“Because she did things other women did not do, and didn’t give a damn, she was envied.”
– Frances Dunn Judge,
“Vital Laughter,” Atlantic Monthly, 1954.
Frances Dunn Judge was talking about her grandmother Lucy Nesbitt Shive, an early Jackson Hole homesteader, when she penned those words in 1954. It is difficult to describe the type of woman who often calls Jackson Hole home, especially during the early 20th century. Homesteaders were self-sufficient, hardy and hard working. They played as hard as they worked, and immensely enjoyed the spectacular scenery around their rustic homesteads. In such country a woman had to be as skilled as her husband with a hatchet as she was with a needle. It didn’t hurt if the reverse was also true, and it often was.
This exhibit is inspired by the Jackson Hole News & Guide’s annual “Jackson Hole Woman” special edition. It is intended to highlight and celebrate the unique women who called this valley home when all members of the family were considered capable ranch hands. From raising children to cattle, they prided themselves on their self-reliant attitudes and “didn’t give a damn” what the outsiders thought. The Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum is proud to share the stories these strong women and plans to update this exhibit annually.
Born to a frontier family on November 5, 1866, Geraldine was exposed to pioneer living at an early age. She quickly outgrew her small-town life and went on to pursue higher education at Oberlin College and graduated with an education degree in 1898. Before attending college, she attempted the life that was expected of her, getting married young and starting a family. Six months into her pregnancy and marriage, she decided to follow her independent nature and divorced her husband. Upon their divorce, Geraldine reclaimed her maiden name for herself and her son. She then moved to New York City where she maintained a fulltime career as a music, art and sewing teacher until her retirement in 1912. Having enough of city life, Geraldine decided to join her siblings out west in Jackson Hole.
In 1913 after a year of surveying the valley, she filed for a 160-acre parcel north of Moose and directly underneath the Grand Teton. After several years of bureaucratic hurdles and turmoil, she was approved for 159.97 acres. She made the necessary improvements to the property, but rarely undertook any manual labor other than gardening and general maintenance. Due to her successful teaching career, she was able to support herself in a comfortable retirement. Her cabin had no electricity or plumbing and she made her own clothing. She did, however, amass a large library of over 1,300 books. These books would sustain her during the long winter months that she often referred to as her “hibernation.”On August 2, 1924 a 58-year old Geraldine successfully summited the Grand Teton with the assistance of a 16-year old Paul Petzoldt. She was the second recorded woman to make the climb.
Geraldine was well-known in the valley for her unusual lifestyle. While many could not tolerate her eccentricities and openly obstinate opinions, those who did accept her knew her to be equally gentle and caring. Her closest friends and family often affectionately referred to her as “Aunt Ger.” She preferred the quiet retirement she found on her property, unconcerned with her reputation. Due to her struggles acquiring her land, she was distrustful of government. She was staunchly against Harold Fabian and the Snake River Land Company, and vehemently rebuffed all of their offers for her highly-prized parcel. She began making arrangements to donate the property to Oberlin College, but lost her battle on August 12, 1938 when she died in her sleep. While her property is again federal land, Geraldine’s presence remains in both her cabins and her land. Her son had her cremated ashes interred in a large boulder on the property, facing her towards the Grand, the peak she always referred to as “her mountain.”
Lucy Wadams Nesbitt Shive
Lucy Wadams Nesbitt had a three-year old daughter, Carrie Maybelle, when she decided to divorce her husband and move away. She wanted to pursue life outside her home and marriage, and went on to find her own adventures. Leaving her daughter Carrie with her parents, Lucy found work as a ranch hand, working in the hayfields. She saved enough money from working other odd jobs as a chambermaid and waitress to purchase and run her own boarding house. When this interest ran out, she decided to undertake a move, alone, from Medicine Lodge, Montana to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1896. Upon her arrival, she met John “Jack” Shive who was squatting on a ranch in the Buffalo Valley. They were married a year later, and Jack enlarged his modest one-room cabin to fit his growing family. Carrie, now 10 years old, was summoned from Montana to live with her mother and new stepfather. Jack welcomed Carrie as if she were his own, and the affection was mutual, earning him the nickname “Daddy Shive.”
Lucy went about making the cabin into a home, hanging photos and even crafting a chair from antlers. Lucy was also talented in creating meals out of bare ingredients when supplies were low. She was as talented inside the house as she was out. She preferred to work outdoors, repairing fences, rounding up cattle or hunting. Upon her return from her first solo hunting trip, Jack admonished her for taking a shot and leaving the elk in the field. He ordered her back into the field to bring home the injured animal. Her granddaughter later recalled, “Gram did as she was told, and though she laughingly cursed Gramp for being no gentleman, she was proud that he made her complete the job.”
Not one to sit still, Lucy turned to taxidermy as a hobby which was grudgingly supported by her wary family. She often had some form of crafting to work on, including teaching Jack how to embroider. He was quick to learn, and they prided themselves on being equally adept with branding iron or needle. Another long-standing project was to line the cabin walls with what Lucy called “wallpaper.” Reading materials were a rare source of entertainment on the ranch, especially magazines and newspapers. These were also perfect wall-covering materials, as Lucy never saw value in reading much to Carrie’s chagrin. In a compromise, Lucy always hung them right-side up, and Carrie could read bits and pieces of different stories. She acquired a set of opera glasses that enabled her to read the ceiling.
