Rosamond Underwood (1887-1974)
by Susan Malmstadt
Sponsored by High Plains Library District
Born into a wealthy, loving family in Auburn, New York, Rosamond Underwood grew up a privileged society girl. She graduated from Smith College and toured Europe for a year. In 1916, at age 29, she was bored and restless, determined to do some good with her few talents before she “settled.”
Far from Auburn, a community of isolated homesteaders in the Elkhead Mountains of northwestern Colorado was seeking two school “marms” for their brand new modern schoolhouse. Believing that the region would grow, local lawyer Ferry Carpenter had spearheaded the drive for a separate school district hoping to lure cultured, educated Eastern girls as the teachers…and prospective brides for the lonely bachelors.
When Rosamond heard about the jobs, she knew she wanted to go, as long as her friend Dorothy Woodruff, would go with her. Ignoring protests from friends and family, they applied. Neither of them had ever taught school, held a job, or had any idea where Elkhead was.
After they were hired, Rosamond and Dorothy departed for the “wilds of Colorado” leaving their comfortable homes to board in a small square ranch house with the Harrison family. The house was without central heat, running water or electricity. They were immediately comfortable. The Harrison family found the girls delightful boarders and somewhat exotic.
The Harrisons were one of the 10 families who had moved to Elkhead with high expectations to homestead their own land and provide a better life for their children. Proud of their new school, the grateful community was awed and amazed that two such refined, educated women had come to teach their children.
At first, the teachers were concerned about their inexperience, but quickly recognized how much they could teach these children, starting with the Pledge of Allegiance. They diligently reworked lesson plans, solved discipline problems, put on plays and holiday parties and thought nothing of riding their horses to school through snow and freezing cold during one of the worst winters in history.
Rosamond also enjoyed an active social life due to the amorous attentions of both Carpenter and his friend Bob Perry, who traveled 4 hours from Oak Creek just to see her. At the end of the school year, Rosamond married Perry and she made Colorado her home.
That school year transformed the teachers and the Elkhead community. It proved the viability of a nine-month school year and, over the years, 12 more schoolteachers married local men. When Rosamond’s 9th graders graduated from the Elkhead School in 1920, all 5 of them pursued further education.
When hard times and drought hit the area in the late 1920s, the homesteaders left Elkhead, discouraged and heartbroken. The schoolhouse that inspired so much hope was closed in 1938.
In 2008, Dorothy Woodruff’s granddaughter, Dorothy Wickenden, discovered the more than 50 letters written by the teachers that year and told their story in Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.
Dorothy Wickenden, Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. Scribner, 2011.
In 2012, Susan joined the Legendary Ladies, a women’s history performance group, after retiring from a career in Gerontology. The combination of history, research and performing appealed to her and after reading Nothing Daunted, she chose to tell the story of Rosamond Underwood and the Elkhead School. In order to better understand Rosamond, her research included trips to the Elkhead Schoolhouse, Steamboat Springs, Hayden, and interviews with Rosamond’s family. For the past 2 years, Susan has enjoyed portraying Rosamond in “Unconventional Women of the West” performances throughout Colorado.
Rosamond Underwood, a cultured, educated Eastern society girl, left her comfortable life to teach school in Elkhead, Colorado, a remote homesteading community and one of the last frontiers.
With her friend Dorothy Woodruff, Rosamund introduced the students to a world outside of Elkhead—merging East and West—changing the students’ lives and their own.
“…for all the wonderful things that had been bestowed on me, this was by far the best year of my life…we wanted to contribute anything to people who could benefit from our few talents and experiences… a hard life for a limited time was exactly what we had in mind.”
Rosamond on her experience in Elkhead
“I will never forget the first morning when Lewis Harrison and the two new teachers rode up to the school. I thought Miss Underwood was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen…I don’t believe there ever was a community that was affected more by two people, than we were by those two girls.”
Bobbie Robinson, former student
“Ros was a rare and lovely person, with a spiritual quality that drew people to her, so that she was always involved in the joys and sorrows of others.”
Millie Woodruff, Smith Classmate
“Miss Underwood never complained about the hardships and cold she encountered. Her warm personality drew her pupils to her and there has never been a teacher who was more loved and respected than she was.”
Jane Smith Ratcliff, former student
“The credit for the success of the term lies with the pupils who have faced all kinds of weather to get there, in part with the parents …and in part with the unusual perseverance and pluck of the two young lady teachers, Misses Underwood and Woodruff ….who have not only not missed a day’s attendance and kept the snow trail open but who worked with such interest and vitality to make the scholars want to come.”
From the Elkhead News, April 20, 1917
1892 Rosamond enters kindergarten and meets Dorothy Woodruff, her lifelong friend
1909 Graduates from Smith College
1910-11 Rosamond and Dorothy take the Grand Tour of Europe
1915 Rosamond and her family travel to Arizona to help her recover from a bronchial illness. She falls in love with the independent, less restrictive western lifestyle.
1916 Rosamond and Dorothy move to Elkhead, Colorado, when they are hired as the first school teachers for the new Elkhead School
1917 She returns to Auburn and marries Bob Perry
1917-20 Rosamond and Bob live in Oak Hills, CO, 2 children born
1920 She returns to Elkhead to attend the high school graduation of her class of 9th graders
1921 The Perrys move to Denver, a son is born.
1921-34 Family life in Denver, continues friendship with Dorothy and Ferry Carpenter
1934 Bob Perry dies
1938 Elkhead School closes
1934-55 Rosamonds’s years as a widow, involvement in charitable organizations and Denver society
1955 She marries Ferry Carpenter and moves to Hayden, Colorado
1956-74 Life with Ferry at his ranch in Hayden, CO, until her death