The Story Behind Dear Mad’m

Stella Patterson
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.

Things to do, places to go, and summer reading on the wild Klamath River

What are your kids doing for the summer vacation from school? I was reading that Sasha and Malia Obama’s fabulous summer vacation includes foreign travel, the Eiffel Tower, Rome, the Pantheon and the Kremlin, concerts, and being free from school routines. They also spent time volunteering at Fort McNair in Virginia, where the girls helped stuff backpacks with books and toys for the children of military families. But the presidential family limits their television and computers all day until just before bedtime, which is early for the girls even during summer vacation.

While we don’t have opportunities to tour Paris and Rome, I think that kids along the wild Klamath River have better opportunities in some ways. If you want to go away, there are Redwoods and the Pacific Coast to the West of us. They could go explore Oregon Caves just north of us, or the Cat Zoo in Cave Junction. Further up the coast there are the Myrtlewood Carving Factory and Prehistoric Gardens to explore.

Mount Shasta Museum has a display especially for the 100 year Centennial of the Boy Scouts of America. Yreka has the Siskiyou County Museum with many exhibits. They could also see museums in Fort Jones or Etna as well as the Kerbyville Museum. Have you been to the Willow Creek Museum yet, where they have a whole room added for the Bigfoot collection?

Best of all, on a hot day, kids along the Klamath have their choice of going to the Eddy or Clear Creek, or the mouth of Elk Creek for great swimming in clear cold water! They can go rafting or kayaking with their families or just drift boat for a lazy summer day on the Klamath. A student in Cave Junction used to bicycle (not motorcycle) over Greyback to Happy Camp for many years which seemed to ,me to be a great accomplishment!

They could set up a tent and camp out, either in the backyard or, as they grow in maturity and experience, progress all the way to backpacking the wilderness areas We live in the heart of Wilderness Areas so they can go any direction and find more wilderness to hike and backpack through! Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail has always been a wishful dream. Wouldn’t it be fun! The younger set can hike up Town Trail and look down on the entire town of Happy Camp.

We have a museum all about the Karuk culture to see — right in Happy Camp!! And if you haven’t visited the Forest Service Information Center, they are sure to enjoy seeing the fish (real live fish!!) and the mountain lion, and learn more about our forest. We have a beautiful River Park where they can practice disk golf or walk the nature trail.

The Cub Scouts have been busy working on collecting for a nature center: rocks and stones, tracks and just the sort of thing that young boys love to investigate as they discover the beautiful world we live in. One of these days we will find a place to keep all their displays and collections and that will be great fun for the kids! Vinson Brown’s, How to Make your Home Nature Museum was the inspiration for their collections, and in years to come it will help them to earn merit badges in all sorts of fascinating areas! They are also working on getting photographs and learning to operate a camera this summer. It is a good thing to know, since they practice the leave no trace camping, or as the scouters call it leave nothing but footprints, ways in the forest. Rather than collect things, collecting a picture of the beautiful things they have seen leaves them for the next person along the trail to see and enjoy as well.

The Happy Camp Branch Library is open fewer hours and days this summer, but is still a good place to choose a book that will interest your young (or older) readers. If you haven’t read Dear Madam or Land of the Grasshopper Song you are sure to enjoy these classics from this area. A wonderful story of life a boy growing up in Happy Camp is the The Klamath Treasure: The Adventure of Euclid Plutarch Hammarsen If you grew up along the wild Klamath River you will feel like you know Euclid and participated in many of his adventures, perhaps because the author, Trisha Barnes, did just that!

When I was dealing with a disabled van this summer, strolling down to Evans, I found a really great book, a real fish story. Springer’s Quest: Life of a Pacific Chinook Salmon by a former teacher, Nina Gee. She has written the story of this salmon that hatches and endures exciting adventures both in the creek to the river and in the ocean before returning up the Salmon River to spawn. I wondered about some of the vocabulary for youngsters, but the kids knew the words that I didn’t, so it is sure to be helpful to them in studies back at school. You don’t have to tell them that, of course! I learned a few things in a less scientific format than the information could have been presented which makes it all the more interesting for the young folks and the rest of us too.

Have a wonderful summer of doing things, going places, and summer reading along the wild Klamath River!