Take care of this story, honey.
—HELGA TO GRANDDAUGHTER, THELMA
Helga and Clara returned to a husband and family overwhelmed by tragedy and filled with grief and hostility. “Johnny’s dead too” were probably the first words Helga heard after arriving home.1 She came back to Spokane more as a villain than a heroine. The memory of a cherished family life and home had motivated Helga to extraordinary efforts; it was what she longed to save. But after thirteen months of absence, the loving home she and Clara remembered no longer existed. Depending on when they arrived back, their home was probably still under quarantine. The children were not allowed to attend school or church, no one dared visit their infectious home, nor was Ole welcomed into other people’s home after caring for his two dying children. The family suffered for weeks without comfort in their anguish.
Bertha’s and Johnny’s death did not just take the children, but became the breeding ground for anger, blame, and lifelong bitterness toward Helga for leaving. She had flagrantly broken the most basic code of Victorian and Norwegian motherhood: mothers belong in the home. Helga heard the particular agonies of the children’s dying days and saw her husband’s heartbreak and sense of failure. She felt the bewilderment and resentment of the remaining children who spent such terrifying days alone in the cold shed. This all added to her deep grief and guilt. The weight of the unspoken question, “Would she have been able to save them?” was unanswerable, but also unlikely. And she carried the burden of knowing that she missed giving her children a mother’s comfort in their dying days.
Helga left a husband and seven children at home for a year in pursuit of an inconceivable, dubious, and ultimately unsuccessful venture in an era when the belief in separate spheres for men and women still prevailed. Norwegians traditionally embraced a more rigid separation of men’s and women’s roles than even Americans, a pattern they brought as immigrants to a new land. In the “Little Norway” enclave of Mica Creek, disapproval was strong, which added to Ole’s humiliation among his Scandinavian neighbors. “It wasn’t looked upon well by the local farmers,” recalled Nels Siverson. Even more telling was the moral reason he gave. “It wasn’t the right thing to do.”2
Perhaps even more galling to her Scandinavian neighbors was how her very act was a public admission of her husband’s inability to provide and demonstrated a lack of submission to his authority or influence. She chose to direct her own destiny, to make up her own mind. An interview in the Spokesman-Review the day she left on the trip quoted Helga admitting, “It is easy to figure it out on paper, but it will be quite another thing to do as we have planned, but we have made up our minds as well as all arrangements.”3
If criticism existed before she left, the crescendo against Helga’s abandonment peaked when neighbors learned of the death of the children. This tragedy reinforced the mantra of motherhood that insisted a mother belonged in the home. Clergy, inspirational writers, and literature for and about women often espoused this viewpoint. “Woman was created to be a wife and a mother; that is her destiny.… She was born to be queen in her own household, and to make home cheerful, bright, and happy,” expressed Orestes Brownson, a male social reformer of the era. “We do not believe women, unless we acknowledge individual exceptions, are fit to have their own head.”4
When Helga ventured forth on this public walk away from home, she clearly saw herself as “fit to have her own head,” to make up her own mind. Then Helga came home with nothing but additional flimsy promises from a sponsor whose word had already proved untrustworthy. When she returned to her isolated, grieving, and angry family, her own grief and guilt caused her “to have a sort of breakdown. She assumed a very different personality and withdrew into herself and kind-of lost her mind.”5 Helga had spent every day since she was sixteen years old bearing, nursing, nurturing, and raising children, and then she risked her life in a determined quest to save their family’s home. It must have been unimaginable that her mother’s heart could be questioned.
Helga and Clara did not write the book the next summer or give any illustrated lectures. Helga no longer wanted to present their adventures to the public, subjecting herself to more scathing disapproval. Beyond that, her walk across America became a taboo topic within the family. This family story was silenced, simply never talked about again. Ever.6 It was as if their experiences could be erased from the family’s history—a shameful act of a mother—never to be remembered. It is likely that the combination of Helga’s own grief, the stinging criticism questioning her devotion as a mother, and the family’s anger merged to erase the story. If it took silence to preserve the fragile bonds within her family, and restore friendships and respect within her cherished community, this was a cost she was willing to pay.7
What Helga imagined would be a tragedy, instead became a new start for the family. On a bleak day, March 28, 1901, the family’s cherished farm was foreclosed and sold at a sheriff’s sale.8 The economy had improved by the time the Estbys moved back into Spokane, which allowed Ole to utilize his carpentry skills again. He entered into a successful contracting business with his son Arthur and eventually built the family an even finer two-story home on Mallon Street in another neighborhood where many Scandinavians lived. Clara attended a business college and began a lifelong career in the financial world.
Helga, a resilient woman, regained her emotional health. Although Helga came home to Spokane without an external prize, the walk across America gave her inner perspectives and resources that shaped the remaining half of her life in significant ways. If the circumstances of her life before the trip reinforced a more monolithic view on women, her broader experiences made this no longer possible. Not only was she exposed to ideas on America’s “new woman,” she and Clara were perceived as such by others. She had not only forged through swollen rivers and mountain passes, she had forged an identity that proved ordinary women could be physically strong, economically independent, and mentally tough.
Her travels across the continent also introduced her to crosscurrents of political attitudes toward women and awakened her belief that women deserved full citizenship, including the right to vote. Living back in the city, she became actively involved in the nation’s suffrage movement by attending meetings and marching in the city suffrage demonstrations.
(following pages) The Estby family, around 1910, after they had moved back to Spokane and Ole had established a successful contracting business. Ida, Arthur, William, Lillian are in the back; Ole and Helga in the front. Clara is absent. By then five children had passed away.
Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection. Detail of this photograph on this page.
