Author of Bold Spirit to present historic story

Published on Thu, May 15, 2003 by Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

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Author of Bold Spirit to present historic story

By Rebecca Schwarz Kopf

Linda Lawrence Hunt, the daughter of local resident Evelyn Christensen, was reading one evening, as her husband sat next to her reading pieces from an eighth grade essay contest he was judging. He stopped when he came across a story written by a young boy, Doug Bahr, that recalled an historic journey his great-grandmother experienced in 1896. He pointed it out to Hunt, insisting she read it. She did. That was twenty years ago. Today, she�s the author of a 200-page book detailing that journey.

�I remember reading it. It was called �Great Grandma walks coast to coast,� and it was seven pages, double-spaced, typed,� she said. �And it was all about what the family knew. I was electrified. I couldn�t believe what I was reading. No women did that at that time unescorted, without a man.�

The essay, written by the subject�s great-grandson, told the historic story of Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of nine children who walked across the country with her daughter on a $10,000 challenge. A mysterious sponsor in New York City offered Helga $10,000 if she could make it, on foot and with no assistance, from Spokane, Washington to New York City. The money, Helga hoped, would save the family homestead. In 1896, $10,000 was $212,000. She and Clara left in April, with only the clothes on their backs and $5 each.

�It was the 1890s and a mother left home,� Hunt said, noting the event�s significance for that time period. �Mothers never left home. They never left home to save a home. But she made that decision to go.�

For years, the idea of Helga�s journey lingered, but it was until eight years ago that Hunt seriously began researching this historical account. To accurately re-create it, she visited Helga�s native land of Norway, and travelled to sites along the long journey, including New York City and the Union Pacific Railroad in the western states. She visited the family�s original homestead in Minnesota, prior to their settlement in Washington, and researched newspaper archives. Many newspapers, she found, told of the local visit by Helga and Clara as they moved east.

�In most cases, newspapers were very supportive,� Hunt said, adding there were a few who felt the women faked the journey. �Most reporters caught their enthusiasm.�

And most reporters, Hunt added, were men, which leaves her with a question they never asked. �They had no change of clothes, and only $5 each when they left. How did they do it?� she said. �How did they clean their clothes. Did they clean their clothes? What were they wearing then, if they washed them? Those questions were never asked. I wish some of those reporters had been women.�

Helga and Clara were instructed by the sponsor to bring no extra clothes and they could only have $5 each at a time. So they had to stop during their journey to work, performing housework and seamstry. The women did have a notebook to write in to record accounts of their journey, and they also carried homemade pepper spray and a gun for protection. (They had to shoot one aggressive fellow in the leg, and thankfully were not legally charged with anything.) Hundreds of pages in letters were also sent home.

Helga and Clara also carried a letter from the Spokane mayor informing those that read it, such as public officials and reporters, that the women were of quality personality and to treat them with consideration.

�These are two women, alone out there,� Hunt said. �The desperation, the confidence, the courage they must have had. For her (Helga) to want to save the home that way, shows how much she loved it. It wasn�t much, but it was her home.�

The women spent seven months on the road, averaging 27 miles a day. They rode the trains, worked in towns and met people along the way, including President McKinley who was sitting on his porch.

During the last leg of the journey to New York City, Clara sprained her ankle, slowing the women down. They arrived in New York City several days past their deadline, making headlines in the New York World newspaper and other publications. But, the sponsor never came forward, and the women never received the money. On top of it, the notebook that held their thoughts, notes and timetable, had been stolen. �The sponsor did not give on the contract, and they did not help Helga and Clara get back to Washington. That�s a big part of the book. Who is the sponsor?� Hunt said. �Helga and Clara had to stay in New York for several months to earn enough money to make it home.�

The story, an extremely remarkable one for its day, was silenced after her return to the farm in Spokane. Clara, with her daughter, has been gone for more than a year and they arrived to find heartache, bad feelings and family loss. Two of Helga�s nine children had died during the journey and some of the family could not understand how, or why, she left. She was not regarded as a woman willing to do the impossible to save the family farm, nor as a woman of heroic, deep strength who proved the endurance of society�s weaker sex.

�It hurt the family too much to discuss it. It was too painful,� Hunt said. �But the story was kept and it survived through a tiny chain of entrusted women.�

That chain of women not only knew the details of Helga�s journey, but also of what happened when she returned and what became of the second $10,000 offer from that mysterious sponsor in New York City.

Linda Lawrence Hunt will hold a presentation and book signing on Friday, May 16 at the Blaine Boating Center on Marine Drive at 7 p.m. She will also appear in Lynden and Bellingham on Saturday.

For more information, visit www.boldspiritwalksacrossamerica.com. At this site, there is also a link that details the journey of Helga and Clara and documents current findings, such as photos, articles and other historic documents.