After becoming the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail solo at the age of sixty-seven in 1955, today’s “Feisty Female” remarked to Sports Illustrated upon completing the trek, “I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was, but I couldn’t and wouldn’t quit.” Such was the grit and determination of Emma Gatewood, a.k.a. Grandma Gatewood – how that spirit became embodied in her is the subject of today’s article, with her story concluding next Friday.
Emma Rowena Caldwell was born on October 25, 1887 in the Guyan Township of Gallia County, Ohio to parents Hugh Wilson and Esther Evaline (Trowbridge) Caldwell, she being one of fifteen children (ten girls and five boys).
Hugh Caldwell was a Civil War veteran (Union) whose ancestors had immigrated from Scotland. Esther was descended from a line of Trowbridges who had first settled in America in the seventeenth century. One of her not-too-distant ancestors, Levi Trowbridge, was a Revolutionary War veteran, at one time serving with the Green Mountain Boys commanded by General Ethan Allen.
“Emma had lived a dozen lives by eighteen,” according to Ben Montgomery, author of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. Her life wasn’t easy. When the family moved to Lawrence County, somehow her father never got around to erecting a proper house. A log cabin with an extra bedroom on the porch was home to the Caldwell brood. The children slept four in a bed, and in the winter snow would blow in and cover their blankets. The family faithfully attended church on Sunday by walking a mile to Platform. Because they were needed for farm work, the children only attended school about four months out of the year.
The family moved again when Emma was thirteen and four years later her father fell and broke his good leg (he had been wounded in the Civil War). Esther accompanied him to Gallipolis where he was hospitalized for two months. Instead of attending school Emma milked the cows and did the Saturday washing. Her brothers killed hogs and Emma made sausage, lard and head cheese. Emma also took on most of the other household chores like sewing, cleaning and cooking.
When she turned eighteen, Emma left home to take a job as a maid in Huntington, West Virginia, just across the Ohio River. It was not a pleasant job, and when she returned one of her cousins, Carrie Trowbridge, asked her to work for her grandmother Mrs. Pickett. Mrs. Pickett paid her seventy-five cents a week to do all the chores she had done at home for years. While working there she met Perry Clayton Gatewood.
She wasn’t necessarily eager to marry P.C., but after he threatened to leave and head west she grudgingly agreed. They were married on May 5, 1907 and for a very short time all seemed fine. However, not long after their honeymoon, the real P.C. emerged. He considered Emma his “possession” and demanded she even do his work – things like building fences and other tasks around the farm. After just three months of marriage, P.C. struck Emma for the first time and drew blood. Emma considered leaving him that day, but after realizing she had no marketable skills to head out on her own, decided to stay and stick it out.
In October of 1908 their first child, Helen Marie, was born. P.C. wanted boys and told her so. The following year she had another baby girl named Ruth Estell. In 1911 P.C. got his first son, Ernest Monroe. When P.C. purchased an eighty-acre farm in 1913 he, of course, expected Emma to pitch in and help with the farm work, this in addition to her duties as a housewife and raising their young children.
She was, however, a practical person, a “Roosevelt Republican,” who knew how to cure or fix just about anything via home remedies. When P.C. wasn’t demanding her time and household chores were done, Emma would read – encyclopedias, Greek poetry, classics like The Odyssey and The Iliad, and read them cover to cover.
Their fourth child, William Anderson, was born in 1914 and in 1916 another girl, Rowena, was born. Three months after Rowena was born, Emma became pregnant again. P.C. had continued to abuse her and just a short time before the birth of her sixth child, he assaulted her yet again. Even though P.C. didn’t drink he had a violent temper and this time it was brutal, punching her in the face and head so severe she could barely endure laying on a pillow. Their new daughter was named Esther Ann.
In 1918 P.C. bought a farm with a large house for $30,000, on credit with a down payment of $5,000. With a significant mortgage, that meant a lot of work for the entire family. No one would work harder than Emma as she also scraped and saved along the way to make ends meet. She canned vegetables and fruits to last through the next year and sell the rest at a roadside produce stand. When a hog was slaughtered, Emma cured the bacon and made the sausage and head cheese.
In addition to cooking and feeding her own sizable family, often the farmhands would join them at the dinner table. Their family grew again in 1920 when twins Robert Wilson and Elizabeth were born. P.C. Gatewood was an enigma of sorts – he was educated, having taught school for fifteen years before marrying and having a family and he was savvy with designing and building. He continued to require that his family attend church on Sunday, but he still had a mean streak.
