Have you ever had a friend who reminds you of life’s simple joys and puts a spring back in your step? I hope you have had at least one. Today I’d like to introduce you to one of mine. Her name is Elinore Pruitt Stewart.
Elinore has quite the story. My family calls it the “grown-up-girls’ version of Little Britches”. Both of Elinore’s parents died when she was young, leaving her in charge of her siblings. In order to stay together, they went through all sorts of adventures of the hard-work variety. Eventually, she found herself a young widow with a baby girl in Denver, Colorado. Elinore once again had to do all sorts of labor – hauling coal and doing laundry – to eek out a livelihood for herself and her daughter. The hardest part of all was that she had to leave Baby in a nursery while she worked.
By now you are probably thinking that poor Elinore had a decidedly sad life, but don’t give up yet. Leaving out dozens of descriptive details, she eventually became a housekeeper on a Wyoming ranch and was able to not only spend time with her daughter but also make a living, get married again, homestead her own claim, and have all sorts of lively escapades in the West of 1910s America!
1910s? Yes, that’s right; Elinore Stewart doesn’t come and actually sit at my kitchen table with me, and I’ve never actually met her – although I feel like I have! It was during her years in Wyoming that she wrote letters full of details and vibrant expressions to Mrs. Coney, a friend back in Denver. Thanks to her friend, Elinore’s letters were published in the Atlantic Monthly and later in a book illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Her story lives on through print editions and an audiobook called The Frontier Adventures of Elinore Stewart: The Letters of a Woman Homesteader, part of the Voices of the Past series. It is through this audiobook that I have come to feel – albeit to only a certain extent – as if I know Elinore.
Looking at history, I sometimes think that remarkable women often had one great character trait that defined them – the hospitality of Katherine Willoughby, the intellect of Abigail Adams, the adventurous perseverance of Sacajawea. If we were going to pick out what defined Elinore Stewart it would be her infectious zest for life or her care for others.
Somehow Elinore’s hard early years, instead of making her bitter, gave her a great appreciation for the often-overlooked pleasures of life. She got delight out of a sunset, a letter from a friend, and the simple fact that her family could be together. What a good reminder that is when I’m having a not-so-great day! Besides the fact that the realities of Elinore’s life remind me how good my life really is, her joyful outlook is simply contagious.
I think a large part of Elinore’s ability to look on the bright side was her care for others. She refused to be self-focused and industriously set about making life more beautiful for others. Even when she had a ranch full of people to cook and clean for, four children to raise, food to grow and animals to tend, she found time to bring a little beauty to friends, neighbors and strangers. In disc 5 you can find Elinore serving as matron of honor at a long-awaited wedding as well as making the wedding dinner and helping the overloaded boardinghouse owner, writing “Indoor Outings for Invalids” to bring some of her adventures to the homebound and, oh, well, you might just have to make it your own adventure…
Beyond these things, Elinore was on an others-focused mission. While making a good life for herself and her family was a priority, it wasn’t the only reason she chose to homestead her own claim. It appears that she chose to do it to inspire other widows that they too could enjoy a simple, healthful life homesteading with their children instead of slaving away in cities where they had to leave their children to find work. Of course, it wasn’t an easy life, but not easy doesn’t necessarily mean not good; working hard in the clear, fresh open air where one could grow food together with family could be so much better than scrimping to earn whatever one could to buy a little food alone. Elinore aspired to give struggling women hope by her efforts, and as you can discover for yourself, she accomplished what she set out to do.
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting acquainted a bit with my friend Elinore Stewart and that you can get to know her more for yourself. I’ve loved having Elinore in the kitchen with me when I’m alone on a baking day or working on some project. However, I will add that her story is a real story about the American West. It’s not all happy-go-lucky. There are deaths, outlaws cause trouble, the realities of Mormonism are discussed and people have tragedies in their past. (Note: The adapted reading in the Voices of the Past series tidies up some elements left in print editions.) Also, while Elinore does express her faith in God, she is not quite as Christian as could be hoped perhaps. All of these elements are a part of a real woman’s life. This is the kind of story that makes history breathe and makes me love it. At the same time, please be discerning, especially when letting little/sensitive children listen.
And don’t worry, I do have some still-living friends of the cheery variety as well! They’re just not quite as shareable as Elinore.