by Marcia Franklin, producer of “We Sagebrush Folks: Annie Pike Greenwood’s Idaho”
It’s hard for me to imagine that Annie Pike Greenwood was born 139 years ago today. I’ve spent so much time reading her writing and looking at photos of her that I often feel as if she were still alive.
I first encountered Greenwood’s book, “We Sagebrush Folks,” in the 1990s. I still remember how startled I was reading a particular passage. In it, Greenwood described how desperately sick she became after the birth of her daughter Rhoda in 1914, an illness she surmised was caused by a catheter inserted by the “sheep doctor” who delivered her baby.
When she lost consciousness, her husband rushed her by car to a train, which took her to a hospital in Twin Falls. He did so despite the fact the sheep doctor had told him it was “foolish.”
“If she’s going to get well, she’ll get well right here,” the man told Mr. Greenwood. “If she’s going to die, you’ll have all that useless expense.”
By that time, wrote Annie, “I was insane. I was living in a land of unreality with whose difficulties I had no power to cope.”
The hospital doctor, wrote Greenwood, “experimented on me.” When nothing seemed to work, he told her husband that she would likely die, but that he could try one more thing.
“I’ll turn down the covers and spank her, and she’ll come to,” he said.
Annie would recover, so the doctor’s method was never used. But if he had hit her, she wrote sardonically, “I should have bitten him until his glacial blood ran in streams.”
I was astonished to read those pages. Here was a woman in 1934 writing about issues I didn’t think were openly discussed at the time – the abuse of women by doctors, as well as mental illness. (In the same chapter, Greenwood would mention that four times in her life her health “diverged widely from true sanity.”)
Greenwood would apply that same direct writing style to other taboo topics affecting the women of her community, including incest, abortion and suicide. This was “MeToo” before there was a “too.” Women weren’t talking openly about harassment and abuse. So she did it for them.
She would also spend many pages railing against the federal government and churches for their lack of compassion towards farmers, and bemoaning the state of education in Idaho. Greenwood seemed truly ahead of her time in her observations, with a spark to her writing I found unusual.
I thought the book would make a great one-woman play, and still do. And I thought her story had promise as a documentary. But there was no venue at the station to do that. Idaho Public Television had already aired its capstone series on Idaho history, “Proceeding on Through a Beautiful Country,” and there were no plans to continue it.
Fast forward more than 20 years to 2017, when the station decided to launch “Idaho Experience,” a series that would once again be rooted in Idaho history. Perhaps now there was a possibility of bringing Greenwood to the fore again.
I discovered it would be much harder than I had thought. There were no photos of Annie anywhere – not at the Idaho Historical Society or at local historical societies. There was an aging school named after her on the highway near Hazelton (a location still called “Greenwood” on Google Maps). But no one who had known her was still alive. And the woman who had done the most research on her, Professor Jo Ann Ruckman of Idaho State University, had passed away.
I knew that Professor Ruckman had spoken with Annie’s daughter Rhoda in her final years. So I tried to track down Rhoda’s children, if there were any. Through a combination of old-fashioned research and luck, I located her one son, Kingsley. And lo and behold, he had the proverbial boxes in the basement full of memorabilia about his grandmother, material I had been told was most likely gone.
As it turns out, not only had Kingsley saved it, but just a few months before I contacted him, he had delivered a trunkful of it to Idaho State University. He had decided that was the best place for the material, because Professor Ruckman had done so much to help republish “We Sagebrush Folks” in 1988.
When I reached him, he mentioned that he had found even more material. So director Bill Krumm and I headed as soon as possible to Ogden, where Kingsley lives, to film him going through it. And as you can see in the documentary, there were some more gems.
Without that material and Kingsley’s story, the documentary wouldn’t have been possible. All the way through the producing process, there were synchronicities like that, coincidences that made me feel, as Kingsley said, that his grandmother “wanted to be found.”
When I first went through the archive, I became emotional at one point, because it seemed so amazing that I was seeing her actual handwriting and unpublished manuscripts, and that I was one of the first to do so.
In the archive, I found an essay in which she expressed her frustration that “We Sagebrush Folks” hadn’t sold better. “Oh, skip it!” she writes after a long rant. “It’s all
over but this article, which I write for the preservation of some other author’s future prosperity.” As the first writer to likely have come across that sentence, it certainly made my eyes widen.
I think Annie knew that in the future, scholars and others would find her again. I’m happy if I’ve had a small part in doing that by producing this documentary. I spoke last week at the conference of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers and encouraged the professors there to visit the archive and write about Greenwood. I plan to do so as well. There’s so much more about her than we were able to put in the documentary.
One person who provided critical information about Annie was her oldest surviving grandson, John Greenwood. Annie lived with him and his parents in her final years, so he remembers her
voice and her personality quite distinctly. Meeting John and seeing aspects of Annie in his face and demeanor was one of the times I felt closest to her, and I’m grateful he let us interview him.
I also have to thank Donald Morrill, the owner of the old Greenwood School, who graciously opened the building several times for us. Mr. Morrill could have demolished the school long ago, but he holds fast to the hope that one day it can be restored. That would be another goal of mine for the documentary, to help inspire that restoration.
A third goal would be that “We Sagebrush Folks” could be republished. It is currently out of print, but I have had some promising discussions with an Idaho publisher about reprinting the book.
In Greenwood’s papers, there’s a letter from her to Rhoda, in which she encourages her daughter to keep pages of the manuscript of “We Sagebrush Folks” for Kingsley. “They may be very valuable some day,” she writes. “In scholastic circles, my book will never die. I think it may experience a revival.”
I think that may just happen. Happy birthday, Annie.
You can stream “We Sagebrush Folks: Annie Pike Greenwood’s Idaho” here.