In 1888 an Iowa woman named Nellie M. Perry committed a radical act.
She rode a train south through Kansas City and Kansas, and then all the way to the Texas panhandle, by herself.
Women rarely traveled alone at the time, said Sandra Gail Teichmann-Hillesheim of Kansas City.
But Perry, 22, followed her own instincts. She had graduated from Grinnell College in 1895 and had worked as a teacher before traveling to northern Texas to help a bachelor brother, George, who’d moved there two years before.
She also chose to document her journey.
“There was no cream for the breakfast coffee and nothing tasted like home,” she wrote upon her arrival in 1888. “I managed to eat. The day was spent mostly in walking over the flat desolate plains, my eyes turned wistfully toward the Western horizon where I hoped to see George.”
Perry maintained her Texas journals through 1925; she moved there permanently in 1916. Perry’s writings served as a way to “maintain an illusion of control in the lonesome and often bewildering day-to-day life on the Texas High Plains,” according to Teichmann-Hillesheim’s introduction to “Woman of the Plains: The Journals and Stories of Nellie M. Perry.”
The book, published in 2000, has been re-released by the Texas A&M University Press.
The project began in 1996 when Teichmann-Hillesheim, who’d just completed her first year teaching English at West Texas A&M University, resolved to learn more about the frontier women of the region. At the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, she found copies from Perry’s 1888 journal.
Soon a grandniece of Perry’s invited her to examine the entire collection, archived in a family trunk.
Teichmann-Hillesheim found entries documenting another train trip, in 1900, describing a noticeably tidied-up Kansas City in anticipation of the Democratic National Convention. But chiefly Perry described daily life in northern Texas, where the big sky never seemed to grow smaller.
More than once Perry detailed the visual phenomena she associated with such vast horizons. That included the windmill that seemed right down the road but ultimately would be revealed — hours later by mule-drawn wagon — as 10 miles distant.
“The distances would be so vast that — when it appeared that civilization had just dissolved — they would be looking for structures that reassured them that man had a presence there,” Teichmann-Hillesheim said recently.
To learn more about “Woman of the Plains,” go to TAMUPress.com.