No Trophies for Effort!

helga-clara-estby-walk
Their outfits were comfortable but frowned upon by polite society (yet they were taken in and treated well at almost every town they visited).

What if a shadowy stranger in New York offered you $200,000 (about what $10,000 was worth in the 1890’s) to walk across America in weird clothes and with only what you could carry. Would you go? Now imagine it’s before an electric grid and fast food. The newly built railroad tracks will be your only guide.

Helga Estby convinced her teen-aged daughter Clara to  accompany her on the bold endeavor–strike that–the desperate endeavor after a series of unfortunate events. Helga’s husband Ole may have wished for her not to go (what would the close-knit community of Norwegian immigrants think of Helga?), but the shame of being unable to provide for his large family after a debilitating injury  silenced much of Ole’s disapproval. They were desperate and not for the first time. Only a few years before Helga had fallen at a city construction site and been badly injured–her eldest daughter and Ole had taken over running the household until she was well again and a settlement with the city put them in funds  for a while, but the Panic of 1893 hit and all work dried up. Farms went under as mortgages were called in and life for the Estbys began to unravel again.

Helga and Ole were doomed to a boom and bust cycle. Young love left Helga with child and unmarried. Ole came and hid her shame. Did they love one another? Did they see something of themselves in each other? Their life was one of settlement and upheaval, one of putting down roots and ripping them from the comfortable homes and sod houses they lived in as they traveled west seeking stability.

By the time they took up farming in the Far West they’d had piles of well-loved children, but an accident and a mortgage to pay tore at Ole and Helga. Unemployed men with shame sitting on their shoulders are often tough to bear around the house. Fretful women are no picnic either so when the opportunity arose for Helga to march east she grabbed it. Maybe husband and wife were relieved. Maybe they felt it was their only chance.

The name of the wealthy female donor who offered the $10,000 reward to any lady proving she was strong and smart enough to make the arduous journey on her own has been lost to history.

How desperate Helga must have been to trudge through snow and rising rivers with no real safeguards, no assurances!

Helga and Clara carried small pistols and once or twice had to use them, but for the most part found American people to be generous and curious about their journey. They met with mayors and governors, women’s suffragists and vagabonds. Newspapermen always remarked on their intelligence, pluck and respectability.

As the end came in sight Helga worried. They were a few days past the deadline, but in the agreement the donor had made allowance for the occasional sick day. Clara had been sick and injured along the way, causing a small delay, but the newspapers in New York sang their praises and looked forward to covering a happy ending story.

The wealthy donor informed them that they were too late and there would be no happy ending. Helga and Clara were penniless in the big city. Gone from home for months they were now in need of work and a place to stay until they could save funds to get back to their family. A letter arrived from Ole. The note as I imagine it was brief:

Our daughter Bertha has died of diphtheria. You were not here when she asked for you. I did all I could do. The other children wait in the cold shed and I call to them but can’t see how they are for fear of infecting them. I made a coffin feeling quite alone in the world. The neighbors keep their distance.

Helga notes there is no reassuring sentiments of love. She worries and begs city officials for loans. Finally a generous railroad man buys her and Clara tickets west. Ole and the other children meet Helga with cold and bitter distance. Helga looks for Johnny her son. Ole shakes his head. Diphtheria had taken him, too and they were lucky not have lost everyone.

The children–and Ole–never forgave Helga for leaving them. Would they have felt differently if she’d won the money? I doubt it. Despite it all children resent a mother’s distance when troubles come. Ole, I imagine, had more complex feelings. His wife had taken a stand and had done no better than he had. Did he admire her courage? Probably–but he had already known she was courageous. I bet he blamed himself, but sometimes took out his anger on her.

Years later Helga’s manuscript was found and burned by her still bitter daughters. A daughter-in-law found a few newspaper clippings and saved them. And that is how we know about Helga today.

When telling my husband about Helga’s walk and how it ended with the donor withholding the reward my husband reminded me of my disdain for trophies at children’s soccer leagues given out for effort, not excellence. What do you think? Should Helga have been given the money?

BOLD SPIRIT: HELGA ESTBY’S FORGOTTEN WALK ACROSS VICTORIAN AMERICA

 

26 thoughts on “No Trophies for Effort!

  1. Wow, that is quite a story. It actually made me quite sick to my stomach. An equalling compelling story is the donor behind this. It sounds like a SCAM to me. After all, what would be the point of the wager? Only thing that would keep it from being a scam, it seems to me, would be the publicity. So why is his name not in the articles? Is there proof he ever existed? My mind is going off in a million directions . . . .

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  2. It’s hard to imagine how heartless the donor was, considering that she’d tempted two women to walk across the country (such a dangerous trek) and then refused to award Helga and Clara because they arrived a few days past deadline. Seems like a scam, one she knew she’d never have to pay.

    Everything we do is a chance taken without guarantee. We need to have the support of our families, especially if our goal is to help out. What Helga did was only rare because it was nearly always women who were left behind to care for their families with minimal resources while men trudged off to follow their dreams.

    What a fascinating story you’ve told here, Adrienne. Thank you for researching and sharing Helga’s quest. Try to imagine her heartache at learning of the death of two of her children.

    (Yes, donor should have paid, even if she took off a few dollars for lateness.)

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    • I think we have to be fair on men, too–many men trudged off because they were expected to support their families–not to follow sweet dreams. Going off to the coal mines day after day was no picnic either. 🙂 I think about men who feel compelled to go off to war or to thankless jobs without complaint. Men and women have their crosses to bear.

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  3. You mentioned men trudging to the coal mines, but that has a productive purpose. The walk was more of a dare and a gamble, without real purpose, so it is in line with losing a bet.

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    • hahaha–so true! My husband would agree with you completely. I think the donor was portrayed as being really heartless–but maybe back then a deal was a deal! Still, it’s a tragic story. ( I think I would have been a little more suspicious of the offer to begin with . . . but she was desperate.

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  4. What an interesting story – the most fascinating part to me is the marriage between Ole and Helga. Seems like a combination of bitterness and competition. You’re right to wonder how Ole felt about his wife. Maybe he was a little jealous?

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    • Ole bailed Helga out a number of times in life, too. I think watching your children die an agonizing death when your wife is doing something seemingly reckless and ultimately fruitless would leave a bitter taste . . . I feel for Ole but I like Helga too.

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