SPOKANE, Wash. -- Helga Estby and her daughter were women on a mission when they set off to walk from Spokane to New York City in 1896.
The family farm was on the line, and the cross-country trek offered a prize of $10,000.
But Estby’s grit won her no admirers. Family members viewed her trip as a shameful abandonment of her womanly duties, and the tight Norwegian community considered it something to be forgotten.
Now, however, the story is being told by Whitworth College professor Linda Hunt in a new book: “Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America.”
Hunt learned of the story in 1984 when she read an eighth-grade essay by Estby’s great-great grandson, Doug Bahr, titled “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast.”
What struck her, she said, was that the story of the 3,500-mile trek had been suppressed for decades by her family.
Hunt spent years retracing the women’s steps and locating information for “Bold Spirit.” The book is in a second printing from the University of Idaho Press.
“I think people in America understand these stories should be told,” Hunt said.
Helga Estby, 36, lived on a 160-acre homestead near Spokane with her husband Ole, 45, and nine children. Both Helga and Ole were Norwegian immigrants. Ole was a carpenter until the Panic of 1893. Ole couldn’t find work, and the family was in danger of losing its farm.
Helga heard through what she called “the instrumentalities of a friend in the East” about a contest that was meant to prove that women could do more than just live at home.
The deal was this: $10,000 awaited a woman who could walk across America to New York City, leaving with only $5 in her pocket. The walker was required to visit state capitals along the way and get signatures of important political leaders.
The woman was required to wear a “bicycle costume,” consisting of a shorter skirt and flannel jacket, a trapping of the sponsor, who may have been involved in the fashion industry.
Helga Estby and her 18-year-old daughter, Clara, left Spokane on May 5, 1896, dressed in full-length skirts.
The women each carried $5, plus two bags. Estby had a Smith & Wesson revolver and her daughter carried a pepper gun.
Somewhere around Salt Lake City, those long, Victorian-age dresses got in the way. The women switched to shorter skirts that exposed their ankles.
“These more practical clothes ... gave them a new leg freedom as they forged streams, climbed mountains and walked over 25 miles each day,” Hunt wrote.
As they walked from town to town, they would first stop at a local newspaper, and the women would find work from people who read their story.
They faced plenty of perils.
While they were coming down from the mountains before reaching La Grande, Ore., a man who had followed them for several days approached and when he “refused to desist,” Estby shot a hole through his leg.
Rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions and constant heat bedeviled the walkers.
Many people were eager to help the women as they passed through Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Upon arrival in New York City around Christmas 1896 things unraveled.
They learned that the alleged sponsor of the prize was not going to pay the $10,000 promised. They needed to get home because two of Estby’s children had died from diphtheria.
A wealthy man bought them a train ticket home, where Estby was regarded as a deserter.
After Ole died in 1913, Helga Estby began writing down the stories from her long walk.
Soon after Estby’s death in 1942, daughters Ida and Lillian burned her written records.
Margaret Estby, a daughter-in-law, saved a few photos and news clippings that Helga had gathered in a scrapbook.
The story stayed within the family until Doug Bahr wrote his essay and entered it into a state history competition.
Although her story was silenced, Estby became active in the suffrage movement. Clara Estby left the family, attended business school and made her way in the financial world.