Uncovering a Legacy

The mystery of Ella Higginson

STORY BY LIBBY KELLER | PHOTO BY TOMMY CALDERON

(above) Professor Laura Laffrado stands in her office holding her copy of “From the Land of the Snow-Pearls” by Ella Higginson on Jan. 27, 2015. Laffrado keeps most of her documents and books of Ella Higginson in her office at Western.

An illustrious Victorian mansion known as Clover Hill once stood looking out over Bellingham Bay. But now, the house and its once famous resident have vanished in the throes of history.

Ella Higginson was one of the most widely published female writers of the early 20th century, and Western English professor Laura Laffrado has made it her mission to resurrect Higginson’s words for a whole new generation of readers.

“She was the writer who put the Pacific Northwest on the literary map,” Laffrado says. “She was just so incredibly popular.”

Even among students at Western Washington University, where Higginson was once highly regarded as a literary icon, she has been forgotten.

At Western, once called Northwest Normal School during the turn of the century, Higginson was praised for her literary talent. Higginson’s name appeared several times in The Weekly Messenger, an ancestor of The Western Front.

“Many of us do not realize, as we go about our work daily, to and from the Normal School that we are passing the door of one of the distinguished writers of today,” according to a 1921 archive article.

Higginson’s home, Clover Hill, once stood at corner of Pine and High Streets. It was so magnificent that its picture was used for postcards and children would visit on class trips. On the inside, an antique, 16th century desk sat among a collection of other antiques and knick-knacks. Most bizarre was the kayak that hung mounted over one of the bay windows, Laffrado says.

However, after her death in 1940, Higginson’s name and hundreds of her works faded into obscurity. Clover Hill was demolished in preparation for the construction of Western’s Viking Commons building.

A portrait of Higginson sits atop a file cabinet in Laffrado’s office. The picture is of an older Higginson, the lines of age beginning to show along her square jaw, her curly hair hidden beneath a large, feathered hat.

[caption id=”attachment_7368" align=”alignright” width=”450"]

Ella Higginson books

The books “The Voice of April Land”, “From the Land of the Snow-Pearls”, “Mariella-of-Out-West” and “Alaska the Great Country” surround a photo of a Young Ella Higginson. These books, and this photo, are currently part of professor Laura Laffrado’s archive of Ella Higginson.[/caption]

According to the Ella Higginson Papers collected at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, while Higginson may have become a great writer of Washington state, she was actually born in Council Grove, Kansas in 1861. She then spent her youth in Oregon City and Portland, Oregon, where she received tutelage from a well-known educator of the time, S.D. Pope.

It was in Oregon that Higginson published her first poem at the age of 14, Laffrado says.

But it was from the isolation of Washington, Higginson wrote pieces that appeared in publications like McClures, Harper’s Monthly and Colliers, according to the Higginson Papers.

“She had been writing to publishers and editors and other authors,” Laffrado said. “She was networking all over the place. The letters have made me realize how strategic she was about her business practices.”

Higginson wasn’t all business, however. After the publication of her most famous poem, “Four-Leaf Clover,” she adopted the symbol of the clover as a kind of a trademark.

Higginson wore clover-themed jewelry, had her books embossed with clovers, named her home Clover Hill and even upon her death, Higginson had the image engraved on her monument in Bayview Cemetery, Laffrado says.

I know a place where the sun is like gold,
 And the cherry blooms burst with snow,
And down underneath is the loveliest nook,
 Where the four-leaf clovers grow.
One leaf is for hope, and one is for faith,
 And one is for love, you know,
And God put another in for luck — 
 If you search, you will find where they grow.
But you must have hope, and you must have faith,
 You must love and be strong — and so — 
If you work, if you wait, you will find the place
 Where the four-leaf clovers grow.

Laffrado has also begun to uncover the person behind Ella Higginson’s words. An avid horse rider, Higginson was fond of riding through Bellingham in the days before it became more urban and developed.

It was during this time that a young man named Smith Carleton met Higginson while he attended Normal School.

A dapper young man with dark hair and a kind face, Carleton became a handyman for Higginson sometime after her husband died in 1909. Carleton’s daughter, Joanne Peterson, describes Higginson as a very strong and persistent woman with whom Carleton shared a good friendship.

“If she hadn’t been a very genuine person, he wouldn’t have liked her,” Peterson said. “He did not like women who tried to get by on their looks. He liked the real thing, and she was.”

Peterson imagines Higginson and Carleton letting their attitudes and strong wills clash in passionate opinions as he did odd jobs around Clover Hill.

It was Higginson’s wide range of accomplishments, both literary and otherwise, which Peterson says her father admired.

The first library and public reading room in Bellingham was also established with Higginson’s help, and records show she remained a longtime member of the board, according to the Higginson Papers.

Higginson also served as campaign manager to Frances C. Axtell, who became the first female member of Washington State’s House of Representatives in 1912, according to the papers.

However, the start of World War I caused publication of Higginson’s books to wane, Laffrado says.

“If I could go back in time and talk to her, I would tell her that her works are still being reprinted during that time even though she doesn’t know it,” Laffrado says.

Through two scholarly articles, an upcoming book set for release in July and a major authors course to be taught next year, Laffrado is slowly bringing Higginson back to life.

So perhaps, at last, the legacy of one of the most prolific writers of the region will find where the four-leaf clovers grow.

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