.” “You won’t survive.” But as she continued east, she found that with their unique story and engaging personalities, people were anxious to help them along the way. Furthermore, Helga’s worthy ambition to save a family home fit a Victorian value, even if her method appeared radical. By the time Helga and Clara entered the last few hundred miles of their trip, winding through eastern Ohio and the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania, the women undoubtedly felt a high sense of achievement and relief. Even Clara, sick of the trip by the time they arrived in the Midwest, seemed excited about their accomplishment, or at least that the end was drawing near.
Some reporters noted the women’s swinging emotional pendulum. Although Helga expressed assurance that they would make their destination, it was now coupled with a nagging fear that the sponsor might void the contract if they arrived after the December destination date. Delay caused by Clara’s ankle injury and illness placed them in a race against the calendar. Even after walking a formidable thirty-eight miles in one day to make up lost time, they still lagged a few days behind schedule. Surviving the summer dangers of desert heat exhaustion had changed to surviving December’s chilling winds and snowstorms. Recalling the 1880 Minnesota winter that began in mid-October, Helga knew they needed unseasonably mild weather on their side. A winter storm paralyzing the East would make walking in November and December impossible. Would their luck hold?
A brief November 24 article in Upper Sandusky’s, Ohio State Journal indicated their anxiety and hurry as they reached eastern Ohio. No longer did they have the leisure to stop, rest, and earn money. “They are so anxious to gain time that they made no stop here at all,” lamented a reporter, perhaps disappointed not to meet the globetrotters.1 However, while in Ohio, they did take time to visit “General Keep-Off-the-Grass” Coxey, a friend of laborers, in Massillon. Jacob Coxey, a wealthy man who owned a sandstone quarry in Ohio, ranches, and race horses, traveled the poor Midwest roads that alternated between frozen, muddy, or dusty. He believed that if the United States wanted to grow and prosper again, it needed to fix the dilapidated roads, so he began a Good Roads Association.2
Helga and Clara stopped in Massillon, Ohio, and visited Jacob Coxey. His “army” of unemployed men walked to the Capitol in Washington in 1894 seeking government support of a public-works project to provide men with work, setting a precedent for future nonviolent protests on the Capitol grounds.
Courtesy Ohio Historical Society, OHS 11759.
Detail of this photograph on this page.
Then, troubled by the massive unemployment of 1893 that left men desperately in need of work, he came up with an innovative but controversial idea. Why not have the United States government create public work jobs and hire unemployed workers to fix America’s roads? After walking these same troublesome roads, Helga and Clara understood exactly what he meant. Through his Ohio representatives he petitioned Congress for a $500 million public works bill; it languished, ignored by legislators. To draw attention to his petition, he devised a strategic march with another free-silver cohort he had met at the Chicago World’s Fair. During the depth of the depression in 1894, they invited out-of-work men to leave Massillon, Ohio, on Easter Sunday to join in a four-hundred-mile march to the nation’s Capitol steps, aiming for a May 1 arrival. Newspapers from around the country, intrigued with this novel protest from decent men desperate for work, sent journalists to accompany this first group of 122 marchers who called themselves the “Commonweal of Christ.”3 Reporters provided colorful daily news throughout the spring, which spawned offshoots of other groups, and Coxey’s Army swelled to four hundred. They represented a variety of occupations, various unions, and even a few from fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows and Masons; their fellow members often gave them help along the way.
Other groups joined them on May 1 for this unique demonstration. Unemployed men from the West gathered to take trains east, legally and illegally, to show their solidarity. With so many people in America affected by the depression, the usually peaceful Coxeyites found sympathetic support for their plight and petition. In Pittsburgh, four hundred members of the Iron Moulders’ Union helped create a parade, marching in front of them, complete with a band.4 Although the poorly clad men often marched with little to eat, sometimes supporters provided meals as well as encouragement for the marchers.
It is probable that Helga knew of the Coxey groups from the Washington State coast who collected in Spokane during May of 1894. Hundreds of men stayed in the city for several days, putting on benefits to explain their mission and raise funds for the trip East, and even playing baseball games with locals.5 As a union worker, her husband may have met with the marchers. The strategies Coxeyites had used on their marches might have planted seeds for Helga when she began planning her transcontinental journey. She had seen how the heavy utilization of newspaper publicity helped these men gain popular support and tangible items, like a good meal or shelter for a night. Though internal conflicts and poor leadership undermined and ultimately disbanded these Northwest efforts, Coxey’s original group arrived six weeks later in Washington, D.C., and camped on the outskirts. Unarmed, poorly clad, often hungry, the men marched with a simple hope that the U.S. government might recognize an opportunity to assist the desperately poor in the country. They did not ask for a handout, just a chance to do honest work.
