Printer Friendly

The walking woolfs: an adventurous couple trekked through Mississippi during a history-making cross-country trip.

"If you don't get outside and get some fresh air and exercise, you may not live to see next year." These or similar words were what a physician advised Dwight H. Woolf of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1909. Woolf, a music publisher, was not unlike many other young small business owners of his time--or any other time--for in his effort to succeed, he apparently pushed himself to the limit, day after day and week after week. As a result, his health was deteriorating. He was growing thinner, his strength was waning, and perhaps his most sobering concern was his stamina, which wasn't nearly as strong as he knew it should be.

After considering all of this, Woolf decided he really did want to get outside and walk, but he just couldn't see himself as a man who walked around the block every day. Apparently, his wife, Stella, agreed that such a routine type of walking would not be in keeping with his character. A long walk or hike was what Dwight had in mind, and to that end Stella not only encouraged him to plan such a trip but agreed, maybe a little reluctantly at first, to accompany him.

On June 1, 1909, with camping gear including a tent, bedding, extra clothing, food, and a camera and film strapped to the back of their pony, the Woolfs and their dog, Don, started on their first walk, from Kansas City to the Ozark Mountains. The walk turned into an adventure that would change their lives. The couple found that being out of doors, meeting new people from all walks of life, and seeing the sights of nature were far more enjoyable pursuits than they had ever imagined. They loved the freedom of not being tied to a clock, and they found they had time to think. During the trip, Dwight composed a song entitled "Take a Walk," which he later published and sold as a means of defraying their expenses.

Once back home, Dwight and Stella couldn't stop talking about the pleasant experiences they had shared. Dwight felt stronger and more alive than ever, and Stella, who had to some degree secretly dreaded the trip because of her weight problem, was delighted that she had shed several pounds and felt more energized and better about herself. So excited were they both that throughout the next six months they busied themselves in planning an even grander walk--a 2,000-mile trip from Kansas City to New York City.

Capitalizing on their experiences from the first walk, Dwight, ever the entrepreneur, plotted ways to make the upcoming trip pay for itself. Realizing their need for more supplies, he bought or had constructed a large two-wheel cart. The cart, made of wood on a steel frame, measured about four feet long, five feet wide, and three and a half feet high, and the wheels stood about four feet in height. The size and weight of the cart required a larger animal to pull it, so they sold their pony and bought a strong young mare named Dolly. To catch the eye of the public, the sides of the white-painted cart were emblazoned in large black lettering with the words "Walking from Kansas City to New York." With lots of film to take photographs, which were made into postcards and sold to onlookers as souvenirs, the "Walking Woolfs" and their new horse, Dolly, and dog, Don, left Kansas City on Monday, May 2, 1910, and arrived in New York City 14 weeks later on Monday, August 15.

After a month of sightseeing, the foursome rode the train back home, and on October 15 of the same year, they started an even longer journey. This time, they walked 8,000 miles through Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, then on to Richmond and Washington, D.C., up to New England, then west across the top of the continental United States to Washington, down to California, up to Utah, and back to Kansas City along the old Oregon Trail. When they arrived back on the snow-covered streets of Kansas City, they were met as heroes and given two mounted police escorts, who accompanied them to City Hall. It was believed that their 8,000-mile walk was the longest on record up to that time for any couple.

It was during this record-setting trip that the Woolfs walked through Mississippi from the west to the east early in 1911. They entered from Vidalia, Louisiana, where they crossed the Mississippi River on a steam ferry. As may be expected, the height of the bluffs at Natchez did not fail to make a big impression on the couple as they stood in awe at the panorama of flat green Louisiana stretching westward as far as the eye could see. They were pleased with the hospitality of Natchez, as numerous citizens came to them wanting the souvenirs which they had for sale. They were especially grateful, for they knew that the grand old city was experiencing an economic downturn due to the devastation caused to the cotton crops by the boll weevil. Nevertheless, during their stay, people continued to welcome and entertain them, making them feel at home. On the morning of their departure, "a number of families baked biscuits, and presented them to us, nearly filling the compartment of our cart," the Woolfs recorded in their travel journal

From Natchez, the couple's route took them "up one hill and down another, which was pretty hard on Dolly," but they commented in the journal that "the scenery was beautiful." A few miles northeast of the city, farmers were starting to break ground, a scene that caught their attention because of "the very different way of tilling the soil" from that which was common in Kansas. Dwight noted that "instead of using two horses and a riding plow," the Mississippi farmers used a mule and a single plow. He was used to the heavy black soil of the north and Midwest. The rich loess soil of the eastern Mississippi Delta was new to him, but he did observe that although "the soil was of a light color ... the cotton crops are good." In Jefferson County, they saw their first large canebrakes, which locals told them played a big part during the Civil War in secreting people, livestock, and possessions from the invading Federal armies.

