Author Dorothy Wickenden shares grandmother’s frontier teaching adventure

05/24/2012 5:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:10 AM

World War I raged in Europe, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected, and two young, privileged women traveled to teach in a remote village in the Colorado Rockies. That year, 1916, changed the lives of these teachers and the children they taught.

Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood documented their stay in beautifully written and wonderfully detailed letters home. Woodruff’s granddaughter and namesake Dorothy Wickenden compiled the letters, oral history and documentation of this school year, 1916-17, into a book “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.” Wickenden, executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, will speak Thursday about her newly released paperback, “Nothing Daunted,” at Watermark Books and Cafe.

“It’s kind of a little forgotten moment in U.S. history,” Wickenden said of this time period.

Wickenden grew up hearing her beloved grandmother tell stories of sleeping in an unheated log cabin in the mountains — luckily the two teachers shared a single bed, keeping each other from freezing. Woodruff would tell of how the chamber pot froze at night and how the lady of the house had to pour boiling water onto it every morning in the winter.

Although a chamber pot was commonplace at that time, Woodruff and Underwood had been raised with indoor plumbing. The unexpected teachers were brought up in upstate New York and waited on by servants. These two society girls went off to Smith College before traveling throughout Europe. Although Wickenden writes a chapter on this European tour and another on growing up in the privileged class at the turn of the century, the majority of the book records the women’s adventure out West in a time period that witnessed the Russian Revolution and the U.S. entering World War I.

Growing up, Wickenden loved to listen to her grandmother’s tales. She would sit for hours at her Connecticut home hearing of what Kansas looked like from the train window in the early 1900s, what it was like to ride a horse during a blizzard in the Rockies and how the children, mostly boys, that her grandmother taught were sometimes completely out of control in the small classroom.

“I could still hear her voice in my head,” Wickenden said. “She was a natural writer and storyteller. She would talk about Auburn (where she grew up), but what she loved to talk about were those frontier families.”

A few years ago, Wickenden rediscovered her grandmother’s letters buried deep in the back of her desk drawer. Her mother had given them to her years earlier, but because of family and work responsibilities, she had forgotten them.

After reading through these 25 90-year-old letters, Wickenden decided to write a book. She traveled to Colorado and interviewed descendants.

What she discovered about her grandmother’s upbringing in upstate New York was that it “was a very tightknit, snobbish, elite society.” After college, the women were expected to marry.

She also discovered that these 29-year-old women had never walked into their family’s kitchens, made their own beds or ironed clothes. This made the required teaching of domestic science quite difficult for the ladies. But as with many life skills, the frontierswomen taught the Eastern aristocrats.

“She was in part a strict Victorian, but in part a free-thinking individual,” Wickenden said. Woodruff always was impeccably dressed with a string of pearls around her neck, yet she was able to raise four children on her own after her husband died.

Woodruff and Underwood credited the frontierswomen in Colorado with their newfound strength and domestic abilities. Woodruff said over and over again how this one year affected her life.

The book tells of all-night parties — because you could never safely return home in the dark — budding romances and frontier families.

“To them, it was just utter magic,” Wickenden said. “They never got over it.”

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