A long-distance love story. Mountaintop adventures. International travel. It’s all there in Cathy Healy’s new book, An Improbable Pioneer, which uses a lifetime of letters written by Cathy’s grandmother and one-time Buffalo resident, Edith Healy, to tell the story of life on the Western frontier. But without the years Cathy spent researching the remarkable lives of her grandparents, Alec and Edith, her family’s rich story lines might have disappeared inside boxes of photographs showing old-fashioned people posing in a foreign time.
“If you don’t have stories, there’s no feeling,” Cathy said. “And if you don’t have feelings, they’re just people from the old days. And your family history is completely lost.”
Fortunately for Cathy, her family archives still brimmed with stories in 1993 and 1994, when she spent a “wonderful” week pouring through them with her aunt Helen Healy Bonine and father, Dan Healy, who had recently been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer.
Though Edith wrote letters throughout her life, a series between Edith and Edith’s Bostonian mother, Elizabeth Holden, written during Edith’s first year away from Massachusetts as Alec’s wife, emerged as the centerpiece of the archives. Edith came from a respected Boston Yankee family, but when she met a handsome Massachusetts Institute of Technology student named Alec Healy, his upbringing in an Irish Mormon family in Utah didn’t stop her from falling in love.
“On my grandmother’s side, every forbear from her father and her mother was in the United States by 1625, starting with the Mayflower in 1620,” Cathy said. “(Alec) wasn’t from a place like California. He was from Utah. Polygamy had just been outlawed eight years before they met. And Boston had the worst anti-Irish prejudice in the country.”
Nevertheless, the couple carried out an eight-year courtship before marrying and moving to tiny Buffalo, Wyo. Alec and his brother, Patsy Jr., had taken over their father’s sheep business, Healy Brothers, and built the ranch headquarters where Healy Reservoir is now. It was a move Edith was excited to make, but during the couple’s courtship, Edith’s only sibling died in childbirth and her father succumbed to heart disease.
“These letters are written in a way to make her mother, left alone, feel part of Edith’s life,” Cathy said. “And to know who the people were and what it looks like and (to say), ‘You will love it when you come to visit.’ So the whole idea of these letters that makes them so interesting is the depth of detail.”
The surviving letters begin three days after the couple’s April 3, 1911, wedding and continue at intervals of three days to a week until Sept. 23 of that year, after which date only some letters were preserved. Edith detailed life down to the union suit, flannelette nightgown and heavy blanket wrapper she wore for her first night on a sheep wagon to the “most wonderful mountains, all snow capped” that greeted her when she arrived in Buffalo.
She takes her mother inside Adams & Young’s grocery store, tells about her first visit to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and rhapsodizes (presumably, as only her notes for this letter survive) about the Fourth of July extravaganza at the Webb Ranch 30 miles south of Buffalo.
“No telephones would reach (from Wyoming to Boston),” Cathy said, “and we’re lucky, because that meant she wrote letters.”
After World War I, the Healys got out of the sheep business, and Alec and Edith moved first to Denver and then to Worland so Alec could begin his new career as director of the First National Bank of Worland. Their future would include adopting two girls after their boys, Alec Jr. and Daniel Sampson, reached eighth and fifth grade; Edith’s ensuing career as “the Juliette Lowe of the West” in Girl Scouts; Alec’s election to the State House of Representatives and a string of international adventures. But Buffalo was always a second home.
“She just loved Buffalo and the Big Horns,” Cathy said. “She was in love with my grandfather, she was in love with the adventure, she was excited about the people she was meeting. She was having lots of fun, and she just loved Wyoming.”
But creating the book involved more effort than simply typing Edith’s letters in Microsoft Word. Cathy’s goal was to put the family’s scattered letters, photographs and mementos together and in context. To that end, she scoured the archives of the Bostonian Society, mined the Washakie Museum and Cultural Center, enlisted the abilities of history-sleuthing friends and searched through Buffalo’s oldest community record, the Buffalo Bulletin.
“Oh my gosh, the Bulletin is the greatest treasure on earth,” Cathy said. “I went through from 1908 through about 1922 or ’23 searching for all the family names. I thought (Edith’s) mother had never come to Buffalo. I thought she was too old, and it just didn’t happen. But I discovered through the chattiest paper in the universe that in fact her mother did come out.”
