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Wickenden writes that when Underwood and Woodruff first wrote to Ferry Carpenter about working in his school, he didn't seem worried about their lack of teaching credentials or their unfamiliarity with life on the frontier. (Dorothy Wickenden)

'Nothing Daunted': From Society Women To Pioneers

Jul 24, 2011 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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Nothing Daunted A High Society Sisterhood: In The New Yorker, Dorothy Wickenden writes that at 29 and uninspired by the bachelors of Auburn, N.Y., Dorothy Woodruff (left) and Rosamond Underwood's friends and family largely considered them to be hopeless spinsters. But they were more worried about living a life without adventure or intellectual stimulation. Dorothy Wickenden is the executive editor of The New Yorker. Nothing Daunted is her first book.

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Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood were best friends from kindergarten. They shared an upper-middle class childhood in Auburn, N.Y., went to Smith College together and took part in one of the most common coming of age rituals of their class — the European tour.

It was 1916 — a time when women were expected to settle down young. But seven years after graduating from Smith, Woodruff and Underwood were still unmarried and longing for adventure. So they moved to a pioneer settlement in Elkhead, Colo.

Dorothy Wickenden, Woodruff's granddaughter, tells their story in Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. The book started out as an article in The New Yorker, where Wickenden is executive editor.

She tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that Underwood got the idea for a Colorado adventure after having tea with Emily Callaway, a young woman from Wellesley College. The two were discussing how difficult it was for women their age to find meaningful work when Callaway mentioned a friend whose brother, Ferry Carpenter, had just built a school a Colorado's Elkhead Mountains.

"He had asked [his sister] to look around New York for two young, female college graduates who would consider teaching out there for a year or two," Wickenden says. "[Rosamond's mother] knew that Rosamond felt constricted in her life at home and as [Callaway] spoke, she saw her daughter's animated response. She was not surprised to hear [Rosamond] say, 'I'd like to try it myself if my best friend and classmate from Smith, Dorothy Woodruff, would go with me.'"

'To The Wilds Of Colorado'

Underwood and Woodruff's decision to fill the Colorado job opening stunned their families as well as the community. The Syracuse Daily Journal's coverage of their trip carried the headline "Society Girls go to Wilds of Colorado."

"Their parents were shocked and almost didn't allow them to go, even though they were 29," Wickenden says. "Rosmond's mother said — when she realized [Rosamond] was serious about this — that she was fully competent to make this decision herself."

The women braved a four-day journey across the Great Plains to Elkhead, a tiny settlement of about 25 families at the time. Once there, they moved into a rudimentary log house with a family of homesteaders and just a small coal-fired stove to keep them warm.

Wickenden recalls the stories her grandmother told of Elkhead: "My grandmother said they reached the second floor, which was where they slept, by a set of shaky and rather ladder-like stairs. And the room was so small, as Rosamond described it, if one of them fell out of bed she would have rolled right down those stairs."

Learning The Ways Of The Frontier

The year the women arrived in Elkhead was also the coldest anyone in the area could remember, with temperatures dipping to 40 degrees below zero and blizzards nearly every day.

"The pitcher of water on their bureau froze every night," Wickenden says.

But the hardest part of the cold for the pair wasn't their own well-being; it was observing the toll it took on their young students.

When they first arrived in August their students would often come to school barefoot.

"The two teachers thought this was all charming — their sunburned faces, the raggedy clothes — within a couple of weeks they realized that this wasn't picturesque," she says. "These people were desperately poor."

Worried about their students' lack of clothing for the harsh winter, the women wrote to their parents back East for help and their families soon organized their local churches to send barrels of clothing and supplies to the settlement every week.

The women returned home after a year in Elkhead, but Wickenden says the time they spent at the settlement stayed with them forever.

"I talked about this a little bit with my Aunt Caroline," Wickenden says. "She said, 'You know, my mother just grabbed life by the throat and dealt with it, and I don't think she possibly could have done that if she hadn't been out West and watched how these other women dealt with their own difficulties.'"

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