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Helga Estby, who walked across the United States in 1896 to try to save her family farm

At the end of the 19th century, women had fewer rights than men. The suffragettes slowly worked to change the position of women in society, but they were still considered as less capable than men. Most women were destined to stay home for their whole lives and spend their days as housekeepers.

Building a career or even pursuing hobbies was out of the question for most women. Still, the number of those who started going against the norm was rising, and a woman named Helga Estby was one of them.

In 1896, Helga and her 18-year-old daughter set out on a huge journey in an attempt to win a public bet for $10,000 and save their family from a desperate financial situation. On this journey, Helga would experience tragedy and misfortune, but she also proved that women are capable of performing the same tasks as men.

Helga, a Norwegian immigrant, arrived in the United States with her mother in 1871 and settled in Manistee, Michigan. Five years later, she married Ole Estby, also a Norwegian immigrant, and both of them moved to Yellow Medicine County, in Minnesota, to start a new life. In 1892, they decided to leave Minnesota and head for Washington, where they bought 160 acres of good farmland close to the town of Mica Creek (Spokane County). Helga was only 35, and she had already given birth to 10 children, 8 of whom were still alive. They desperately needed a big farm in order to sustain their big family.

Unfortunately, like many times in life, things didn’t go according to plan for Helga’s family. In 1893 the Great Panic set off an economic depression that lasted until 1897. The whole country was in chaos. There were no jobs, and most of the businesses went bankrupt. On top of everything, Ole got a bad back injury and wasn’t able to provide much for the family. He was forced to take a big loan by putting a mortgage on the farm. The year 1896 came, and the Estbys were unable to repay the loan. They could lose their property at any moment. In those moments of despair, Helga decided to do something very courageous and unprecedented.

Helga (left) with her daughter Clara, 1897
Helga (left) with her daughter Clara, 1897

Even before she did what she did, Helga was known as a strong supporter of the suffragette movement. She strongly believed that women could do the same jobs as men. With this in mind, she devised a plan to raise enough money to save her family from poverty and homelessness. At the same time, her plan could also turn public awareness towards the struggle of the suffrage.

Inspired by another remarkable woman, Nellie Bly, who made a trip around the world in 72 days, Helga managed to arrange a deal with some unknown but influential sponsor in New York that if she managed to walk from Spokane to New York City (that is more than 4,000 miles) in seven months, he (or they) would give her $10,000. A pretty large amount of money at the time. Her bet made a stir in the family. She wanted to do something unacceptable for a woman. Helga decided to take her daughter Clara with her on the journey. This decision made her family feel a little bit better about her undertaking. At least she wouldn’t be alone.

The agreement with the sponsor stated that she would travel without any male escort and she would not beg for money. Helga intended to work for food and accommodation all the time. Estby also needed the public to hear about her, so she used every opportunity to speak with newspaper reporters in every city she visited on the way to New York.

The time came for the two women to prepare for their long expedition. Helga and her daughter chose to travel light. They only carried the most necessary things in their bags, things such as a compass and a map, a revolver and pepper gun for defense, a knife, a notebook and pen, as well as their clothes. Helga made detailed notes about the trip and hoped to write a book one day. They carried copies of a portrait of themselves taken before they started walking. They also carried small cards with them on which it was written: “H. Estby and daughter. Pedestrians, Spokane to New York.” The only amount of money they possessed was $5 in cash.

Their journey began on May 6, 1896. Initially, Helga and Clara wore long dresses and high boots, but later, in Salt Lake City, they changed into a shorter skirt that was made especially for bike riding.

Helga and her daughter walked beside the rail lines on their long hike. It was easier, and there was no chance for them to get lost. Also, they had the railroad section houses where they could spend the night. It turned out that this was not entirely necessary. Almost everywhere, kind people offered them a place to sleep. They only spent nine nights without a roof over their heads. They usually paid for their stay by cleaning, cooking, and sewing.

The journey was long and exhausting. The ladies walked between 25 and 35 miles a day in order to get to New York City in time. Besides the walking, they constantly had to deal with bad weather and sometimes bad people. Once Helga was forced to shoot a man in the leg because he wouldn’t leave them alone. This story got to the press, and the two women assumed an image of tough ladies from the West.

Slowly, more and more people heard about their journey, and they became celebrities. Wherever they went, people gathered to meet and greet them. They met a lot of famous people, and especially politicians. They even met with President William McKinley, who at the time was campaigning for the position.

The arrival day finally came. Helga and Clara were in New York on December 23, 1896. They rushed through the city with joy, happy that they did it and because of the prize that awaited them. But their happiness was short-lived. When they met with their sponsor, they learned they would not get the promised money because they missed the deadline. To make things even worse, Helga received news from home that two of her children had died of diphtheria.

Helga and Clara had proved a point. Women have the potential to do everything. Yet, they didn’t manage to save their farm. Soon, their family and the community declared them as home deserters.

The Estbys were stuck in New York, without money to get back home. Christmas was coming, and they needed a way to get back home. First, they tried to receive some money from charities, but they were rejected. Finally, Helga managed to take some rail passes from Chauncey Depew, a railway magnate at the time.

In the end, the Estbys lost the farm, but they were able to save themselves from poverty. They moved to Spokane, where Ole, Helga’s husband, and his sons worked as carpenters. Helga, whose notes from the trip were lost in New York, decided to write a book from her memory. Her family wasn’t very supportive of her idea. Helga Estby died in 1942, and a member of her family burned her manuscripts.

Related story from us: Grandma Gatewood continues to inspire as the first woman who solo hiked the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail

Luckily, years later, her story got out and now we can remember the journey of Helga and Clara. A journey across land, but also into the hearts of people.

Boban Docevski

Boban Docevski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News