Documentary honoring AT hiker Emma Gatewood heads for production

Posted by | October 25, 2013

Bette Lou Higgins

Bette Lou Higgins

Please welcome guest author Bette Lou Higgins. Higgins is a founder and current Artistic Director of Eden Valley Enterprises, where she helps spread the “Ohio Gospel” through an assortment of living history programs. These programs, designed to make the history of Ohio meaningful and alive for adults and children of all ages, have been created for such Ohio organizations as the Steamship William G. Mather Museum, Western Reserve Historical Society, The Tuscarawas Historical Society and the Great Lakes Historical Society. Eden Valley Enterprises is in the process of raising money to make a $30,000 documentary about Appalachian Trail hiker Emma Gatewood for a Toledo PBS-TV station. You can find complete information about Emma and her project on the Eden Valley Enterprises website.

“Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…” It was September 25, 1955. Emma Gatewood stood at the top of Mt. Katahdin singing triumphantly. Grandma Gatewood had just become the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail ALONE! 2,050 miles, 145 days and 30 pounds ago, Emma had left Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia. But her journey to the top had actually begun 67 years before. (From Grandma Gatewood: Ohio’s Legendary Hiker by Kelly Boyer Sagert and Bette Lou Higgins copyright 2012, Eden Valley Enterprises)

I first heard the name of Emma Gatewood as a passing reference in a script I was given when I was doing a voice-over project for the Buckeye Trail Association. The 50th Anniversary script mentioned that one of their founders, Emma Gatewood, was the first woman to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) at the age of 67 (today is her 126th birthday). I called the person I was working with on that project and said, “Never mind the Buckeye Trail, who’s this Grandma Gatewood person?” and that started me on the Trail To Grandma Gatewood.

Emma 'Grandma' Gatewood. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Emma ‘Grandma’ Gatewood. Courtesy Wikipedia.

I was put in touch with Lucy Seeds, Emma’s youngest daughter, who spent about an hour on the phone telling me about her mother’s adventures which included not just one but THREE thru-hikes of the AT, a 2,000 mile solo hike of the Oregon Trail in 1959, ground-breaking work establishing Ohio’s 1,400 mile Buckeye Trail and hiking more than 10,000 miles by the time of her death in 1973!

When little-known Ohio heroine Emma Gatewood began hiking the Appalachian Trail, she had no previous hiking experience and carried only the simplest of supplies. By the time she reached the 5,200 foot summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin at the northern end of the Trail, she had become a national symbol of self-reliance, independence, and personal achievement. Yet hers was far more than a remarkable physical achievement. Her accomplishments were an inspiring example of how a person could rise above her roots as an impoverished subsistence farmer in Gallipolis, Ohio and above personal crises (including 30 years of domestic abuse at the hands of her former husband) to achieve national distinction.

Her unconquerable spirit helped her to become an inspiration in her own time, attracting media coverage from such leading outlets as Sports Illustrated, the “Today Show,” “The Tonight Show,” and Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.”

If all these accomplishments aren’t more than enough to put Emma in the ranks of Amazing Americans, consider these facts:

• Emma was one of 15 children of Esther Evelyn Trowbridge and Hugh Wilson Caldwell. She often acted as mother to the younger children.

• She and her husband, Perry, had 11 children.

• In 1958 she climbed the six highest peaks of the Adirondack Mountains in New York.  She was elected to the board of directors of the Buckeye Trail Association and served through April, 1969.

• The Buckeye Trail Association named a 6-mile section of the Trail in Hocking Hills after her.

As artistic director of Eden Valley Enterprises (where we specialize in telling little-known stories from the past), this was a story too good to ignore! At the time I only planned to include Emma’s story as one of the many tales of wonderful women spotlighted in our program, WHAT’S HER STORY?

But her daughter Lucy mentioned that she was interested in publishing Emma’s diaries, and she thought a film would be a great idea, so I told Lucy I’d check around to see if I could help her find a publisher or put her in touch with someone to do a film.

Lucy Seeds, daughter of Emma Gatewood. Photo courtesy Eden Valley Enterprises.

Lucy Seeds, daughter of Emma Gatewood. Photo courtesy Eden Valley Enterprises.

One of the first people I contacted was FilmAffects producer, Peter Huston. Peter, too, was intrigued by Emma’s story. And so the plan began… A storytelling program devoted to Emma, a first-person character program, a documentary for PBS and a DVD. In February, 2010 Peter and I began to work on getting a planning grant from the Ohio Humanities Council. By April, I had applied to the National Storytelling Network for a grant to do a storytelling program (this was approved in June, 2010).

In the meantime, Peter had contacted PBS channel WGTE in Toledo and they agreed to broadcast the documentary for us. That fall the planning grant from the Ohio Humanities Council was approved. In December, 2010 the Buckeye Trail Association made a grant to help with matching funds for the Ohio Humanities Council Grant. These two grants would provide funds for research and planning to determine what materials were available for Phase 2 — the first-person character program and the video documentary. They paid for trips to visit daughter Lucy Seeds in Florida and Great Granddaughter Marjorie Wood in Gallipolis, Ohio to allow us to get filmed interviews and pictures about Emma and her life.

In the meantime, writer Kelly Boyer Sagert and I completed the script for the storytelling program and for a companion e-book. The Westlake Community Center (Westlake, Ohio) presented the first performance of the storytelling program, GRANDMA GATEWOOD: OHIO’S LEGENDARY HIKER on November 1, 2011. (This program is available for presentation for other groups and more than a dozen performances have already been given. You may contact me for information about bringing this program to your group.)

We then began serious work on creating the PBS documentary and first-person character program (which would become the center-piece of the film). A grant from the Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of Lorain County went towards the creation of the first person character program which grew into a one-act play written by Kelly Boyer Sagert and presented on August 24, 2013 as part of an Emma Gatewood Festival at TrueNorth Cultural Arts Center in Sheffield Village, Ohio. The play and the festival were called “Trail Magic” and included special hikes, a quilt show and a poetry workshop and reading.

Grants from the Gallia County Community Foundation, Puffin Foundation, and the Ohio History Fund are moving us toward the actual completion of the film. We must raise a minimum of $10,000 to meet the requirements of the Ohio History Fund Grant. We have begun filming segments for the final documentary and are planning fundraising events for next year. We hope to have the film ready for the sixtieth anniversary of Emma’s record-setting hike in 2015! We want to make sure that her inspiring story doesn’t become a lost part of American and Women’s history. I invite you to join us on our trail and help make a movie! (All donations are tax-deductible.)

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