This article was written by Reidun Nuquist and originally appeared in the Spring 2015 Long Trail News.
If you are familiar with club history, you know that all twenty-three incorporators of the Green Mountain Club were men. In 1910, a woman’s place was still in the home, where she was expected to find fulfillment in Kinder, Küche, Kirche; or, children, kitchen and church. She would not have the right to vote until 1920, when the U.S. Congress finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. Meanwhile, a Vermont woman who campaigned for woman suffrage became the GMC’s first female section president.
Joanna Croft Read
In 1916, when the Burlington Section was in need of restructuring, it elected Miss Joanna D. Croft as president. Established as the Mount Mansfield Section the year the GMC was founded, it had been floundering. (The online section history suggests members were too busy building the Long Trail to have time for section business.)
Not much is known about Miss Joanna Croft. She appears in The Bulletin of the Vermont Free Public Library Commission, where she is listed as head of teacher training and as speaker at a library meeting in Charlotte. She next turns up as Mrs. Joanna Croft Read, state secretary of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (later League of Women Voters) and an authority on municipal suffrage, granted by the Vermont Legislature in 1917. Two years later she testified in favor of universal women’s suffrage at the Vermont State House.
We can be proud to have had a real suffragette in our midst.
While Miss Croft was Burlington Section president, Mrs. Clarence P. Cowles was in charge of section entertainment. In 1918 she took the gavel, serving as president for two years. Of Laura Cowles, spouse of a GMC founder, we know much more, partly thanks to a 1987 oral history interview with John T. Cowles, one of her four offspring.
Laura Golden Cowles (1878–1958) was from Wisconsin, the daughter of a Canadian father and Vermont mother. She graduated with an English degree from the University of Minnesota in 1902―“unusual for a girl in those days,” her proud husband later wrote. The couple married on Hosmer Pond in Craftsbury (he was from nearby Albany), and in 1905 settled on Ledge Road in Burlington, then farmland.
We know Judge Cowles as the pre-eminent trail builder on Mount Mansfield; less known is the role his wife played in the GMC’s early decades. Her husband named her “the pioneer in opening the Green Mountains of Vermont for the recreation, good health and pleasure of women as well as men, in winter as well as summer.” A fit former basketball player and cyclist, she climbed the six highest peaks in the state. With a Miss Guthrie, she may have been one of the first women to ascend Mount Mansfield in winter. Her son John describes a photo of the two: “in their great wrap of long dresses, wool dresses, and the toke [sic] on the head and the big muffler and all, on snowshoes going up onto the forehead of Mansfield.” More commonly, she hiked in knickers borrowed from her husband.
Laura Cowles was also a patron of music and a pianist; she gave concerts and lessons. James P. Taylor, whose home was a Burlington hotel room, was a frequent guest on Ledge Road, a favored ‘uncle’ to the Cowles children. John Cowles remembers going to sleep listening to his mother accompanying Taylor, an accomplished flute player, on the piano. Both favored German composers.
Laura Cowles is remembered with a trail on Mount Mansfield. Her husband was instrumental in naming the informally known ‘Cowles Cut-Off,’ his direct way up the western side of the mountain, the Laura Cowles Memorial Trail. Today the name has been shortened to the Laura Cowles Trail.
If the Burlington Section occupies a special place in GMC history, so does the New York Section. Founded by Professor Will S. Monroe―he of the Monroe Skyline and the Monroe Trail―in 1916, it attracted some remarkable people, many of them women. In fact, New York Section membership was for a while evenly split between genders.
Laura E. Woodward (1874-1960), a friend and colleague of Monroe’s from the New Jersey State Normal School in Montclair, was a charter member. She served her section in many capacities: as secretary, newsletter editor, outings chair and president. One year, according to Monroe, she helped organize ninety-five events, many of them centered around Camp Thendara in Harriman State Park. In addition to being a trip leader, Woodward was a bird watcher―she headed the annual bird census ―and a botanist, collecting specimens on Jay Peak, among other places. Richard M. Abbott, a floriculturist, became her husband. I use her maiden name here: she is best remembered today for the Laura Woodward Shelter, north of Jay Peak.
Yet this energetic outdoors woman did not set foot in Vermont until 1927! She came north then to report at the GMC annual meeting, combining it with a visit to Professor Monroe at Couching Lion Farm. She clearly made up for her late arrival: upon her death, the Long Trail News ran her obituary on the front page:
Her love of the Green Mountain Club, her enthusiasm for its aims and activities, her ebullient good spirits and her high Quaker ideals have been for long years an inspiration to us all. . . . Her enthusiasm for the out-of-doors, for conservation measures and all aspects of nature inspired all who knew her. She brought many members into the Club, both from her large circle of friends and from her students at Montclair Normal School.
During the second year of Woodward’s presidency, the New York Section had an impressive 362 members. Sadly, the section dissolved in 1999.
I have long had a soft spot for the professor’s younger sister, who seldom gets a mention.
Katherine Monroe (1873–1934), born in Hunlock Creek, Pennsylvania, was the seventh of eight children. Like her brother Will, she was well educated, attending teacher’s college in her home state and Barnard College. Also like her brother, she lived for several years in Europe, taking courses at three French universities.
According to the Burlington Free Press, Katherine was “keenly interested in outdoor activities and made arduous hikes in the French, Italian and Austrian Alps, and also worked several summers on the Long Trail in Vermont.” She was thus one of our earliest trail workers of either sex. We find her in old photographs by Theron Dean and Herbert Wheaton Congdon, sometimes the only woman in the party.