When the Woolfs crossed into southern Claiborne County, they found themselves in the middle of a large logging area. It was noted in their daily log that near Martin, which is now called Pattison and is located eight miles southeast of Port Gibson, there "were many ox teams hauling loads of logs. Sometimes, ten oxen were hitched to one load. The hauling of these logs makes the roads almost impassable in places, because of the weight pressing the wheels down into the mud and making deep ruts." This scene proved to be noteworthy to the Woolfs, as they had a logger take their picture there. The resulting photograph, showing Dwight in the driver's seat of a loaded ox-drawn log wagon, with Stella, Don, and Dolly looking on, was made into a postcard and sold throughout the rest of their trip.

At the small town of Carpenter, located near the northwestern corner of Copiah County, a group of young girls stood on the platform of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot, presumably to get a better look at the famous walkers. Once the Woolfs got close, the girls started to tease Stella by laughing at the size of her shoes. The giggles faded away after she explained that small, thin-soled shoes were not designed for long-distance walking. Smiling, the Woolfs walked on as the girls waved to them until they were out of sight.

By the time they reached Jackson, the walkers were apparently running behind schedule, possibly because of the heavily rutted roads caused by the ox wagons. At one point, they wrote, "every time the cart dropped into a hole, we expected to see it go smash. Dolly went along admirably, stepping in and out of the ruts, while we almost held our breath. Sometimes all of us had to wade through water." Their stay in Jackson was a short but pleasant one. The concise entry in their journal simply stated that "Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, presented a beautiful appearance. Everything was clothed in green. We camped on the Old Capitol grounds, which is now deserted." It must be noted here that the state's New Capitol building was constructed in 1903, and the Old Capitol building and grounds were leased to the State Fair Commission until 1912. During this nine-year period, the Old Capitol was used during the fall, so when the Woolfs visited in the spring of 1911, the grounds really were "deserted."

From Jackson, the now-seasoned walkers headed due east through Rankin, Scott, and Newton counties, where they encountered more sawmills, more ox wagons, and, yes, more muddy, rut-filled roads. Evidently, things didn't improve until they got to the higher elevation of Lauderdale County.

What a pleasure it must have been to walk the newly brick-paved streets of the "Queen City," Meridian, the state's largest city. There, they were welcomed by crowds of curious onlookers at almost every street corner. One group that gathered at the corner of 22nd Avenue and 4th Street in front of the two-story Meyer & Schamber Jewelry Company store wanted to see Don perform. To please them, Dwight did his best "to make him do some tricks," while Stella and several of Meridian's "finest" looked on. This scene was captured by a local photographer and made into a postcard while they were still in Meridian. The card proved to be a good seller and was sold throughout the rest of their trip, as evidenced by several collected postcards of the Meridian scene mailed from places including Cleveland, Ohio, and Oneida, New York.

Finally, after having walked nearly 20,000 miles, Dwight, Stella, Dolly, and Don came home for good in November of 1915. From their daily journal, they published a 250-page book entitled Tramping and Camping by the Walking Woolfs. They also published a 34-card set of postcards from the numerous photos taken during their six years of walking across America. One of the cards selected to be among the best of their memories was the view from Meridian.

It isn't known what happened to the Woolfs: What did they do throughout the rest of their lives? How long did they live? All of this is a mystery. But one thing is sure--they must have had some great stories to tell.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Downhome Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:LOOKING BACK
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Previous Article:Forging ahead.
Next Article:Healthy appetite: colorful, tasty "super foods" are the real heroes of the modern diet.

Related Articles
Walkabout: walking tours are a great way to see the world, at your own pace.
CubeSat launch.
Hunting for history: discover Mississippi like only the local know it in a high-tech search for hidden treasure.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2015 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters