For a historian, old photographs are a critical part life. Photos from the past offer unique insight into events and people of a bygone era, and can be incomparable resources when doing research. Historians don’t just look at photos though, they dissect every little detail to paint a larger picture. One photo can be the key to unlocking a generation of stories. Often times historians, and I myself am guilty of this, look past the people in the photos while scouring for clues, and forget that everyone single person in the image had a name, a family and a story. For me, this got complicated a few months ago when looking through some old family photos I had never seen. Not only was I looking for the clues in the pictures to piece together a story, I was looking at the faces of family members who I had never met. I’ve looked at thousands of old pictures, yet this experience was something entirely different. Through doing this I gained an intimate knowledge of my ancestors, and what they had to struggle with and overcome so that I could live the life I have today. With March being Women’s History Month I want to tell a story that was told to me through pictures, and through my Grandma, the story of a remarkable women that I’m proud to be a descendant of.
My Great-Grandma, Josephine Schmidle was born on October 27, 1893 in Fairhaven, which was at the time its own city. A daughter of Swiss immigrants, she was raised on a farm on Orcas Island with two sisters, and a brother. Her parents had more children while traveling westward after immigrating years earlier, however most died along the way, with the exception of her older brother Oloise. Once old enough to be on her own, Josephine moved off the island to Bellingham, where she began attending business school. While Bellingham may not seem like a bustling city, for a young girl raised on an island farm, it must have been a metropolis. To help pay her way through business school, she took a job at Morse Hardware in downtown Bellingham, a business that was a staple of downtown for decades. Here she became connected with co-workers and customers her age, which must have been a welcomed change, as the population of her small hometown wasn’t even 100. It was working at Morse Hardware that my Great Grandma was offered the opportunity to do something that even by today’s standards is remarkable, something people train extensively for. In the Spring of 1914, Josephine Schmidle was invited to join a party of co-workers that planned to summit Mount Baker, the third tallest Mountain in Washington.
Today, while still not easy by any stretch, summitting Mount Baker has become routine and structured for those looking to reach the peak. Guides are available, and trails are well established. Back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries however, to reach the top of the mountain, climbers would have to make their own way, and in many cases figure out the best way to get to the top without a set path. The first person to summit Mount Baker was Edmund Thomas Coleman in 1868, and it would be 23 years before it was tried again. The next attempt was in 1891, when a party from La Connor made the trek to the peak. This party included Sue Nevin, an artist who would go down in history as the first woman to climb the mountain. After another 23 years, in the summer of 1914, my Great-Grandma would attempt to follow in Sue Nevin’s footsteps and add her name to the list of daring women who braved the elements to reach the top of the North Cascades.
The party of co-workers at Morse Hardware that planned to summit Mount Baker in the summer of 1914 had been training for months to ready themselves for the climb. When Josephine overheard her co-workers discussing their plans one day, she found herself with an invitation to join them. She had not done much hiking or climbing in her 20 years, let alone prepare to climb one of the tallest mountains in Washington. In reminiscing about her mother, my Grandma remarked that “She was no outdoorswoman.” Regardless of preparation, she accepted the invitation, and in July of that year, Josephine, armed with her camera, began her assent to the peak of Mount Baker.
She documented the entire climb with her camera, taking pictures of the natural beauty along the way, and giving glimpses into the fun the group of friends had on their trek up the mountain. The warm summer weather only made the experience that much better, in fact images early in the climb show Josephine and some of her friends wearing short sleeve shirts and skirts as they hiked through the wilderness below the mountain. While the sun was welcomed sight to the climbers, it was also a deterrent, and as they made their way up the mountain it took its toll. Pictures show the party applying a mud mixture to each others faces to prevent sunburn, something that was common practice for hikers at this time. As the party made it to areas covered in snow, the sun reflecting off the white ground made it hard to see, and goggles became necessary. As they made it to this level, short sleeves turned to heavy overcoats, and the women put on thick pants underneath their skirts to stay warm. My Grandma recalls that as the top came into view, her mother told those around her that she was unsure she could make it to the summit. Her inexperience along with the altitude had made Josephine extremely sick, and as she took photos nearing the summit she was struggling to continue the journey. Encouraged by her friends, she did keep going, and on Independence Day 1914 the group of friends reached the top of Mount Baker, and my Great-Grandma added her name to a short list, a list that had been started just 23 years earlier by Sue Nevin.
My Great Grandma lived a full life. After summitting Mount Baker in 1914, she went on to marry my Great Grandpa John Aberg, just to see him sent off to Europe in World War I. While overseas she received word that her husband had died in battle. This was incorrect, and in reality he had survived, but for a period of time she believed her husband perished on a European battlefield. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 she contracted the virus, which left her lungs permanently scarred, something that may have contributed to the pneumonia that led to her death in 1977. She raised one daughter, my Grandma, on a chicken farm outside of Ferndale, and by all accounts was a loving and warm hearted grandma to my mom and uncles. While she passed away over twenty years before I came along, I find her story fascinating, and worth telling. My Great Grandma was not the first woman to climb Mount Baker, but when she reached the top 23 years after Sue Nevin, she became one of the few to accomplish that in her time. For this, and for so many other reasons, she was a remarkable woman, and I’m proud to honor and celebrate her by telling her story.