Postcard For Reader + TIME

Guest Post: Jane Kirkpatrick

Swinging by today is Jane Kirkpatrick, author of The Daughter's Walk!

In 1896 Norwegian American Helga Estby accepted a wager from the fashion industry to walk from Spokane, Washington to New York City within seven months in an effort to earn $10,000. Bringing along her nineteen year-old daughter Clara, the two made their way on the 3500-mile trek by following the railroad tracks and motivated by the money they needed to save the family farm. After returning home to the Estby farm more than a year later, Clara chose to walk on alone by leaving the family and changing her name. Her decisions initiated a more than 20-year separation from the only life she had known.

The Story Behind The Story Of The Daughter's Walk
Eighteen year old Clara didn't want to go but who would? It was 1896 and Clara had qualified for college, somewhat unusual for a working class girl from a Norwegian family. But there wasn't any money for school and there was this problem with the family farm going into foreclosure. Clara's mother though, had a plan: she'd arranged a contract with the fashion industry in New York City that if Clara and her mother could walk from Spokane, Washington to New York City in seven months, earning their way across the country following the railroad tracks, they'd earn $10,000. That was a lot of money in 1896 and worth about $200,000 in today's dollars.

So Clara succumbed to spending the next seven months with her mother, walking. They began with five dollars each in their carpet bags along with maps, a compass, a lantern, two pistols and Clara carried a curling iron as well. ( I like that detail! She must have had hair like mine, without any body and she wanted to look good even on a 3500 mile trek.) They trudged through rain, sweltering heat, dealt with would-be robbers and slept out under the stars if they had to. When they reached Salt Lake City, they gave up their Victorian dresses that swept the ground and covered their ankles and they tossed aside their corsets something very risqué indeed.

In 1896 modesty required women to cover their ankles and wear corsets daily so their stepping into reform clothes was a politically courageous thing to do. They earned money by washing dishes in fine hotels or doing laundry for prominent suffragettes in big cities like Denver or Lincoln. Eventually they figured out that if they had photographs made of themselves they could sell for a nickel, they could earn more and not have to lose so much time working in hotels. Making up time became important when they suffered from food poisonings, got caught in flash floods or when Clara sprained her ankle.

I won't tell you how it all turned out in New York City, but I will say that when they returned home, Clara changed her last name and separated herself from her family for more than twenty years so something happened on that journey. Those last two historical facts were part of the reason I wanted to research and write this story of such amazing women who accomplished such an incredible walk and then had a schism that took years to bridge.

Sometimes at my books signings, people ask me why the fashion industry would have suggested such a wager. I remind them that fashion -- the things we wear and how we adorn ourselves -- has always been about power and relationship. My parents didn't like the short skirts I wore in school; getting tattoos are controversial in some families; and when the feminist movement began in the 1960s, it was a piece of foundation - the bra - that many burned to protest the constriction of laws binding women's chances to be all that they could be.

In 1896, women often got sick from the germs they picked up on those long skirts worn to hide their ankles. The corsets were so tight women's organs were actually damaged and more than one story is told in newspapers of women fainting from the inability to get their breath because of their tight foundations. Fashion kept women confined and suggested they were weak, in need of protection. Some wags went so far as to suggest women's brains couldn't handle education and that a woman who went to college risked "brain sickness" from trying to take in too much new information.

The fashion industry wanted to promote the reform dress that was a little shorter, but not much. They suggested belts instead of corsets so women could move more freely. Bicycles had just become available and the fashion industry saw looser garments as a way to encourage women to do more in the great outdoors beside gardening or farming. They could participate in leisure activities, something new in the late 1800s. And fashion changes would perhaps lead to more freedom for women and eventually for her to get the right to vote.

In an interview in June of 1897, Clara was asked by a reporter in Minneapolis what she thought of the trip walking to New York City. Her answer: "It was as good as a college education."

I guess she found a way to make a trip she hadn't wanted to take a worthy experience. Clara didn't get to go on to that new college in eastern Washington but later in life, she did attend a business school. She became somewhat of an entrepreneur, too. And she didn't forget her ties to the fashion world, either. Researching this story made me think about the clothes I wear and opportunities I have because women like Clara and Helga Estby opened doors on their unusual cross-country trek.

PS. A descendant of Helga and Clara, Carole Estby Dagg, has written a book for Young Adults called The Year We Were Famous. It's a great read and suggests how creativity with the same facts can take authors on very different paths. If you discover The Daughter's Walk I hope you'll also look for The Year We Were Famous.

guest post, and more:

Relevant to: Guest Post: Jane Kirkpatrick + TIME