Among other stories, Cathy also read the Bulletin’s account of dead livestock carcasses peppering the landscape after the winter of 1911-12 and of 2-year-old Dan Healy’s recovery from a severe illness in February 1918. The newspaper told of Edith’s growing community involvement as she volunteered to collect names of those needing nursing care during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 and founded the women’s Delphian Society in 1919 to “promote social progress, higher education and personal empowerment.”
By pairing stories with artifacts, Cathy was able to bring her ancestors to life. Now, she can see how their traits and personalities have woven through time to connect with the present day.
“That photo (of Edith’s grandfather, Charles Holden) to me looks like what you’re supposed to look like if you’re a Yankee,” Cathy said of a formal portrait portraying Holden as thin, distinguished and self-disciplined. “I thought that’s what Edith’s father looked like.”
But Cathy’s research revealed the opposite. Her great-grandfather, Charles W. Holden, went by “CW” or “Charlie,” and his wife, Elizabeth, was known as “Lizzie.” Even as a young man, CW had a “prosperous belly,” and he was a sales dynamo to boot.
“Suddenly, it became clear to me why my Uncle Alec (Edith and Alec’s son) was into sales, why he was into inventing and why he was interested in photography,” Cathy said.
“Families have similar traits, and so you’ll find themes run through families,” she said.
Sometimes, with no regard to genetics. Through the book, Cathy connected with Barbara Holcomb, the granddaughter of Edith’s adopted daughter, Helen. Holcomb is a nurse at a military hospital in Germany, and Cathy found that Holcomb’s family had often talked to her about Healy’s international adventures as a National Geographic writer.
“That’s why she went into the military, because she wanted an adventuresome life,” Cathy said. “It’s not the genetic traits, but (the) environmental.”
But before the book, Cathy didn’t necessarily know what those traits were. Toward the middle of a pack of 12 grandchildren, Cathy was often intimidated by her grandfather Alec’s height and reserved, formal behavior. The letters introduced her to the man her grandmother loved.
“I found how romantic he was and how much fun they had and to see him through her eyes as this dashing figure off to do these adventures,” Cathy said.
It was a love that lasted to the end, which came with Edith’s death from colon cancer in 1950. When Alec opened Edith’s 1946 letter marked “to be opened after my death,” the words must have brought comfort.
“No one could have had a finer husband than you have been, and I do appreciate everything you have done,” Edith wrote. “I’ve had a glorious and interesting life and enjoyed it to the utmost.”
It has been more than 100 years since Edith’s story began, but the tale continues through the lives of her ancestors. Cathy, who grew up in Worland and now lives in Washington, D.C., makes frequent trips back to Wyoming to reconnect with friends across the state. She serves on the boards of LU Ranch in Worland and University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and she founded UW’s World Comes to Wyoming Fund to bring international experts to the school. Her roots are a part of who she is, as are the grit, enthusiasm and adventurous spirit that characterized Edith’s life.
“It’s about blooming where you’re planted and (using) what you bring to a community in a way that the community can use,” Cathy said. “At the same time, you really enjoy the community.”
And whenever she visits Buffalo, she does.
“When I approach Main Street, I always think, ‘Gosh everything looks pretty. Gosh, I wonder if they are serving black bean and cilantro soup today. Gosh, look at the petunias — I love that color of pink ...’” Cathy said. “In other words, I just arrive and am pleased. What a tribute to Buffalo and its people. Such reactions don’t just happen.”
Reviving the past
Cathy compiled An Improbable Pioneer both as a tribute to her family and as a prototype of how other families might tell their stories. The book format allows every family member to keep a complete set of the archives, and digital resources and print-on-demand options make this kind of project easier than ever. But getting started and staying on task can be difficult, so Cathy offers the following tips for people interested in trying.
“Start with the workshops,” she said. Cathy is currently coordinating with organizations in Buffalo, Worland and Cody to teach workshops for interested people, so stay tuned for dates and times.
Don’t eat the whole elephant at once. “It’s hard to do a long project like this on your own, so you have to break it into smaller projects,” Cathy said.
Make it a social event. Cathy suggests gathering with others who are working on similar projects, quilting-bee style. “Get together with laptops and talk about it,” she said.
Find someone to keep you accountable for finishing. “If I, a professional writer, have trouble staying on track, I think most people would,” Cathy said.
An Improbable Pioneer is available locally at The Office, the Jim Gatchell Museum and the Johnson County Library. Out-of-town readers can find it at www.amazon.com.