Geraldine Lucas, Female Homesteader

“They’ll never get me off my land,” vowed Geraldine Lucas. Drawn to Jackson Hole as a beautiful location to retire and by the presence of several siblings, Geraldine became a legendary character of the locale both for her eccentricity and her refusal to sell her land to the National Parks Association.

Geraldine Lucas was not one to simply comply with traditional norms. At 21, she left a brief but rocky marriage, bringing her son, Russell with her. She then chose to attend school at Oberlin College, becoming both a “returning student” and “single parent” before either term was common. Both Geraldine and Russell had strong personalities, and they clashed over Russell’s educational future spurring him to run away to the Navy. When he returned, they made up, and Geraldine successfully convinced him to join the Coast Guard.

After she retired in 1913 from teaching public school in New York, Geraldine joined several of her siblings in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where she filed for a 160-acre homestead. Geraldine chose her property as much for the grandeur of the Tetons as for its agricultural potential. She cultivated what was required by law to obtain the property, but then abandoned those efforts and grew only what she needed.

Geraldine built a cabin and made other improvements, including a second cabin, log storeroom, granary, rabbit hatch, fencing, and over two miles of ditches, all valued at over $7,000. In 1914, she also applied for a timber and stone claim along Phelps Lake, intending to enlarge her landholdings. Geraldine was at odds early on with the federal government due to various errors and complexities associated with her claim. In 1918, when she planned to prove up (colloquial phrase for the legal process of securing title to homestead lands after meeting certain government requirements) on the land, there were complications with the new land office survey and records of intention to file. Geraldine was finally issued her certificate nine years after initiating the process. Then in 1922, Geraldine filed for a desert land entry, but encountered more difficulties with the land office and, ultimately, had to revise the claim from 100 to 70 acres. These frustrations and delays antagonized her against government interference and regulation. Like many Westerners, Geraldine “believed the agency loved technicalities that bordered on harassment.”

Around 1918, Geraldine persuaded Naomi Colwell to take up an adjacent homestead. At the final proof, Geraldine witnessed that Naomi had no intention to sell her land, a legal requirement, but a short two months later bought 80 acres from her for $500. There were few qualms on the frontier about evading laws or restrictions in the pursuit of additional property.

In many ways “a loner, ”Geraldine garnered a reputation in Jackson Hole as a man hater. This was reinforced by her efforts to undermine an emerging relationship between Naomi and Russell, as well as run off other potential suitors of the young woman.

Geraldine spent her summers visiting various family members for weeks at a time, but, come fall and winter, she returned alone to her homestead until spring. She would gather the necessary groceries and wood supply then settle into her books and sewing. A talented seamstress, according to her nephew, she “would sew until hell wouldn’t have it.” Geraldine only ever wore knickers, so it is a mystery what or whom she sewed for. Her personal library consisted of over 1,350 carefully cataloged and numbered books. She also owned a piano, and her home was decorated with gifts from Russell's travels, including a walrus skull and tusks, Kodiak bear head, Eskimo pipe, and reindeer antlers. He also sent a sled and dog team to serve as transport during winter months.

A mountain climbing craze hit in the 1920s, and Geraldine suddenly had more on her mind than land. In August 1924, age 58, she joined Paul Petzoldt on his climb and became the second woman to summit the crest of the Grand. Instead of warrant accolades, her actions only tended to convince family and neighbors of her eccentricity. As they reached the summit, Petzoldt pushed Geraldine ahead of him so she would be the first on top. He said of her, “I don’t think she often broke through her protected personality, but in that moment when she threw her arms around me with a soft sob, I sensed the real Geraldine Lucas, an intelligent, loving woman who had elected for some reason to leave most of society behind.” Blunt, opinionated, and perhaps unconventional, Geraldine was certainly a character of Jackson Hole. She “simply lived life on her own terms... Yet, much of what set her apart as ‘eccentric’ in her own day, has become commonplace for today’s western women.”

In the late 1920s, John D. Rockefeller and allies formed a front organization, the Snake River Land Company, to buy property that could be added to the Grand Teton National Park. Many affected by the Great Depression were ready and willing to sell for the fair market prices being offered, but Geraldine was not one of these. Harold Fabian, tasked with buying parcels of land, said of her, “She came out from the east and homesteaded under the Tetons because she wanted to spend the rest of her life within sight of these mountains. She is a lover of beauty and nature.” When offered $50,000 for her homestead, Geraldine responded, “You stack up those silver dollars as high as the Grand Teton and I might talk to you!” She did not share the vision for a national park and had “no use for those who wanted to transform her private playground into a public one.”

Even amidst the tension of the park property disputes, Geraldine had very pleasant final years on her beloved homestead. She considered making a gift of her land to Oberlin College, but died of heart failure without a will and before any plans were official, so the homestead and property went to Russell. He sold it to a neighbor who sold to Rockefeller who in turn gave it to Jackson Hole Preserve. While Russell never shared his mother’s love for her homestead, he did appreciate it. He placed her cremated remains under a large boulder on her property with a plaque bearing her name and commemorating her memory.

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Geraldine Lucas Homestead–Fabian Place Historic District, Grand Teton