The Story Behind Dear Mad’m
Stella Walthall Patterson
October 14, 1866 –
December 23, 1955
By Judy Bushy
This weekend we took a drive down Highway 96 just to enjoy the sunshine on the River, and the forest and blue skies. We came to the pullout near where Stella Patterson had her cabin and stopped to enjoy the view.
At the time of her eightieth birthday, Stella W. Patterson was faced with a dilemma. Her decision involved when a person is OLD and how she wanted to live her “senior years.” Stella made a surprising decision and became a hero to seniors who have since loved her book, Dear Mad’m.
Stella was born October 14, 1866 in the bustling city of San Francisco. Stella enjoyed the urban opportunities for social and cultural life, but after the earthquake of 1906 she left the city.
At the time of her 80th birthday, while visiting friends in Arcata on the northern coast, she was invited to live with relatives eager to do for her and take care of her in “declining years.” When a doctor told her that she had “young legs” it set her thoughts in a different direction. She owned a cabin on a mining claim in the wilds of Clear Creek near the friendly little town of Happy Camp, on the Klamath River. She decided to give living in that little cabin a try for a year. She wrote to the caretaker and set off for Willow Creek where she rode with the mail delivery up to the mailbox on Highway 96 below the cabin.
The title of her memoir of life on the Klamath came from, perhaps a senior moment, when Fred, the caretaker arrived, and she’d forgotten his name. In her correspondence she had said, “Dear Sir,” so she fell back upon that salutation. Fred replied, “Dear Mad’m,” and thus the nickname, which was later to become the title of the book, began.
The book tells of her life in that solitary and somewhat primitive cabin in its beautiful surroundings. She lived alone there with her dog, Vickie, and it turned out she had many adventures.
While Stella Patterson still traveled some, her delight was to return to her little cabin on the Klamath. She loved to garden and put up jams and jellies. She sent the memoir of the year she moved to the cabin to agents, critics, and finally a New York publisher who edited it. She called it “slashing,” her story. In the fall of 1955 she moved to an efficient little travel trailer, near Everett and Thelma (who had been like a daughter to her) in Redding. Her life drew to a close there in December 23, 1955 at the age of 89. It was just two weeks before Dear Mad’m was to be published, January 6, 1956.
The book had far reaching effects. It became a popular book club selection. Three ladies from Chicago retired from the Telephone Company and came to live near Happy Camp, because of reading her story. They enjoyed gardening and artistic endeavors and were active in the community. They were loved and appreciated in the community although they too are gone now. When Highway 96 was improved and straightened (Yes, it is possible that there were more curves and corners!) the road went right through her cabin, which was moved out of the way.
Naturegraph, a local Happy Camp publisher, kept the book in print since that time, for which we are grateful. Stella was a hero of sorts to persons of mature years, who still have more years to appreciate life and blessings. It’s a good book to read to remind a person of all the wonderful reasons we love life on the lovely wild Klamath River at the top of California.