Wild Women Wednesday: Clare Hodges


clare hodges wild women wednesday

Twenty-seven-year-old Clare Hodges gently urged her chestnut roan through a thicket of trees and brush.  The horse’s hooves barely made a sound as it walked over a thick carpet of pine needles and maple leaves.  Bright streams of sunlight filtered through the branches of sequoias and spilled onto the ground with brilliant intensity.  A light breeze escorted rider and her ride out of the forest and deposited them at the edge of a massive emerald meadow.  Jagged lofty peaks waited on the other side of the grassy area, and above it all was a cloudless, deep blue sky, verging on the color of Indigo. 

Clare surveyed Yosemite’s Kings River Canyon carefully.  A park ranger for all of two months, patrolling the spectacular setting was part of her job since signing on with the National Park Service in late spring 1918.  An article in the June 1, 1919, edition of the Lima, Ohio, newspaper The Lima News, reported that Clare’s love for the mountains prompted her to pursue a profession as a park ranger and that “the beauty of the region made the work a pleasure.”

One of the many duties Clare had as a park ranger was to routinely scrutinize the bold peak of Mount Hutchings (a 10,758 foot peak overlooking Kings River Canyon) for rock climbers in trouble and the floor below the summit for hikers who had lost their way.  She never encountered anyone in such a dire predicament.  As she studied the vast area “the spray from the fifty foot waterfall over the steep mountain would fall on my face,” Clare recalled later in her life.  “The water made a beautiful fan of foam that spread out in a turbulent, eddying mass into the roaring river below.”  Apart from the herds of mule deer, eagles, a few cougars, curious chipmunks, and wolves, Clare rarely encountered any living inhabitants in her daily routine.  “My life as a ranger is not as wild and woolly as it sounds,” she told The Lima News.       

From May 22, 1918, to September 7, 1918, Clare was the only female mountain ranger in the United States.  Her responsibilities were the same as her male counterparts at the time.  She answered telephone calls, registered tourists, assigned campers to campsites, issued auto permits, made reports, confiscated firearms, hiked to camp grounds, noted conditions of the campsites, counted campers, and patrolled Yosemite Park.  “The Valley,” she explained to Sunset Magazine in the February 1919 edition of the periodical, “became like an open book to me….”   

Clare Marie Hodges was born on December 1, 1890, in Branciforte, Santa Cruz County, California.  She made her first horseback trip to Yosemite with her parents John and Mary Hodges when she was thirteen years old.  The four day journey was one of the most influential times in her life.  She learned a great deal about the land and its history en route to the park.  Her father taught her about Yosemite’s rock formations, the wildlife that lived there, and the types of flowers and plants that existed at various mountain elevations.  Clare learned that those who had swarmed into California in search of gold in 1849 soon discovered there were other wonderful things there as well – Yosemite being one of them.  

In 1864 Congress set aside the Yosemite Valley and the neighboring Maricopa Grove of Big Trees and turned them over to the state of California to administer.  In 1890, coincidentally the year Clare was born, the area became a national park.  “I learned to love the mountains,” Clare confessed to a reporter with The Fresno Bee in November 1963.  “In 1913 I rode to Tuolumne Meadows, and I returned five or six times a year after that.”    

It wasn’t until 1916 that Clare decided periodic trips to Yosemite wouldn’t suffice.  She wanted to live there.  By then Clare had graduated high school, attended college, married Earl Seiverson, and had a son.  She became a school teacher and relocated from San Jose to Mariposa County to take a job with the Yosemite School.  In an interview with Sunset Magazine, her pupils were mostly the children of rangers, other government employees, and Indian children.  “I grew very fond of my aboriginal charges and they taught me something of woodcraft in exchange for what they learned of a white man’s lore,” she noted.  The school district where Clare worked was established in 1875 by another pioneer in the region, inn keeper Isabelle Leidig and her husband George Leidig. 

In addition to teaching school and caring for her family, Clare wrote poetry.  Inspired by her daily surroundings, she penned a number of poems about the area.  Clare developed an interest in poetry at a very young age, and after a trip to Yosemite in 1913 she wrote a poem about the journey entitled The Land of Wandering.  It was originally published in the Pacific Short Story Club Magazine in 1914.

“O, the mountains call and I feel their thrall,

And into the saddle I swing,

For keenest love ‘neath heaven above

Is the love of wandering.  

Where the grey cliffs rise to the blue of the skies,

And freedom and rest they bring,

Past the sparkling lake where ripples break

Lies the Path of the Wandering.

A dramatic change in Clare’s life, as well as the lives of all Americans, took place on April 6, 1917.  That was the day President Woodrow Wilson called for war on Germany.  The day the United States officially joined World War I.  By the summer of 1918 more than two million men had been called to serve.  Jobs traditionally held by men were left vacant.  Women were hired to fill those open positions.  Clare saw a need for park rangers and decided to find out if she could apply for one of the empty posts.  “Probably you’ll laugh at me,” she told W.B. Lewis, supervisor of the Yosemite Park District, “but I want to be a ranger.”  “I beat you to it, young lady,” Wilson told her.  “It’s been on my mind for some time to put a woman on one of these patrols, only I couldn’t find the right one before.”

Lewis submitted Clare’s application to Washington, and within a month all was approved and she was given a badge, uniform, and a horse to patrol the area.  According to the interview Clare did with Sunset Magazine, it was as if all the years she’d spent exploring Yosemite’s mountains and valleys had led to that moment.  Clare reported directly to the chief ranger from the time she took on the job until she relinquished the position back to the men she replaced.  Lewis bragged to magazine and newspaper reporters that Clare performed her job with “fearless dexterity and efficiency.”

Clare patrolled all over Yosemite, from the base of Nevada Falls (close to the Merced River) along the Wawona Road (near the Mariposa Grove) to Half Dome high above the valley floor on Glacier Point.  “It was such an adventure,” she told a writer for Sunset Magazine.  “Once, with a ranger friend, we made our way under a frozen waterfall and in an ice cap cooked our luncheon of bacon and eggs,” Clare continued, referring to the experience.  “It was quite a feather in my cap because they told us no woman would dare attempt it.” 

The uniform Clare wore was a khaki ensemble consisting of a shirt, gauchos, ranger hat, and leather gauntlets.  The entire outfit was called “camping clothes.”  The badge affixed to the right breast pocket of her shirt was labeled with her park service affiliation number which was NPSHPC – HFC/YOSE #931.  Fellow rangers strongly suggested Clare carry a gun, in case someone tried to rob her of the park funds she guarded, but she refused.  “I carried money (gate receipts) from Tuolumne Meadows the park headquarters,” she told a Fresno Bee staff writer.  “It was an overnight ride in those days, but I never had any trouble along the way.”

Throughout the summer of 1918 many journalists visited Yosemite in search of the lone woman government forest ranger in Yosemite Park.  They wanted to know what it was like to work in such a “breathtakingly beautiful spot?”  An article in the August 26, 1918 edition of the Lowell, Massachusetts, newspaper The Lowell Sun depicted her daily duties in this way: “She has nothing to do except wear her khaki riding habit and lope all day through the forest aisles, over lily-decked meadows, past thundering waterfalls, along foaming torrents, and ledge trails overlooking dizzy cliffs, with a glittering chain of snowy peaks in the background.”

By late 1918, Clare’s employment with the park service was terminated.  Soldiers who had once been park rangers returned from the war and were eager to have their jobs back.  There wouldn’t be another woman hired as a ranger until 1923.  

Clare returned to the Bay area where she taught school and became the president of the literary society of the San Jose Normal School.  It was during this time that she met and married Earl Seiverson.  Seiverson was a clerk at a mercantile.  The news of their nuptials was posted in the November 2, 1918, edition of the Mariposa Gazette.  “Miss Clare Hodges…was married in Stockton on October 19, 1918, to Earl Lester Seiverson.  The couple spent a few days in Mariposa the latter part of last week.”  The couple divorced shortly after the birth of their son, Forest Glen, on June 24, 1920.  

In 1927 Clare married poultry farmer Peter Wolfsen.  The pair resided in Cathey’s Valley, California, an area known for some of the richest grazing land in the state.  Clare and her husband were very involved with activities at their church.  She worked with children at the church summer camp program in Yosemite for more than thirty-five years, teaching them how to ride a horse and how to identify flowers and trees.  She was often called upon by the staff of the San Jose State College to deliver lectures on wildflowers and herbarium.  Clare and Peter enjoyed gathering seeds along Sierra trails to use to renew wildflower gardens around Northern California.  A nature trail in Merced County was named for the Wolfsens.  

Peter died on July 29, 1958, after suffering with a bout of pneumonia.  He was ninety-one years old.  Clare and Peter had been married for more than thirty years when he passed.  

Clare married for a third time in 1963.  Her husband, Ernest Morris shared her love of Yosemite and agreed to honeymoon at the national park.  “We made the trip from Cathey’s Valley with a trailer,” Clare shared with The Fresno Bee in February 1963.  “I prefer horses to automobiles.  They’re less tiresome.”  

At the age of seventy-three, Clare still enjoyed riding through Yosemite Park on the back of her favorite horse.  The grassy meadows, towering cliffs, tumultuous rivers, cascading waterfalls, and incredible chasms continued to inspire her to write poems about the region.  A poem Clare penned entitled “Tuolumne” described her affection for the eastern section of Yosemite National Park.  

How often in my dreams I see

Thy mountains beckon luringly,

Thy granite spires, Tuolumne,

Cathedral Peaks and Lambert Dome,

The wide-winged eagle’s rugged home.

Thy great grey crags where cloudlets rest,

And rising calm above thy breast

The summits of thy hoary crest;

Each dear spot in my memory

So soft recall, Tuolumne.

I see thee in the morning sheen,

Thy river calm its banks between,

Thy shimmering robe of meadow green,

Thy sparkling dew on blade and tree,

Thy jeweled veil, Tuolumne.

Each dimple holds a glittering lake,

Where mirrored forest shadows break,

And gentle breezes ripple wake,

Thy sparking streams in gayity

Are girdling gems, Tuolumne.

Clare Hodges died on June 20, 1970, in Loma Linda University Medical Center in San Bernardino, California.  She was cremated, and her ashes were placed on her husband’s casket.  Clare was eighty-years old. 

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