Book tells story of 4,000-mile cross-country walk
Carole Estby Dagg
"The Year We Were Famous," a new historical novel by Everett's Carole Estby Dagg, tells the story of a cross-country walk made by two of her ancestors in 1896.
Courtesy of Carole Estby Dagg
Helga Estby (left) and her daughter Clara Estby walked from their rural home near Spokane to New York City in 1896.
Dagg isn't following in the footsteps of two intrepid ancestors. In 1896, her great-aunt and great-grandmother set out on foot from the family farm at Mica Creek, near Spokane. The mother and daughter walked from May until December, mostly following rail lines.
Helga Estby and her teenage daughter, Clara, made it to New York on Dec. 23, 1896. Their arrival was noted in The New York Times.
"It took real grit," said Dagg, 66, a former assistant director of the Everett Public Library.
Dagg tells the compelling story of the walk in "The Year We Were Famous." Her historical novel will be published next week by Clarion Books, part of Harcourt Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. She'll talk about the book at a program at 4 p.m. April 9 at the Everett Public Library.
And her trip to New York? It's a book tour. Dagg's novel has received the Sue Alexander Award for most promising new manuscript from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It's aimed at middle school and teen readers, but "The Year We Were Famous" is good reading for anyone interested in Northwest lore or women's history.
Dagg spent years fulfilling a promise she had made to herself. Once her two children were raised, and after 15 years at the Everett library, she quit her job to write her family's untold tale.
It begins at a time much like the Great Depression. It was just after the financial panic of 1893. The Estby family was about to lose their wheat farm. World-traveling journalist Nellie Bly had captured public attention, and the women's suffrage movement was gathering steam.
The novel's plot has Helga Estby signing a contract with a publisher promising a $10,000 advance on a book if she finishes the walk in seven months. That money could save the farm.
In truth, the extraordinary adventure received little notice after the women returned to Spokane. There were painful reasons for that.
"Helga bore 10 children. One died in infancy, one died a few months before the walk, and two died while they were gone," Dagg said. "Because of that horrible homecoming, other members of the family destroyed the records. They were never to talk about it again. All their journals were destroyed."
The book uses Helga and Clara Estby's names. It incorporates facts Dagg found through newspaper accounts. Dagg took writing courses, labored through rewrites, and received many rejections before the New York publisher said yes to the book.
Some of the real story remains a mystery, including whether there ever was a $10,000 promise. "The $10,000 figure is quoted in every newspaper article about their walk, but who made the offer was never revealed," Dagg said. She suspects Helga Estby may have embellished the story.
What is known is fascinating. Helga Estby was about 35 and Clara 17 when they set out. They carried a letter from Spokane Mayor Horatio Belt attesting that they were "respectable women," Dagg said.
Dagg created a map from records of their stops. The route took them to Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Dagg said the women slept in train stations and "knocked on doors" to find places to stay.
Their trip coincided with the 1896 presidential election. One door they knocked on was at the Canton, Ohio, home of William McKinley. He had been elected president but had yet to take office. Records show they also met Mary Bryan, wife of McKinley's opponent William Jennings Bryan.
They claimed to have worn out 32 pairs of shoes.
In the end, Dagg said, they did not collect any money or write a book. The family lost its farm. Dagg's great-grandfather, Ole Estby, left farming to work as a carpenter in Spokane.
As a child of 6, Dagg visited her Great-Aunt Clara in Spokane.
"She was 72 when I met her, dying of breast cancer," she said. Dagg has a distinct memory of looking at the woman's feet while she was putting on stockings.
"They were very old feet. They had walked 4,000 miles," she said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; email@example.com.
Carole Estby Dagg will talk about "The Year We Were Famous," a historical novel based on an 1896 trek two of her ancestors made, at 4 p.m. April 9 at the Everett Public Library, 2702 Hoyt, Ave. Books will be available at the signing. Information: 425-257-8030.
Dagg will also appear at these area events:
•Tuesday: A book launch party, 7 p.m. at Secret Garden Bookshop, 2214 NW Market St., Seattle.
•April 27: Panel sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, 6:30 p.m. at University Book Store in Bellevue, 990 102nd Ave NE, Bellevue.
•June 2: 7 p.m. at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE., Lake Forest Park.
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