As a mother, I can’t help wondering how Mr. and Mrs. Leslie of Madison, Wisconsin, felt in 1911, when their 20-year-old daughter Elsie decided to take a job teaching school in a small village in northwest Wyoming. My own grandmother did much the same in 1919 when she moved from Michigan to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She took along my beloved Aunt Luella, who got her teaching certificate in Laramie and took her first job at a sod-roofed schoolhouse on a ranch somewhere in the wilds of Wyoming.
Thus my own real experience connects weirdly to a history of Dubois that seems, from this week’s new perspective, rather fantastic.
The journey to Dubois in 1911 “must have seemed like a trip to the end of the world,” wrote the late Dubois artist Mary Back, in her 1955 brief biography of Elsie. The new schoolteacher traveled by train to Lander, then by a one-horse buckboard stagecoach to Fort Washakie, changed to another buckboard stage that took her (and the mail) to a ranch on the Wind River where she spent the night.
The next morning, she took a third stagecoach “clear to Dubois.” The driver was a man named Jim Locke. In that alien landscape, Jim must have been quite a spectacle himself: his face “long and tanned to a high color from the wind and hard weather…. a hooked nose and small blue eyes which sparkle like fire and bore like an auger,” as described by Frederick Studebaker Fish, in his account of a 1913 hunting trip near Dubois. (The guide for that trip was Elsie’s soon-to-be husband, Floyd Stalnaker.)
Jim had “a reputation of being a cranky old fool when sober, but rather genial when well seasoned with whisky,” Fish wrote, adding that “his gaze is startling until one becomes accustomed to it.” You wonder whether Jim was sober or seasoned when Elsie met him.
At the time Elsie arrived, Dubois was “a little straggling string of log houses” (as Mary Back put it), with about 60 inhabitants, two stores including Welty’s (still in operation), a hotel, a bank, and St. Thomas Church (still very active). Elsie took up rooms with the Weltys and, schooled with a certificate in home economics from the Stout Institute in Menominee, Wisconsin, began teaching nine pupils.
She was a school teacher without a school: Classes were held in the saloon dance hall, up against the cave across from Welty’s Store. The cave was used for wine storage and as a jail. (The cave entrance is near the center of this photo, with the saloon at far left, which is also still in operation.) Elsie had to clear away the classroom any time the saloon held a dance.
“No one, either students or parents, seemed to think school was very important,” Back wrote. “There was often something else to be done, rounding up cattle, hunting or fishing, helping mother.” There were two other schools nearby, she said, one of them taught by a former Dubois student despite “irregular attendance at Dubois [and] lack of educational credits.”
Elsie taught for less than a year, and never taught again. She met rancher and hunting guide Floyd Stalnaker, married him in December, and in due course had their first child. Mary Allison’s Dubois Area History says she brought her sister to Dubois to take over the class. (Again, I wonder how her parents felt, and think of my own Aunt Luella, who was also lured out west by her older sister, also a schoolteacher.)
Although she quickly became a ranch wife and busy mother, Elsie kept up a strong interest in the Dubois school, serving on the school board for many years. In 1939, when she joined the board, the students ate lunch in the Legion Hall, Back wrote, where there was no water, no sewer, and no stove. The children were kept warm with a wood-burning heater, and a wood-burning cookstove was put in for the lunches. “Wood had to be split and carried in, water had to be carried in buckets, dish-water carried out in buckets.”
Before that, Bernice Welty had been making lunches at home, carrying them in baskets to the school along with the dishes, serving the 25 children at their desks, and then carrying the dirty dishes home again.
I’ve been reading this week about Elsie and Floyd’s world, thanks to two unexpected gifts that dropped into my Inbox from their great-granddaughter, Gabby Cook. She was kind enough to scan and send me Mary Back’s typewritten biography, as well as the century-old account of a hunting trip that Floyd guided, as told in great detail by Fish.
Thus, in the middle of a busy, mundane week, I was thrust suddenly and vividly back into Dubois of a century ago, a place so like the old Westerns that it gave me the dizzying feeling of being in reality and unreality at once.
Fish describes a visit to that saloon next to the cave during his first evening in Dubois:
“The place was crowded with cow punchers and hangers-on. Everyone seemed to be having a good time for the liquid was flowing fast…One old man kept cussing at the proprietor much to the enjoyment of his drunken friends who were anxious for a fight. It did not take long to start the fracas. Slim, the proprietor, finally lost his temper and came around from behind the bar to throw the offender out. … As soon as they were parted a few hot words were exchanged and then it was decided that the drinks were on the house.”
A dance was on for later that evening, but Fish and friends decided to leave before it started. The next morning, they learned that they had missed “a terrible shooting that almost took place … over the affections of a fair lady.”
The hunters went out shortly after their elk, and for one night stayed at the Stalnaker ranch.
“Floyd has a comfortable and cosy home,” Fish wrote, “a very pretty and exceedingly nice wife and a six month old son.”
“After our delicious meal,” he went on, “Mrs. Stalnaker played the piano. Hers is the third to be bought in this vicinity so it is a very great treasure.” Later that evening, two visitors came by, one of them “a rather odd looking person who put on the appearance of being very important and business-like. He immediately called Mr. Stalnaker into another room and spent several hours in earnest and serious conversation. I afterwards learned that he … spends most of his leisure moments bothering his neighbors with trivial matters of little or no importance.”
The hunting party had to sleep outdoors next to the shed, because the Stalnakers took in lodgers and the rooms were all occupied. (Mary Allison wrote that Elsie was a great housekeeper who often ironed her lodgers’ clothing, if they were bachelors.)
“It was a beautiful cold, starlight night,” Fish wrote, “so sleeping out was much more appealing than in a stuffy room.” This was October. Fish had changed his tune by the next morning, after a bad night during which his friend stole all the blankets.
But that didn’t sour his enthusiasm for the Wind River Valley. An heir to the Studebaker fortune, he was one of those who fell in love with Dubois during a visit, and later returned to live here. He became one of the biggest ranchers in the area.
Floyd worked for many years as a guide and ranch manager. Elsie and Floyd survived the great flood of 1919 despite great losses, briefly became mail carriers (Elsie also drove the Jeep), and then purchased the drug store, which they operated until after World War 2. Their son, Dean, was Gabby’s grandfather. Floyd was working as a carpenter in Riverton when he died of a heart attack in 1948. Elsie died in 1965, ten years after Mary Back wrote her biography.
Many of the town streets in Dubois bear the names of old families. I will probably never again pass the street that leads to the Headwaters and the Visitor Center without smiling inwardly, as I think of the Stalnakers whose name it bears, and all their adventures.
(Thanks so much again for the emails, Gabby! They were a trip.)
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
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