Casper Star Interview

 Casper Star Interview By Kristy Gray
Kristy Gray
Star-Tribune staff writer

In 1983, Marcia Meredith Hensley, newly divorced and the mother of two daughters ages 15 and 12, left Tulsa, Okla., and moved to Wyoming, worlds away from the urban environment she had known.

After retiring in 1999, she delved into a project that had started as a hobby: researching single women who had picked up everything and homestead the West.

From her research comes "Staking her Claim: Women Homesteading the West," a book released by High Plains Press. It chronicles the story of 24 pioneering women in their own words -- either through letters or articles of the time.

Hensley's own story is reflected in the testaments of her subjects.

""I think it's that connection to the landscape that is probably my common bond with these women. And that sense of adventure and starting over again when you move from one landscape to another," Hensley said.

"It would be very hard to imagine me living anywhere anymore where I couldn't see the Wind River Mountains."

CST: How long have you lived in Wyoming?

Hensley has lived in Wyoming since 1983 when she took a job teaching English at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs. She started the school's Western American studies program.

She retired in 1999 and lives in an original homesteader house in Farson with her husband.

CST: Why women homesteaders? How and when did you become interested in their stories?

"The story of my coming is part of the reason I wrote the book. When I first came to Wyoming, I was eager to find out more about the area," she said.

Someone suggested she read "Letters of a Woman Homesteader," a collection of writings by Elinore Pruitt, a widowed mother who homesteads a few miles from Rock Springs. Meanwhile, Hensley was taking a course in the history of the West.
"I was struck by the fact that historians ... seemed to generalize that all the women who came were reluctant," Hensley said.
But Pruitt wasn't reluctant. To Hensley, it didn't add up.

So, out of curiosity and as a hobby, Hensley started looking for other single women homesteaders. She put together a program for the Wyoming Council of Humanities in 2001, chronicling all that she had found. People seemed interested, and Hensley figured she just might have something.

CST: How did you conduct research for this book and how long did it take?

Hensley set criteria for her search that the women had to have written about their experiences so she could let them tell their own stories. She expanded her search to states surrounding Wyoming to offer a broader perspective.

"I just let my curiosity lead me," she said. "I found a lot of these looking at the bibliographies of other books. I followed a lot of those leads, sometimes to dead ends."

She spent a lot of time at the University of Wyoming library, looking at old periodicals. Sometimes she had a clue of what she was looking for, other times she did not.

Clues also came from the public programs she presented on women homesteaders. After one such program, a woman told Hensley that homesteader Florence Blake Smith had a son still living around Dallas, Texas. But how many Robert Smiths do you figure live in the Dallas area? Then, Hensley happened to find one named Robert Blake Smith. She gave him a call and he was indeed Florence's son.

Hensley had researched these women for about 20 years as a sort of hobby. When she really felt like she had something, she spent about three years writing "Staking Her Claim."

CST: What is your favorite story from "Staking?"

"That is so difficult. It's kind of like asking, 'Who is your favorite friend?' Each one of them has such a unique story," Hensley said.

Having said that, Hensley is really fond of the story of Florence Blake Smith who came from Chicago to settle near Wright.

In Smith's memoir, "Cow Chips n' Cactus," which Hensley uses in her book, Smith writes about an encounter with a young man in Chicago who had homestead in Wyoming: Listening to him and jotting down several addresses he gave me, it looked quite simple. ... Since I was free, white, and just twenty-one and female, I decided right there that I could do the same, if he could.

Hensley liked her spirit.

"She really has no idea what she's doing. But she goes out there and she does it. I really respond to her description of the landscapes and her connection to the landscapes."

CST: What, if anything, did you personally learn from this project?

"I did see myself in the women. I responded to the women so strongly because I felt my experience coming west, in 1983 at the end of the first boom, it felt a lot like what they were going through.

"I felt almost that they had chosen me. Their stories kind of called out to me and I was the right person to tell their stories. ... I felt I guess, that this was thing I was supposed to do."