President Cleveland’s administration, fearful of trouble and riots, refused to grant the Coxeyites a permit to march the last few miles to the Capitol steps. Coxey argued that the Capitol steps were public property and it was his constitutional right to speak. After his men had walked four hundred miles, although he often rode in a carriage, he was determined to carry their message to the legislature. They marched into the city, with more than 20,000 curious spectators there to greet them or perhaps, to observe the potential confrontation. Over three hundred policeman stood guard by the Capitol.6 Police shoved Coxey down the Capitol steps before he could give his speech, eventually arresting him for “unauthorized parading on the grass” and “carrying signs on the Capitol grounds,” a charge ridiculed by some newspapers as overkill.7
Newspapers in Spokane followed this first major march of common citizens going to the Capitol to petition for change. One West Coast reporter argued that the nation should be proud of Coxey’s Army, that they showed the strength of the nation when the dispossessed demonstrated responsibly. “These men who feel themselves wronged do not propose to kill and overthrow—they do not march with guns—they do not threaten—they appeal—they petition—they protest—they reason.”8 In reality, they acted out of faith that congress held the power to fulfill the Pledge of Allegiance’s lofty promise of justice for all.
Helga told reporters that Coxey “gave them some valuable pointers on marching.” Yet, he only walked part of the four hundred miles from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., taking off in his carriage to conduct business when necessary. By now, Helga and Clara had walked over twenty-five hundred miles. Before they left, he added his signature to the growing list of impressive Americans who signed Helga’s introductory letter.9
On Sunday, November 29, they walked from Massillon to Canton, hopeful for a visit with the President-elect William McKinley. Now it was Clara’s turn to be excited when Major and Mrs. McKinley invited the women in for an hour’s visit. “Clara felt most welcomed here.”10 A respected Civil War major, McKinley studied law and then entered political life, eventually becoming governor of Ohio. His wife, Ida Saxton, once a beautiful young woman given all the advantages of a fine education and travel, suffered from years of poor health. After the death of her two young daughters, her only children, she became a semi-invalid and appeared to struggle with phlebitis and epileptic seizures.11 She still was considered a “charming hostess,” and Helga and Clara said the President-elect and his wife “encouraged” the women on their journey. They added their prestigious signatures to the document of introduction, and he verified their arrival by adding, “The ladies bearing this paper called at my home, Canton, Ohio, Sunday evening, November 29, 1896.”12
The Spokane Spokesman-Review learned of the President-elect’s warm welcome to the women and published an article titled “Spokane’s Caller at McKinley’s.” For a local woman to be received by the President-elect in his home merited her hometown’s attention. Stating that Mrs. Estby “will be well remembered in this city,” the reporter recalled the $10,000 prize from “some generous old lady of New York” that motivated the walk and the requirement “to wear a peculiar style of dress,” which they will take on the lecture circuit after completing their journey.13 Then, a hint of the local reporter’s attitude toward Helga’s unconventional actions emerged. When elaborating on her family, the reporter notes that several children are left at the home in Mica Creek “with their father who is quietly cultivating the ranch while his wife and eldest daughter are tramping across the country to win wealth and fame.” The reporter, however, did acknowledge the reasons motivating her venture. “There is a mortgage on the ranch, and while the father is trying to raise enough to feed the family, the mother will try to raise the mortgage.” Helga’s understanding of the “art of advertising,” and her success in getting interviewed in every city of any size she visited, seemed to intrigue the writer. “It is clear that she has pluck, for she has accomplished what she started out to do, and when she reaches New York will have enough press clippings to give her a good salary in a museum.”14 Her hometown newspaper in Spokane Falls now used the word “when” instead of “if” she arrives in New York, clearly impressed that she was nearing her goal.
The new President-elect William McKinley on his famous porch in Canton, Ohio. On Sunday evening, November 29, 1896, Helga and Clara spent an hour at their home.
Courtesy Ohio Historical Society, Collection P356, box 9, folder 1.
After the death of two daughters and the onset of epileptic seizures, Ida Saxton McKinley lived most of her adult life as an invalid. She still served as a charming First Lady, receiving guests while remaining seated in a blue velvet chair.
Courtesy Ohio Historical Society, Collection P356, box 9, folder 2.
Major William McKinley conducted his successful “front porch campaign” from his home. McKinley’s railroad supporters brought thousands of delegates to his porch.
Courtesy Ohio Historical Society, Collection SC4835.
On the following day, a reporter from the Alliance Daily Review in Alliance, Ohio, interviewed Helga and Clara as they passed through the city in the afternoon. Too much in a hurry to stop, the reporter “met the ladies in the west yards and walked with them to Freedom Street.” After first observing that “both are quite intelligent,” the reporter described Clara, noticing “that the latter is quite good looking.”15 Clearly still enthused at the generous reception they received at the President-elect’s, the reporter commented that “Mrs. Estby and daughter were highly pleased with their treatment at the home of the McKinleys” and assumed “they are both ardent Republicans.” Recognizing sickness and an accident “have thrown them behind somewhat,” the reporter explained the $10,000 wager, the looming deadline, and their determined spirits, stating simply, “They expect to win it.”16
In two days, they planned to be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a major milestone and the beginning of their last major state to traverse. With each day bringing them closer to their goal, which now seemed very viable, their excitement grew.