She Would Follow Him Anywhere, Even Oklahoma

It turns out that Pearl Abigail Eggleston married a dreamer, much like her father, who had changed from physician to Methodist clergyman, to Unitarian clergyman, and finally to writer.Victorian couple

Pearl’s husband, Robert Berryman, would have a career as varied, and as interesting. You can read about some of his adventures here.

Soon before their marriage Robert left for a one-year assignment in the wilds of post-Spanish American War Philippine Islands.

Straight out of college, instead of all the things this athlete and academic prodigy could have done, he took a position to teach in this dangerous place, where rebels still marauded from their hideouts in the jungles.

Robert traveled from town to town by boat, around the islands instead of through them, because it was too dangerous to enter the jungles. He was instructed to always carry a gun when he left the house, and he did.

By the time he ended his one-year assignment, he had been made Superintendent of Schools for the entire chain of Philippines Islands. All this on a not-yet 25-year old man.

Pearl imagined that was his adventure, that he needed a wild experience before settling down.

Victorian woman on lakeShe waited for him. She taught school and lived with her parents in Oberlin, Ohio, where her father, Francis Otto Eggleston, was a pastor and her mother, Clara Brown Eggleston, was a successful businesswoman who owned and ran a boarding house for students.

When Robert returned, they married, and I’m sure Pearl now thought her world was perfect. A new life with a husband she was deeply in love with, the love of her parents and friends nearby, and a future laid out before her that looked as smooth and contentment-filled as what she had come to expect of life.

Now she had every reason to believe Robert would take a position as a professor or other professional. He was so smart, so interested in politics and the world, so driven in everything he did, and now, so well-educated, and with a first professional success under his belt.

She let him have his adventure, and now it was time to settle down, to settle into adulthood.

He was offered a professorship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which I assume means at the University of Michigan; the family history does not get more specific. But that was not to Robert’s taste. It was too tame.

Peg knew they might not live near her parents after marriage. That was alright, she wasn’t afraid of leaving her parents’ home, or even their town. Her father’s woVictorian couple2rk as a Methodist minister meant they moved often, and had lived in places as varied as Troy, New York and Knoxville, Tennessee, and she had boarded away from home at several schools.

Peg knew how to quickly make a new place her own. She was ready to follow Robert, if only he would choose his career now that he was back.

They were starting a new life together and could go anywhere, be anyone! Peg may have dreamed of New York, or Chicago, or maybe a quiet little college town somewhere in the Midwest.

But Robert had different plans. Once back from the Philippines he discovered he had inherited a sheep ranch in Oklahoma, and so they moved to that dry wilderness, sight unseen, to be sheep ranchers.

I’ll never understand that decision. Perhaps it was because they were bright-eyed and full of promise that they went, and because they had never seen Oklahoma. After all, they were only young adults, infallible and indestructible in their own minds, but years away from wisdom, and perhaps with no knowledge of the kind of toughness that Oklahoma demanded of its inhabitants.

How did a young couple, bright, well educated, from prosperous and prominent if not wealthy Ohio families, end up on a drought-desiccated ranch in Oklahoma? The world was wide open to them. Robert and Pearl (Peg) Eggleston Berryman had led charmed lives since birth.Couple

He was a star athlete at Oberlin College, a record holder in the two-mile run, and was a prodigy as a scholar, finishing high school in one summer and college in three years. His accomplishments brought attention, and he was offered top positions right out of college.

Peg was an adored daughter whose parents and grandparents doted on her. She was the preacher’s daughter, attended two different colleges, and had just married her college sweetheart, the man her father wrote she had “fallen deeply in love with.” The world was their oyster, and Peg was ready to take her place in society beside her gifted husband.

When her gifted husband inherited an Oklahoma sheep ranch, Peg’s plans changed. Never dreaming she would be a ranch wife, she nevertheless packed up her belongings, her silk and lace dresses and silver hair clips, a few necessities, and the young family headed into that great unknown.

They traveled across Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, through St. Louis, and then, at the end of their 1,000-mile journey, in the blistering heat of a dry Oklahoma summer, Peg Berryman opened the-stairsthe door to her one-room house on an isolated sheep ranch amid a wilderness of desolation. And there they set out to make their lives, like fish out of water.

I wonder if she cried on that first day. I wonder if she begged Robert to take her home. Or maybe she put on her bonnet and apron, rolled up her lace sleeves, and got to work making that one room house a home.

I think she cried, and then she went to work. She had to. What else could she do? Her other home, the one with her parents, was in the past. It might as well be a million miles away. This was home now.

I imagine that Pearl came here willingly, though unenthusiastically. It would be easy to say this young wife’s starry love focused her eyes only on her husband, following him anywhere he might take her, but that was never her character. Pearl Eggleston was taught to think for herself. I imagine her father taught her by Socratic method, asking questions that would encourage her to think critically, to form firm and logical conclusions, and to consciously solve any problem she encountered rather than defer to another or put off to a later time.

This was a young woman who led the pampered life of an only daughter, who dressed in white lace and played croquet and tennis on the grounds of her grandfather’s mansion. Yet faSAG65029r from frivolous, she was serious-minded, and put her considerable intelligence to use on issues and questions of the day. Women’s suffrage, racial discrimination, hunger, and war occupied her thoughts and conversations. In that she and her erudite husband were well matched.

And now, here this eager and idealistic young woman was in Oklahoma, on an isolated sheep ranch with barely a house to live in, the nearest town so small and ephemeral that it would disappear entirely in a few years, decimated by drought.

Robert, my grandfather, could withstand any degree of hardship. He once broke his leg so badly that the bone protruded from the flesh. But he braced himself against the pain and set the leg himself.

Peg, my grandmother, was no so tough. She was not delicate, but preferred life’s delicacies. Still, here she was.

Oil had just been discovered there, and the illusion of prosperity and a limitless future filled the imaginations of thousands of immigrants who flocked to the nation’s newest state to seek their fortunes. Many more came when Congress opened the Indian Lands to settlement by any who would claim and work the land.Tissot - july

The reality was starker. More than two hundred thousand farmers struggled, while oil corporations sent their wealth out of state.

Deepening drought turned family farms into tenancies, and social unrest from increasing inequality of income grew worse.

This is the landscape my grandparents inherited. I don’t know if, when they arrived at the property they had moved to sight-unseen, they sat down and wept because it was dry and lonely. Or perhaps they laughed for joy because it was theirs and they were in love.

Whatever their outlook, this was their new life.

There were no woods, no trees like there were at the homes her family had had in Ohio, Tennessee, Vermont, New York, or Virginia. After her father’s visit to the young couple, he wrote that, “There was very little wood or trees. To make wood we burned old roots and stuff we picked up.”

Then one day the house burned down, and Peg and Robert moved into the barn loft. They slept on hay, cooked in tin cans over fire, stored what few belongings they salvaged in corners, like hobos.387px-James_Tissot_-_Chrysanthemums

Peg hung in. But she cried; I know she cried. Maybe only at night, while her husband slept.

Or maybe only when washing clothes at the water pump, or in letters home to her mother and father, or to her dear friend Elizabeth, who by this time was married to Robert’s younger brother, Waldo, and starting her own family, though more comfortably.

But however openly or secretly she cried, her father came to visit, and when he saw how they were living, he made up his mind to take Peg home with him for an extended visit. She had a baby due now, and he did not want his daughter giving birth on a remote farm far from family or doctor. But first he helped Robert to rebuild a house.

The next chapter of Pearl Eggleston’s life will be published soon. To make sure you don’t miss the rest of the story, sign up to this blog at the top right of this page.

This entry was posted in Art, Eggleston and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.