Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s collection gives visitors a peek into homesteading life
I am a thousand miles and a century away from the life she led. But traveling back to her world (or at least getting close) is only a matter of flying to Denver or Salt Lake City and driving for part of a day. On the other hand, for Elinore to go from Denver to Burnt Fork, Wyo. in 1909 was a three-day journey. She reported, “I am way up close to the Forest Reserve of Utah, within half a mile of the line, sixty miles from the railroad. I was twenty-four hours on the train and two days on the stage, and oh, those two days!” As she described the trip, she didn’t go on and on about her difficulties but told about the funny interaction between herself, the driver and her new employer, Mr. Stewart, with whom she began a happy marriage soon after moving to Wyoming.
Susanne K. George, in her biography (published by University of Nebraska Press, bisonbooks.com), The Adventures of The Woman Homesteader, reports how people all over the country were fascinated with Elinore’s stories of building a home and filing a claim in Wyoming. In 1908 Elinore Pruitt was cleaning house for a Mrs. Coney in Denver. Because of respiratory illness Elinore decided to leave Denver to be a housekeeper for Mr. Stewart and claim her own homestead in Wyoming. She explained, “I was so discouraged because of the grippe that nothing but the mountains, the pines, and the clean, fresh air seemed worthwhile….”
Even though she aimed to be a travel writer and published author (and succeeded), her goal in writing the original letters was more personal and altruistic. Her grandson, Michael Wire, told me that Elinore wrote the letters “for entertainment [to Mrs. Coney] because the lady was housebound.” She also wrote them to keep up her friendship with Mrs. Coney. These accounts have more of a story narrative than letters usually have because of her desire to entertain. The same characters reappear, and we find out how some of their incidents turn out.
Elinore’s is not a rags-to-riches story or the tale of a Cinderella delivered from soot and ashes to idle in a palace. Instead, it is an account of a woman who removed herself from labor in the city to labor in the open hills of Wyoming. She does not complain about the hard work, but focuses on the beauty around her, “The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes. The beautiful colors turned to amber and rose….”
After reading descriptions like that, my daughter and I wanted to see the area for ourselves. Driving through Wyoming brings you in touch with sky and pulls your eyes up to mountains. Highway 80 rolls along past sandy slopes of gray to orange to red. Oil wells pump – one group of them operated, ironically (or ecologically?), by solar panels. Olive green sage crawls over the land. Subtle colors are easy on the eyes. There is peace in the distant vistas.
We came to Green River, Wyo., and had lunch at Penny’s Diner, which doesn’t quite go back to 1909, but has good burgers and fries smothered in cheese and chili sauce. The fries look awful and taste great. Posters and memorabilia from the 1940s and ’50s give the diner a malt shop feel. Across the road, next to the travel information center, is a small corral where you can leave your horse while you eat, in case you brought one.
The Sweetwater County Historical Museum is in the old post office building, a quick drive from Highway 80, and has lots of information about Elinore and other homesteaders from the area. The Stewart homestead is not a tourist attraction. A museum curator had helped me contact the owner of the land where the house still stands, “leans” might be a better word for what it is doing now. He gave us permission to see it.
Driving south out of Green River takes us away from the freeway, houses and cars, and across high plains desert. If you stop the car, turn off the engine and get out you’ll know what it is to be still. And if you walk through warm sage, the smell of it might make you think of Thanksgiving and turkey stuffing.
Desert gives way to grassy fields as we near her home. Other homesteads from the same era dot the roadside. Some are in shambles. I am glad we have a Jeep to get over the minimal use roads. The current owner greets us. He has had surgery in the past few days, is wearing a neck brace and riding a three-wheeler. He says he can help us as soon as he’s done tagging a few more calves. As we walk over a field later, crawl through a fence and come to the house he says, “Those people had to be tough back then. They worked hard.” The irony of what he’s saying seems lost on him.
What gives her narrative so much charm is her ability to have a good laugh at herself. In describing her room and furnishings she includes, “I have a mirror, but it makes ugly faces at me every time I look into it.” The letters remind me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories, except that these are from the eyes of an adult – not looking back over her childhood, but over recent months. Concern for survival and love for the land appear in both, but Stewart’s have a grown-up’s point of view. There are stories of peoples’ lives, disappointments of the past, love unto death and beyond, sorrows mixed into high mountain views and early morning sun. There are missed chances, new-found loves, death in childbirth under painfully blue skies, or losses in white blowing snow.
She went on camping trips, visits of mercy and to festivities and holidays with neighbors. She wrote about trips as stories. Each letter had a destination or purpose. Even though you know she’d survive each adventure, she put details in her episodes that make you wonder how she managed to make it back alive, or how she found the trail leading back to her own door.
Getting to her door was worth the trip for us. Even though her home site is not a tourist stop, traveling to the area is enough to give any reader a feeling similar to what she felt on first arriving as she saw mountains in the distance, “…it was all so grand and awe-inspiring. But when you get among such grandeur you get to feel how little you are and how foolish is human endeavor, except that which reunites us with the mighty force called God.” It is a treasure to share those feelings along with the writer of a book I so enjoyed.
If You Go Sites and Sights Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, just a few miles away, includes 91-mile long Lake Flaming Gorge, dramatic scenery, a 200-mile scenic byway (plan about five hours), whitewater rafting, hiking, 18 campgrounds, as well as four boat camp sites, nine paved boat ramps, three full-service marinas, and record-breaking fishing (trout, bass, salmon and more). The south end of the gorge and lake is in Utah and is connected to Ashley National Forest, which encompasses the Uinta Mountains and is about 400 miles from Denver, 300 miles from Rocky Mountain National Park and 160 miles from Salt Lake City. For more information on lodging, resorts, expeditions, and dining go to www.FlamingGorgeCountry.com; phone: 435-277-0709; www.tourwyoming.com; phone: 1-800-46-DUNES; 1-800-FL-GORGE.
Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River, Wyo., has free admission and a helpful staff knowledgeable about the area, homesteading and local history. Archives contain information from the homesteading era, Western expansion and more. The gift shop carries jewelry, Western art, educational toys, postcards and a good collection of books on Western history. For more information go to www.swetwatermuseum.org; phone: 307-872-6435.
The Book Letters of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart, with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company in 1914, has been reissued by Dover Publications in 2006 and is available at store.doverpublications.com; www.amazon.com, Amazon Kindle; libraries and bookstores and is available for free download from www.gutenberg.org. She is also the author of Letters on an Elk Hunt, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1915 and available from the same sources, except Dover does not carry it.
The movie Heartland (1979), starring Rip Torn and Conchatta Ferrell, is based on Elinore’s life.