Inspiration can find us in the most unexpected moment. For Dorothy Wickenden, her inspiration arrived while cleaning out an old desk drawer. She uncovered a folder preserving dozens of handwritten letters from her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff. Writing home to Auburn, New York, Dorothy shared her experience teaching children on Colorado’s rural western slope with her best friend, Rosamond Underwood, during the 1916-1917 academic year.
Wickenden first published her grandmother’s story in an article for The New Yorker. Building upon the collection of letters, and aided by more from Rosamond’s grandchildren, she masterfully pieced together an enchanting narrative, filled with the charm of early 20th Century Americana.
Two years after publicly sharing her story, “Roughing It”, of these two East coast girls adventuring to the frontier, Wickenden published a full length book. Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West is a memoir crafted with a loving touch, carefully brought to life with the spirit of wanderlust and perseverance.
Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood graduated from Smith College in 1910, where they were taught to become “refined, intelligent gentlewoman”. The pair met in kindergarten, and shared a upper-middle class lifestyle in affluent upstate New York.
They took an extravagant year long tour of Europe following graduation. Beginning with a transatlantic first-class voyage, the girls landed in England, and continued on to Belgium, Holland, and Italy. Germany and Switzerland followed, with the last few months spent in France. In Paris, they saw performances by the renowned Ballet Russes, studied français at a finishing school, and took in art exhibits at the Rue de la Paix. The two young women returned to America culturally cultivated, exposed to the avant-garde, and eager to lead fulfilling, adult lives.
This year in itself would constitute enough material for a memoir — a cultural expedition of bright, youthful ladies in the Old World. But Woodruff was motivated to write about the next chapter in her grandmother’s life, a chapter that took place in far simpler surroundings.
Five years after the great European excursion, still unmarried at the age of 29, Dorothy and Rosamond were in no doubt as to their social standing. Afternoon social calls, charity galas, and the fleeting possibility of social work in New York City awaited them.
They were restless.
Hearing over a ladies luncheon that a small homesteading settlement in remote Colorado was in need of schoolteachers, Rosamond quickly convinced Dorothy that this was the experience they were searching for. That summer they embarked on the five day cross-country journey that transformed their lives.
When Dorothy and Rosamond arrived in Denver’s Union Station, they stayed at the iconic Brown Palace Hotel. Wickenden describes luxurious lobby chairs, opulent flora, and Tuscan decor elements, which can still be seen today. Today, the Brown Palace is a historic establishment, formally frequented for a taste of traditional dining, but for the girls in the heat of July it was a simply a refreshing respite from the summer air.
Denver of 1916 was innovative, upscale, and grand. 19th Century French architectural influences were apparent on the gold-domed Capitol building. With prestigious neighborhoods and a prosperous financial industry, Denver felt more like an sumptuous retreat than a mining town.
But wild land lay beyond. The luxury of Denver’s amenities were multiplied in memory compared to the uncharted backcountry the women would encounter on Colorado’s Western slope. Many miles northwest, indoor washrooms were an extravagance and travel to town was best accomplished on horseback.
At the train station in Hayden, Dorothy and Rosamond were met by Farrington Carpenter. Known warmly as Ferry, Carpenter was a Princeton and Harvard law graduate, working to harness the wild land into a populated settlement. Propelled by the prevailing ideals championed by Woodrow Wilson’s democratic view of the American West, Ferry worked to establish a strong educational institution in Elkhead.
“Elkhead School Opens”
The Routt County Republican
August 4, l9l6
Miss Dorothy Woodruff and Miss Rosamond Underwood of Auburn, New York came in last Thursday night and the next day went to the Harrison home on Elkhead. These young ladies are the new teachers for the Elkhead school and both are graduates from Smith College. They come very highly recommended and Elkhead people count on a splendid school this term.
In the early years of the twentieth century, there was a urge for expansion and western exploration. Packing up and moving west was a formidable prospect, which held the allure of living a raw, healthy existence at the mercy of the frontier. Settling the west was a dazzling opportunity, a campaign representing the overthrow of genteel eastern conformity and the rugged challenge of physical labor.
For the next nine months, Dorothy and Rosamond wrote home faithfully to their parents. They shared stories of community celebrations in the schoolhouse, the breathtaking beauty of Colorado’s majestic landscape, and the distinct tenacity of hardworking settlers raising families in the unforgiving Rockies.
Dorothy and Rosamond displayed considerable bravery in taking their blind leap of faith westward, and in honoring the consequences with gratitude. Colorado was unlike any way of living they had experienced, and its challenges brought new perspectives, which they carried with them into their later years.
Audacious voyagers into the unknown, Dorothy and Rosamond lived a life unafraid. They were fervent heroines in their own lives. Shaped by a pioneering willingness to be charitable, kind, and open to falling in love with new experiences, they sincerely lived with nothing daunted.
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