Friday, August 22, 2014

Bestselling Book Offers Readers Colorado History Lesson


I love history and I recently came across an interesting historical biography that tells the story of some of Colorado’s early pioneers. It is the true story of two young “society” women who traveled across the country in 1916 to teach school in a remote settlement in northwestern Colorado. The story that unfolds is part biography, part travelogue and part early 20th century American history.
It’s a great read and it’s a testament to the ingenuity of folks in the far reaches of Colorado before electric co-ops brought them central station electricity. These folks were able to figure out ways to light their community, provide a quality education for their children and even bring some new, single women into their community. (More on that later.)
The name of the 2011 book is Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. The book’s author, Dorothy Wickenden, is the executive editor of The New Yorker magazine and the granddaughter of one of the main characters in the book.
Dorothy Woodruff and her friend Rosamund Underwood, both 29-year-old women born into wealthy families, traveled to Colorado in 1916 to teach school at a one-room schoolhouse 20 miles north of Hayden in a community called Elkhead. Dorothy and Rosamund were born and raised in Auburn, New York, and were daughters of a judge and a businessman respectively. Both graduated from Smith College and later traveled to Europe for the Grand Tour. But rather than getting married and settling down, they sought a western adventure, which turned out to be a year in Routt County teaching the children of the area’s farmers and ranchers.
The principal story line in Nothing Daunted is how two privileged young women from the East were able to successfully teach 30 or so students in different grades using little more than their enthusiasm, resourcefulness and life experience. Neither one had teaching experience, but what they lacked in formal training they made up for with passion and ingenuity. In addition to being teachers, Dorothy and Rosamund frequently were called upon to be surrogate mothers to children who needed the food, clothing and companionship that could be found at the school.
It also turns out that one of the motivations for the ranchers involved in seeking eligible young women from back East to teach at the newly built Rimrock School was to try to match them with the local bachelors. While it is not clear how often the matchmaking was successful, Rosamund did end up marrying Ferrington Carpenter (a Princeton and Harvard law grad who was one of the main sponsors of the program) later in life after her first husband died. (Her granddaughter and namesake would end up the wife of a longtime Colorado Cooperative board member.)
One of the most interesting aspects of Nothing Daunted is the book’s description of life in a remote Colorado community shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Today, of course, the town of Hayden is a thoroughly modern place with convenience stores, gas stations, hotels and Internet access. In 1916, however, it was not much more than a frontier outpost with a train station and one hotel.
Since the mission of electric co-ops is to provide electricity in rural Colorado, I was particularly interested in the book’s references to electricity before the advent of the co-op program. Yampa Valley Electric Association was not created until 1939, so the Rimrock School was not able to hook up to co-op lines. Without central station power or an electric grid to rely on, both the town of Hayden and the builders of the Rimrock School were pioneers in what we would today call distributed generation. While most ranchers were still relying on kerosene lamps and woodstoves for heat and light, the school had electric lights, I assume from either a hydropowered or coal-fired generator — another example of the ingenuity and foresight of the Elkhead community.
Nothing Daunted is an entertaining and often touching recounting of a year in the lives of two intrepid young women who challenged convention and chose adventure and selflessness over comfort. The story of Dorothy and Rosamund is lovingly told, and I would highly recommend Nothing Daunted for your summer reading list. It will give you an appreciation of those who settled the far corners of our state. 
Copyright 2011 by Colorado Rural Electric Association