I will probably always think of my grandmother as a small lady with snow-white hair who led a quiet life at our family farm homestead.

But there was another side to Hattie Field Sargent. I got some insight about that other woman from a 56-year-old newspaper story of her “trip to the Wild West.”

It was early July of 1893, when my grandmother and her cousin, Blanche Field, set off for an adventure of a lifetime. These two 19-year-old teachers boarded a train at the Grand Trunk Railway station in Lewiston for the first leg of their journey to a relative’s farm in North Dakota. The White Mountains of New Hampshire had been the biggest trip for them up to that point.

In the company of several other local school teachers and officials, Hattie and Blanche would also experience the wonders of the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago. Their train trip included an unusual water crossing when they reached the Great Lakes. All the cars of their entire train were loaded aboard ferries for the final leg of the trip across Lake Ontario and Lake Erie to Detroit.

Hattie wrote in her journal, “Only 24 hours, and already we have passed through four states into another country and sailed across two of the Great Lakes. This is a wonderful age! Back home our fathers are probably delivering their milk right now and here are their daughters on their way to the wild and woolly West.”

The Columbian Exposition at Chicago, a World’s Fair of that time, featured a huge Ferris wheel. It stood six stories tall and occupied a full city block. The wheel was 250 feet in diameter and it carried 36 passenger coaches. Hattie and Blanche rode on it, and marveled at the view it offered.

The 600-acre Exposition park ran along two miles of Lake Michigan’s shore. There were about 150 buildings throughout the Exposition, mostly constructed of “staff.” That was a composition of jute fiber and plaster of Paris, which produced the general effect of white marble, and it accounted for the park’s name of “White” or “Dream City.”

The visit to the Columbian Exposition was the trip’s sightseeing highlight, but it did not match another event for extraordinary excitement. They were continuing to St. Paul, Minnesota, and her journal stories continued.

“Everything bids fair for a pleasant and uneventful journey,” my grandmother wrote.

“After an hour’s ride, our attention was attracted by a peculiar-looking cloud in front of us. It resembled an immense cloud of black smoke. As we watched, it rose higher and higher. It soon became evident that we were riding into the heart of a cyclone.”

Her account said the sky darkened and a tremendous thunderstorm soon struck with howling winds and sheets of rain.

“The level fields for miles around looked like vast lakes,” she wrote. “Flashes of lightning could be seen dancing over the prairies. It was beautiful but frightening.”

She told about seeing a herd of about 300 cattle and 50 horse standing patiently, all facing downwind from the storm.

As a result of the storm, two washouts held up the train for 16 hours while repairs were made, but the wild storm was only the start of the trip’s extraordinary excitement.

“A few miles later, the conductor came through the train looking very worried. A telegram had been received stating that at Dawson, on the western border of Minnesota, a band of 140 tramps intended to hold up the train,” my grandmother’s journal read.

“Sure enough, when we reached Dawson there was an angry mob of men milling around with their hands full of stones. They climbed aboard the express car. The passengers had hidden their valuables as best they could, but they were not molested. After an hour’s delay, the rough-looking characters left the train.”

The young ladies’ visit with “Uncle Jake” provided plenty of memories of the vast Midwestern plains, but no further adventures with bandits.

I have reread my grandmother’s journal entry many times, and just a few sentences are all she recorded about that remarkable trip. As a young boy, I overheard most of the stories of that trip as she told them to other adults.

No doubt, her conversations about that once-in-a-lifetime trip for a Maine farm girl revealed much more about that far-off prairie land, and I can only wish there were a way I could turn back time and ask all those questions that now must go unanswered.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]

Dave Sargent


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.