In 1924, P.C.’s violent temper boiled over and he killed Hiram Johnson, with whom he had argued. P.C. was charged with manslaughter after the two men had drawn guns on one another. However, P.C. didn’t shoot Hiram – he swung his rifle and struck Hiram in the forehead, rendering him unconscious. Four days later Hiram died.
P.C. was convicted and ordered to pay $50,000 to Hiram’s widow. He avoided prison time since he had nine children and a farm, but he was eventually forced to sell half of the land. Even then it still wasn’t enough to sustain the family and meet their own financial needs. Daughters Dora Louise and Lucy Eleanor were born in 1926 and 1928. In 1929 he secured a job driving students to school for seventy-five dollars a month. In 1932 he lost the job, in the midst of the Great Depression, because someone else agreed to do it for seven dollars less a month.
So many people were “down on their luck” and out of work during that time, but Emma was always generous when vagabonds and tramps wandered into her neck of the woods. They were welcomed to sit on her porch and partake of a meal. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for president in 1932, P.C. switched to the Democrat Party, but Emma stuck with the Republicans. When the election rolled around, P.C. was confined to a sick bed and pollsters wanting to record his vote were refused entry by Emma. No doubt this was a point of contention and cause for more abuse.
Ben Montgomery related the following in his book:
In later years, she would confide in her children that their father not only blacked her eyes and bloodied her lips but that his sexual appetite was insatiable. He demanded she submit to him several times a day. They didn’t know it then, but they were used to their mother seeking haven in their beds, in the quiet of night, because she couldn’t bear to lie next to him.
Their children heard the screams and muffled cries, saw the blood and bruises. At one point his youngest daughter saw P.C. choking Emma. She would later relate that, “I did not carry one single child that I did not get a slapping or beating during that time and several times he put me outside and told me to go. . . He even asked me what asylum I wanted to go to and I told him Athens or O.H.E., or any place would be better than home.”
By 1935 P.C. could no longer afford to make payments on the farm, and even though he eventually found money to pay the bills, things didn’t get better between him and Emma. In her most private moments she would write dark poetry and walk through the woods alone to cope. During the winter of 1937 Emma, fearing she couldn’t survive another beating, told her children she loved them and would eventually send for them, and headed west to California where her mother and one brother lived.
She had temporarily moved to California briefly with baby Louise following a brutal beating years before, but this time, even though she missed her children, Emma wasn’t sure she wanted to return. She found a job as a practical nurse yet still struggled with her decision. On February 20, 1938 her letter to Louise and Lucy contained news of a medical condition, probably the result of one of P.C’s beatings. She decided to return home so P.C. would have to pay the medical bills she couldn’t afford.
She found P.C. had mismanaged their money and the running of the farm. Later that year the farm was sold. Another farm was purchased but that lasted only one year. Meanwhile, P.C. would not let Emma out of his sight – she was forced to work alongside him. Emma later wrote that no less than ten times that year P.C. beat her beyond recognition. In 1939, P.C. sold out and moved his family to Barkers Ridge, West Virginia, even though Emma objected.
In September of that year Emma and P.C. would have their last fight, the last beating at his hand. She could take it no more. Emma was beaten severely and fled while one of their sons held back his father. She came back home only to discover that P.C. had fetched a deputy to arrest her. Somehow he had convinced the law that she was at fault. When he arrived with the law, Emma was waiting with a five pound bag of flour – which she heaved at him as soon as he burst in the house. She was taken to jail, booked and then later released by the mayor. He realized that someone who was as beat up as she was didn’t deserve to do jail time.
The mayor helped her find a job and offered Emma a safe place to stay while she got back on her feet. Meanwhile, her children were still living with their father. One day they arrived back home in the afternoon only to find that just about everything in the house had been taken away. Only half of a hog carcass remained on the table. Emma returned and by early September she had filed for divorce after over thirty-three years of marriage and abuse. On February 6, 1941 she was granted a divorce and obtained custody of their youngest children. P.C., true to his character, failed to pay court-ordered alimony, but Emma was just glad he was gone.
So, how did a sixty-seven year old grandmother decide fourteen years later to take on the challenge of walking the Appalachian Trail alone? Tune in next week for the story of her first unsuccessful attempt, followed by three other solo hikes on the trail, not to mention a trek across the country to celebrate the Oregon Trail anniversary. What a feisty female she was!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.