While Lucy had as many ranch skills as any man, she never wore pants. The one concession she did make to aid her work was to wear the Jackson Hole double-barrel skirt. These skirts allowed a woman to appear as though she was wearing full skirts, but they were designed to allow her to ride astride. All of Lucy’s backbreaking chores, including cabin construction, were proudly completed in “well-laced corsets.”
Margaret (Mardy) Murie
Margaret “Mardy” Murie was born on August 18, 1902 in Seattle, Washington. She attended the Alaska Agricultural College of School and Mines where she became the first female graduate in 1924. That same year she married Olaus Murie and the two spent their honeymoon on a research trip studying caribou for eight months. Olaus worked for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey and devoted his life to an emerging field of conservation research. The two moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming so Olaus could study the deteriorating elk populations in 1927. Initially living in town, they began to search for a home in a quieter area of the valley. They became friends with Buster and Frances Estes who owned the STS Ranch in Moose. In 1945, the Muries purchased the ranch and moved in to a large cabin that was previously a private home on the property. As part of the purchase agreement, the ranch could not be used as a dude ranch, and the Estes could keep their original homestead cabin. Both wishes were fulfilled, as the Muries wanted a private home for family and friends. They removed the established pathways and allowed wildlife to return to the property and used their natural trails.
By 1948 the Muries became the sole owners of the ranch, and the Estes moved permanently to Arizona. Now known as the Murie Ranch, the dude ranching history has been largely forgotten. During their time in Jackson, the Muries had three children. Rather than being stuck at home with her babies, Mardy packed them up and brought them on research trips. In 1950, Olaus became president of the Wilderness Society, and the ranch was the perfect location to host their annual meetings. Mardy kept diligent records of her husband’s work, and they increasingly worked together to encourage legislation to protect America’s wilderness resources. Their long career was cut short in 1963 when Olaus died. Just a year later, the Wilderness Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Rather than giving up her ranch and moving on, Mardy devoted herself to work as a wilderness advocate. She wrote speeches, letters, books, and appeared in movies. Her work spanned the globe, from Egypt to Australia.
Upon returning to Jackson Hole, Mardy sold the ranch to Grand Teton National Park in 1968 with a life lease. She continued to travel to Alaska for research trips and conferences that resulted in several honors and awards, along with her other conservation work. She received the Audubon Medal, the Sierra Club John Muir Award, the Wilderness Society Bob Marshall Award and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. These accolades are significant because she was one of the first women to receive such recognition for work the conservation field. Upon her death in 2003, the life lease on the ranch ended and the property transferred to National Park Service ownership and management. Today it is known as the Murie Center, which continues to educate the public on the importance of conservation and natural resource protection.
Elizabeth (Betty) Woolsey
Elizabeth “Betty” Woolsey was born on December 28, 1908 in Albuquerque New Mexico. Her family lived in the shadows of the Sandia Mountains, while her father worked for the U.S. Forest Service. As the oldest of her four sisters, Betty had boundless energy as a child and her mother would often send her on her father’s research trips. Here, she had an early introduction into an outdoor lifestyle that would continue for the rest of her life. She learned skills in campsite selection and building, campfire cooking and the endurance to withstand long hot days in the blazing desert sun.
When her family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, Betty found herself bored by the smooth countryside and picket fences. There were no mountains or caves for exploring so she spent her time mastering team sports and earning a degree from Vassar. That Christmas, Betty’s father gave her a 120-foot climbing rope that she promptly took on a trip to New Mexico. Betty went on to climb several formidable peaks around the world. Her many adventures also included many close brushes with death that included running out of rope while rappelling down a mountain. She extricated herself by swinging back and forth to jump onto a ledge. On the Waddington Expedition, she fell into an hourglass-shaped crevasse in the Franklin Glacier and was able to dig herself back out.
During her climbing expeditions in Switzerland she was convinced to return in the winter when the higher peaks were better accessed by skis. The first trip included her first self-taught skiing lesson. Despite the early frustrations, she proved to be a natural. Just weeks after her first trial on skis, she participated in a race that qualified her to become part of the first U.S. Women’s Olympic ski team. In 1936, she competed in her first Olympics in Germany. She placed seventh overall, and shocked the European skiing world. She would continue to win several races and earned international recognition. With the advent of World War II, Betty and her fellow racers began to put the American Rockies on the world stage for ski racing. They found their new home base in Sun Valley, Idaho which had several modern amenities that the European resorts lacked. From here, she learned of a nearby, quiet mountain valley already known for its soft powder snow.
In Jackson Hole, Betty would find her true home on the Trail Creek Ranch that she purchased and opened up to dudes year-round. With her team of close friends, they outfitted the ranch with plumbing and electricity by hand. Betty’s favorite ranch chore was irrigating her extensive hayfields, reveling in expertly maneuvering water throughout her property. Her dry childhood in New Mexico gave her a life-long respect and appreciation for water. Despite her death in 1997, Betty’s legacy of adventure continues to live on at her ranch, which still hosts guests today.
Director of Historical Research and Outreach
Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum