Happy February! This month’s Free Read is “Clean Hands” by Isabella Alden.
Like many of Isabella’s stories, “Clean Hands” illustrates the great influence a simple Bible verse can have on someone’s life.
Miss Elsie Burton is looking forward to her vacation in the city. Just think! An entire week of fun, shopping, and seeing old friends. But when her pastor bids her good-bye at the train station with the gift of an odd little book of Bible verses, Elsie embarks upon a journey of self-discovery she never anticipated.
When Isabella’s friend Frances Hawley wrote about the Aldens packing up their Chautauqua cottage, she ended her account by saying that the Aldens left for “a prolonged stay in the west.”
For Isabella and her family, “the west” meant California.
Their decision to make the journey had been in the works for some time. By autumn of 1901 the Aldens—Isabella, Ross, and their daughter Frances—were living in Philadelphia, and some key events had taken place in their lives:
Isabella’s husband Ross had retired from the ministry.
Isabella’s son Raymond had completed his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and had already moved to Palo Alto, California
Isabella was beginning to feel the passage of time. She was about to turn 60 years old, and Ross was already 69.
Of her advancing age Isabella wrote:
I am really growing old very fast now, you know. It seems to me that I have changed a great deal lately. I cannot do anything as quickly as I once could and I tire very easily.
Their decision to retire to California was probably based on a number of things, the most important of which was that they had always been a tight-knit family; and with the exception of one or two short periods of time, they had always lived together as a family, too.
Since Raymond had already moved west, he might have written to them about California’s clean air and warm temperatures. And maybe he had written about the Presbyterian church he was attending and the welcome he received there. By November 1901 he was already teaching a Bible class at church.
A Cross-Country Trip
Whatever their reason for make a change, Isabella and Ross finished packing up their belongings at Chautauqua and immediately set out for California to join Raymond.
The first leg of their journey was probably from New York to Chicago. If they took one of the many “express” or “limited” trains, they would have made the journey in about 24 hours. From there, they would have taken a train to California.
A “limited” train, like the one in the ad below, would have taken a direct route from Chicago to San Francisco, and would have made as few stops as possible, bypassing many of the towns on the route.
On a “limited” train, their journey across the country would have taken about 66 hours, or almost three days. By contrast, travel on a regular train, making all the stops along the way, would have doubled their travel time.
By Christmas 1901 the Aldens were in southern California, staying with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Johnson.
Isabella’s fame followed her there. A local newspaper, The Los Angeles Herald, caught wind of her visit and arranged to interview her.
In addition to asking Isabella the usual questions (e.g. “How did you get the name Pansy?”) the article listed all Isabella’s work, and noted that in addition to writing novels, Isabella was still:
Editor of the Herald and Presbyter
Associate editor of Christian Endeavor World
Wrote stories every month for The Sunbeam (the Y.W.C.A. Gazette published in London)
Wrote for the Junior Christian Endeavor World
Composed Sunday-school lessons for the Presbyterian church’s “intermediate quarterly”
It’s no wonder Isabella was beginning to feel tired!
The article ended with news that Isabella was going to do a reading the following week from “an unpublished story,” titled David Ransom’s Watch (which was eventually published in 1905).
The interviewer must have asked Isabella what her plans were for the future, because the article ended with this prophetic sentence: “It is probable that the Aldens will make California their home.”
The Aldens continued their stay with the Johnsons through at least the end of January of 1902. Their visit was reported in the Los Angeles Times society page:
A New Life in Palo Alto
Sometime in early 1902 the Aldens left Los Angeles and returned to Palo Alto, and they settled into their new life in the Palo Alto community.
They joined the same Presbyterian congregation that had welcomed their son Raymond. By April, Isabella was in San Francisco where she delivered a speech on one of her passions: Mission work at home and abroad.
Around that time the Aldens also began a search for a home large enough to accommodate their entire family and expected houseguests. In the end, they decided to build a custom home that would satisfy their many and unique needs. They purchased property in Palo Alto, hired an architect, and began designing their dream home.
A few years later Isabella and Ross joined other Christians in attending the Mount Hermon Christian Camp when it opened in 1905.
Mount Hermon was the first Christian camp west of the Mississippi, and it must have reminded Isabella and Ross of Chautauqua’s early days. Isabella fell in love with the place. She wrote:
I wish I could give you a picture of Mount Hermon, a blessed place where I have spent precious weeks living out under the great redwood trees. It was wild and quaint and beautiful. I have many happy memories connected with it.
For the next few years they made annual trips to Mount Hermon until health concerns prevented them from traveling there.
Through all these new experiences Isabella kept busy writing books. Between 1901 and 1908 she published eight books, most of which were written with her adult readers in mind:
Mag and Margaret: A Story for Girls (1901)
Unto the End (1902)
Doris Farrand’s Vocation (1904)
David Ransom’s Watch (1905)
Ester Ried’s Namesake (1906)
Ruth Erskine’s Son (1907)
The Browns at Mt. Hermon (1908)
Isabella Returns to Chautauqua
Isabella also found time to return to Chautauqua on probably two occasions, where she stayed with friends or relatives who had cottages there.
In May 1912 Isabella and Ross traveled to New York, where they first visited her dear friend Theodosia Toll Foster (who co-wrote a number of books with Isabella under the nom de plume Faye Huntington). It is very possible the Aldens went from there to Chautauqua in June when the 1912 season commenced.
In 1914 the Aldens were again at Chautauqua, where Isabella and her niece, Grace Livingston Hill were among the authors honored at a C.L.S.C. reception.
By August of that year they were back home in California, where they were “welcomed by many of their friends.”
It’s possible Isabella visited Chautauqua again in the years following, but no record of those visits survives.
Whether Isabella visited Chautauqua again or not, her friends at Chautauqua and in New York certainly kept track of her as a favorite daughter. In 1916 the newspaper in Rome, New York (located near the town in which Isabella was born and raised) covered Isabella and Ross’s golden wedding anniversary celebration with this article:
The article’s mention of their prominent place in Palo Alto society is a testament to the loving friendships the Aldens formed in their new home in California.