Girls gone wild -- 1900s style: A review of Nothing Daunted

 

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West
Dorothy Wickenden
304 pages, hardcover: $26.
Scribner, 2011.

"We did not want strays. We had serious matrimonial intentions, and we decided that young, pretty schoolteachers would be the best bet of all," cowboy Ferry Carpenter recollected about his part in the effort to attract "schoolmarms" to the Rockies in the 1910s. Bosom friends Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood fit the bill -- Ros was voted best-looking in her class at Smith -- and in July 1916, they departed Auburn, N.Y., for a roughly 10-month-long mountain sojourn that would end up shaping their characters and their futures. In Nothing Daunted, her charming, meticulously researched book, Dorothy Wickenden, Woodruff's granddaughter and the executive editor of The New Yorker, recounts their experiences out West. The result is equal parts family history, American history, love story, and real-life adventure.

"Society Girls Go to Wilds of Colorado," announced one newspaper upon their departure, lamenting that Dorothy and Ros would be "forsaking their beautiful homes" for a "lonely place ... 18 miles from a railroad station." In fact, their destination, Elkhead, was a small settlement on the Western Slope of the Rockies that was considered entirely uninhabitable by Denver's social elite, who warned them: "No Denver girls would go up there." But the two friends were "nothing daunted" and they soon found themselves in "a tiny cabin perched on a hillside covered with sage looking off in all directions." Although their accommodations were far from fancy, the schoolhouse was brand-new and even featured a room to teach home-ec (much to the horror of Dorothy and Ros, who had never had to cook for themselves). It also boasted electric lights, a telephone -- even a piano. Fresh from her Grand Tour abroad, Ros anointed the building "the Parthenon of Elkhead."

On the two-mile ride to work each morning, the two friends weighed the pros and cons of Ros' two suitors -- the generous cowboy Carpenter and Bob Perry, the region's most eligible bachelor, who traveled 60 miles each way to court Ros. At the end of the school year, Dorothy joined her own fiancé in Michigan, but Ros stayed on and spent the rest of her life in Colorado in close touch with both of her beaus. She even requested that a picture of the Elkhead schoolhouse be put on the memorial booklet at her funeral -- a testament to the way a "lonely place" can become a lifelong home.

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