After her walk across America, she no longer sought all her satisfaction within her private sphere but instead gave her energy to issues in public life. This led to more friendships with a variety of women from many neighborhoods in Spokane.9 She loved listening to the news on the radio, especially political programs, and kept an enduring interest in politics all her life. She believed her opinion as a citizen mattered. Helga regularly attended Spokane City Council meetings and voiced her perspective in public demonstrations. Those who knew her sensed her abiding and patriotic love for America, a permanent legacy enhanced by her encounters across the land in 1896.
Prior to her travels across the continent, her actions showed enormous confidence in one’s individual effort and responsibility to solve problems. But her active interest in the compelling election issues of 1896, and personal encounters with Jacob Coxey, Mary Baird Bryan, and western populists introduced her to the need to work collectively on solving the nation’s glaring problems. The humility of her destitution in Brooklyn taught her that sometimes individual effort alone was not enough in an unjust system. No matter how hard she and Clara worked in New York, with women’s wages so low, she felt helplessly trapped. Once she returned to Spokane, she began to work with others on issues that concerned her. “The big issue at the time was suffrage for women,” writes her great-great-granddaughter Darillyn Bahr. “Helga would march up and down with her … signs fighting for the right of women to vote.”10
In 1913, Ole died from a fall off the roof of a house he was repairing. Sometime after his death, Helga set up a room of her own where she began learning to paint and finally started writing her memoirs of the trip across America. Helga’s granddaughter, Thelma, and grandson, Roland, moved in with her in 1924 after the death of their father, Arthur. At this time, Helga’s unmarried adult children, Ida and William, also lived with her. These were the happy days that Thelma remembered with her beloved grandma.
Helga’s awakened curiosity about the world continued even after a leg injury from a taxicab accident in 1916 limited her movement for the rest of her life. She still loved to be on the go, and Thelma recalled how sometimes they would take the streetcar, ride to the end of the line out by Minnehaha Park, get out to walk around the beach and the woods, and then come back. “She just liked to see things.”11
During these years, Helga secretly wrote hundreds of pages on yellow foolscap paper, finally describing their adventures across America. In the privacy of her upstairs room, she created a special space to write and draw. It was here that Helga told her granddaughter to “take care of this story,” although the story remained a complete mystery to Thelma. No one ever told her that her grandmother walked across America.
One afternoon after Helga’s death in 1942, Ida’s younger sister Lillian came over to the house. While cleaning up, these two daughters of Helga lit a burn barrel in the backyard and tossed the hundreds of pages of their mother’s manuscript into the fire. Perhaps they hoped the devouring flames would forever silence the story of their mother’s actions that so shamed the Estby children. Ida’s memories of caring for her frightened brothers and sisters in the cold shed scarred her life forever. “Ida never forgave her mother and always blamed her for the trip,” recalled Thelma, “and neither did my father.”12
While flames were destroying Helga’s detailed memoirs, a daughter-in-law, Margaret, discovered the scrapbook with the two Minnesota news clippings of Helga and Clara’s journey. She secretly took them. Margaret’s husband, William, also still harbored resentment over his mother’s journey, the death of his brother and sister, and the frightening cold days in the shed. So she did not even tell him of her discovery.13
But she knew Helga’s story deserved to be saved. Twenty-six years later, after her husband’s death in 1968, Margaret finally passed on the news clippings to Helga’s granddaughter, Thelma. She found out for the very first time what “story” her grandmother was writing. “I was amazed when I read the clippings because grandma never once mentioned the trip,” recalled Thelma. “If Margaret hadn’t saved these, the story would have been lost forever.”14 So silent had been this family story for over seventy years that Norma Lee, her other granddaughter, also had never heard of her grandmother’s adventures.15 “That’s history they destroyed!” lamented Helga’s grandson, Roland. “They never even asked if others of us in the family might want these.”16 He also had never heard that his grandmother had taken this trip even though he lived with her.
Around sixty years of age, Helga enjoyed attending musical and cultural events in the city of Spokane, and she worked actively for the suffragette movement.
Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection.
When Thelma heard the wonder of what her grandmother had accomplished, she took to heart Helga’s charge, given to her forty-four years earlier when she was a young child, “to take care of this story.” Now a mother and grandmother herself, Thelma vowed to fulfill her grandmother’s request to keep this once-silenced story alive.
No longer would shame, silence, or neglect prevent the Estby grandchildren from knowing their own distinctive heritage. Thelma became the storyteller and began the tradition of keeping this grand history alive in her family to pass on to the next generation. Thelma’s granddaughter, Darillyn Bahr, found her great-great-grandmother a source of inspiration when exploring her story for a school research paper. “She was one woman who kept on growing as a human being and never stopped.”17 It was Thelma’s eighth-grade grandson, Doug Bahr, who entered the Washington State History Day Contest with his story “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast.” After telling what he knew about his great-great-grandma from the two Minnesota articles and oral family history, the fourteen year old concluded with a young person’s instinctual understanding of why family memory and story matter. “I do not know if this story matters to others outside the family,” he writes. “But no matter what adventures the future may bring for me, I know I can always count upon the determination, courage, and talent that is part of my heritage.”18
Doug does indeed use these skills that are a part of his heritage. In his early thirties in 2002, Doug works as a firefighter and emergency medical technician in a suburb of Seattle. As part of a first-response team to fires, traumatic car accidents, suicides, drug overdoses, and deaths in the home, he needs to stay calm and level headed, use his analytical skills to think quickly, and recognize and adapt to problems in a proactive way. He still remembers his feelings while learning about the self-reliance, courage, and adventuresome spirit of his great-great-grandmother.
Helga’s story does matter, and because this family became story keepers, her walk across America can now endure in the growing legacy of once-forgotten vibrant women in American life.