Elkhead story hits newsstands
New Yorker editor spent months researching school near Hayden
April 13, 2009
Steamboat Springs — Dorothy Wickenden boarded a snowmobile in Hayden in February, embarking on a different journey to the same place her grandmother sought more than 90 years before.
Wickenden’s grandmother Dorothy Woodruff arrived in 1916 to teach at the Elkhead School north of Hayden, drawn by a desire to serve and a hankering for adventure. Wickenden, the executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, arrived to retrace some of Woodruff’s steps and to tell her grandmother’s story.
The tale will appear in the April 20 edition of the magazine, which hits newsstands today.
“I really did have a very clear sense because my grandmother had described the terrain so carefully in her letters. : I could see that she was a very accurate reporter, actually, so when you’re up there, you get the sense of remoteness and starkness,” Wickenden said.
The idea to write the story entered Wickenden’s head in October, when she was stuck at home with a broken ankle. She came across copies of the 25 or so letters Woodruff wrote during her time at Elkhead.
“That’s when I thought, just on its own, this is such a wonderful tale, so I thought, ‘I wonder if there are other records, and I wonder if this had as big an impact on others,'” Wickenden said.
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She found that it had.
Farrington Carpenter drew Woodruff and her friend Rosamond Underwood to the untamed West from Auburn, N.Y. They taught for a year in the Elkhead community, about 17 miles north of Hayden. People remembered and talked about the two women for years afterward. The two-story rock schoolhouse still stands.
Wickenden enlisted locals’ help to piece together the story. Mary Pat Dunn, curator of the Hayden Heritage Center, and Jan Leslie, who has written books about Routt County, lent a hand. Hayden resident Rebecca Wattles, a descendent of an Elkhead settler, filled in gaps. Carpenter’s grandchildren Reed and Belle Zars also were an asset, Wickenden said.
“Rebecca came in to the Hayden Heritage Center with her own photo album, and many of them were similar to the photographs I had in my photo album,” Wickenden said.
She came away with tales, photographs, names and much more information than would fit into an article.
“One of the greatest discoveries, and I didn’t know this existed : was the yearbook the students, the graduating class of 1920, had put together,” Wickenden said. She now has a copy of that in her personal archives.
The experience also enriched the Hayden folks involved.
“I think before she came out, I was a little intimidated,” Dunn said. “I thought this big-city person was going to come out. : She was just an absolute delight to work with, and she was just really gracious.”
The Elkhead community was an interesting one, Dunn said.
“There’s so much to be told about it,” she said. “I just feel that community was such a special community, and in many ways typical of other Western communities. I think there were a lot of personalities that were very high in their ethics and morals and standards and educations, and I feel like that filtered down in their ideals.”
When the Elkhead community dissolved, many of the homesteaders ended up in the Yampa Valley and Hayden, Dunn said.
“A lot of those people left Elkhead and were very influential in Hayden,” she said. “And I don’t even mean by what they did in the community but just by virtue of their personalities and their ethics and their high standards.”
The New Yorker has high standards of its own, Dunn noted. She and Leslie fielded calls about minutiae from fact-checkers. Early last week, they measured the former bowling alley that served as Carpenter’s law office so the magazine could accurately describe it as “an eight-by-thirty-eight-foot lean-to.”
As a museum curator, Dunn said, she appreciates that concern for detail.
“When you go to print something out, even if it’s just for a walking tour : especially being a magazine, and especially being The New Yorker, people are going to take it as gospel truth,” Dunn said.
That’s partly why they went over and over the distance between Hayden and Oak Creek, for example, finally deciding it was a 45-mile journey in 1916, she said.
Wickenden built the story of her grandmother’s adventure into 10 densely packed pages. She told of how that short period toughened her grandmother and influenced the rest of her life. She told of how that short period affected a community and its members for decades.
And, Dunn suggested, it could have influenced Wickenden. She might have ended up with some of that Woodruff toughness herself.
“We were cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, and she was far more of a woman than I was,” Dunn said with a chuckle.
– To reach Blythe Terrell, call 871-4234 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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