When Professor Monroe retired to Vermont in 1925, Katherine soon followed. In the aftermath of the devastating 1927 Flood, she helped affected neighbors by making sheets and by gathering blankets from Long Trail lodges.
The two siblings, neither ever married, had much in common. But I have sometimes wondered what it was like for Katherine at remote Couching Lion Farm. Did she live in the shadow of her famous brother? Did she participate when he held forth on Walt Whitman, the Balkans or dog breeds? Did she have to entertain section members who appeared on weekends? Was she lonely when her brother was in Europe? We shall never know.
Katherine died after a brief illness. In the farm guestbook, Professor Monroe wrote: “Sister Katherine passed away at 3:15 this morning. Had she survived until tomorrow, she would have reached her 61st birthday.” And two days later: “The dear sister Katherine was buried at 3 this afternoon, beside the sainted Scottie [a favorite collie], in accordance with her wishes.” Her gravestone stands below the Monroe Trailhead.
The Long Trail News for July, 1927, carried a notice in connection with the trustees meeting: “Misses Brownell and Estabrook [sic] drove to Brandon Sunday and did the DuVal trail, underestimating slightly the time it would take and missing the train, but well satisfied nevertheless.” Was this a get-acquainted hike for the GMC’s first two women trustees who had joined the board a year earlier?
Mabel Brownell (1879–1971) was the daughter of Chauncey W. Brownell, a founding member of the GMC and its first treasurer. A pillar of Burlington society, he was an attorney, a former secretary of state and state senator, who resided with his family on South Willard Street. From the published memoirs of Miss Brownell’s nephew, Lincoln Chase Brownell, we know something about his “very bright” aunt.
She was selfless, religious, and active in local charitable organizations, as well as the Green Mountain Club. (She also appears in Congdon’s and Dean’s Long Trail photographs.) Frugal, she never spent money on herself, her only indulgence being a riding horse kept at the Brownell homestead in Williston.
Upon graduation from the University of Vermont in 1902, she was invited to spend a year in Greece with the family of a faculty member on sabbatical. This trip was a highlight of her life, writes her nephew. Back home, she went to work as YWCA secretary in Hartford, later transferring to Burlington to take care of her father, as she promised her mother before she died. Miss Brownell herself died at age ninety-two from Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
Brownell’s fellow trustee, Edith Esterbrook, has not received the recognition she deserves―beyond a Long Trail News article by Theresa Davis twenty years ago.
In the decade from 1913 to 1923, Edith M. Esterbrook wrote a series of excellent articles for The Vermonter magazine about her extensive hikes and other travels around Vermont. In 1912(!) she trekked from the Callahans’, later Couching Lion Farm, to Moscow, and experienced the Long Trail before Professor Monroe moved it up on the ridges where it is today: “the fire warden’s 15% grade is being carried over the range toward Killington . . . On the trail, when completed, each fire warden is to patrol 20 miles a day.” In the Camel’s Hump clearing she slept in a tent provided by the Camel’s Hump Club of Waterbury; club members also served supper and breakfast. At 3:30 a.m. she was up to see the sunrise. Upon crossing Bolton Mountain, she gave generous credit to Judge Cowles and James Taylor, who had blazed the trail just days before.
Esterbrook’s articles are great reading: she was intelligent, observant, and knew her birds and flowers (she was active in the Vermont Botanical and Bird Club). Her writing must have inspired many women, including the Three Musketeers (three young women who thru-hiked the Long Trail in the face of mutterings of disapproval), as well as men, to try the young Long Trail.
The GMC was lucky to have this Boston-based Long Trail ambassador, with family ties to Brattleboro, as a trustee. Alas, many years went by before other women joined the board―that is, other than secretaries Lula Tye and Minerva Hinchey.
Lula Tye and Minerva Hinchey
As the club’s first paid, part-time staff member, Lula M. Tye (1888–1962) replaced James P. Taylor as corresponding secretary. From 1926 she ran the club office for twenty-nine years, writing letters, sending out dues notices, collecting money, keeping the books, and compiling scrapbooks. She had started as financial secretary to the Rutland Businessmen’s Association, then became manager of the Rutland Chamber of Commerce from which she retired: she was the “thread that bound Rutland’s business community together for nearly half a century.”
Tye’s successor, Honora Minerva Hinchey (1895–1979), was also from Rutland, where she lived with her widowed father; both parents were born in Ireland. An insurance professional, she served as club secretary and business manager for twenty-two years, from 1955–1977. When she retired at age eighty-two, the GMC used the opportunity to move its headquarters to Montpelier to be closer to the seat of state government.
Between them these two loyal women kept the GMC humming for five decades. Lula Tye was honored with a shelter (since demolished) near Little Rock Pond, the Minerva Hinchey Shelter is still in use south of Clarendon Gorge.
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Women have been active members since the club’s founding in 1910. They have hiked, snowshoed, camped, and done trail work alongside men. For many years, they were more likely to serve as section secretaries than as presidents, and it took six decades before the GMC board of directors elected its first woman president, Shirley Strong, in 1969. She was followed by Marty Lawthers, Marge Fish and Jean Haigh―in fact, three of the last five club presidents have been women.
It took some time for the board to reflect the club’s overall gender makeup. The most recent membership survey (2012) shows that women make up 34 percent of the overall membership. (It might be higher within sections.) Today’s board of directors reflects well the club’s gender ratio.
Learn more about GMC’s history and the important people in it in A Century in the Mountains: Celebrating Vermont’s Long Trail.