After a most unusual chance meeting, in 1952, followed by a short courtship, and then marriage to Bob, a budding National Park Ranger, Phel lived the life of a Park Wife; a life she could never imagine, not even in her wildest dreams.
Two days after her wedding, Bob carried her over the threshold of a rustic cabin on the wilderness island of Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Three months later she saw the west for the first time. Bob, a westerner, wanted to teach her to ski in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, was their first “permanent home”; subsequent homes were in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii; Olympic National Park in Washington; Sequoia National Park in California; Lehman Caves National Monument in Nevada; Chalmette National Historical Park in Louisiana; the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and finally Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
This is Phel’s story as a Park Wife, living at the edge of a volcano, in deep snow, in a rain forest, a high desert, in a cemetery, and often in isolation.
The Park Wife is of a different era. She came into existence in the early 1950’s when she volunteered her services; lasting until the 1980’s when the feminist movement caused the demise of her place in National Park Service history. Phel served for two years as the National Park Service Housing Chairman and then Chairman of the National Park Wives Organization. (Which later became The National Park Women’s Organization and subsequently dissolved.) To her knowledge, there is no such person as a Park Wife anymore.
“When Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was authorized and established by the U.S. Congress in 1872, there was no U.S. National Park Service, and there were no instructions on how that area and its resources were intended to be used, operated, and managed, except in Yellowstone’s legislation and legislative history. At Yellowstone, as in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, which were authorized in 1890, that responsibility was given to the Army and its U.S. Cavalry.
Not until 1916, when the National Park Service was created and placed in the Department of Interior, was a coordinated set of guidelines, policies and procedures promulgated for the management and operation of the many national parks, monuments, battlefields and memorials that had also been authorized and set aside.
Personnel practices in the big western parks closely followed the example of the military. The first park rangers, like the cavalrymen who had preceded them, were unmarried, and housed in dormitories. They were expected to be flexible and, “at the drop of a hat,” to accept reassignment to different duty stations or to other National Park Service areas.
The cavalrymen and the rangers who were assigned to remote backcountry locations in Yellowstone were among the first to “smuggle” wives into their lonely outposts for companionship and assistance.
These wives not only kept the “home fires burning,” but would provide information, directions, first aid and other assistance to park backcountry visitors who happened by. Upon occasion, they would accompany their husbands on his backcountry patrols. These pioneering women who married their ranger became the first in the long and important role and service as National Park Wives.
This memoir was written by a country girl from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who, in 1953, married me—an aspiring national park service ranger. She lived an extraordinary life of adventure and public service in eight national parks across the U.S.A., and in Washington, D.C.
It tells the story of the Park Wives from their first official recognition, through their hay days to their ultimate demise in the late 1980’s.”
Robert R. (Jake) Jacobsen