Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Maud Dunlap Duncan arrived in a small railroad town not far from Indian Territory in Arkansas in 1887 when she was 14. The rugged area around Winslow contained several one-room schools and, educated through the eighth grade by her foster father, Dr. Albert Dunlap,  Maud began to teach the children who attended one of those schools. As yet, Winslow had no school, for the railroad had created the town in 1882 when the Frisco line laid tracks through the tiny valley to connect Northwest Arkansas with Fort Smith to the south. Previously a stage stop known as Woolem sat on the mountainside amid a tiny cluster of settlers known as Summit Home. The stage line was the only connection between this remote locale and the outside world.
After settling in Winslow, Maud's foster parents began to donate time, money and land to the booming town. Under their auspices, St. Stephen's Episcopal church was built. The large home the Dunlaps erected later became a school to educate the mountain girls. The town grew fast, and Maud grew with it. She played organ in the church on Sundays, but more importantly, she attended high school in Ft. Smith, then went on to get her teacher's certificate at the age of 16. Teaching at this young age was common in those days. Some of the boys in her classes were older and bigger than the petite Maud, but she didn't let that deter her.  As time progressed, she decided that teaching wasn't all she wanted to accomplish.
In 1894 she married a railroad worker, Hallam Pearce. The marriage would spawn tragedy.  After the birth of their second daughter, Virginia, who died in infancy, her husband left her. They said he just climbed on board a freight one day and never returned. No one ever knew precisely why, but it was thought that because Maud's mother Virginia had such a grip on members of the family, he grew tired of her interference. Those who knew her well said that Maud was so firmly under the thumb of her mother, that she did nothing without her permission. She had the marriage annulled in 1901 and her foster parents officially adopted her older daughter, Helen. Helen died at the age of 8.
Doctor T.E. Gray had begun a successful practice in town, and was soon courting Maud. Regularly they could be seen riding through town on their way to a picnic out by the falls. Everyone expected them to marry. And sure enough, they were soon engaged. One of her best friends made a wedding dress. Everything was planned, but something so dark happened that it was kept a secret until the only person who knew the truth passed away a few years ago. He told his long-kept secret to a close friend, making her promise not to tell anyone until he was gone. She shared that secret with me not long after his death.
It seems that Maud had a young friend who was having feminine problems. She went to Maud to ask her what to do, and Maud took her to see Doctor Grey. After a few visits, the friend came to Maud so distraught she could barely speak. Finally the truth spilled out. Doctor Gray had been sexually abusing the young woman and she didn't know what to do. Maud confronted the Doctor, broke their engagement and kept mum about the reason. The young girl left town, and folks were left to wonder about the broken engagement. We have to remember what those kinds of secrets meant in those nearly Victorian days. It wasn't something one talked about. We have to wonder if the good doctor went on to abuse other young women. No one will ever know. Before her death, and long years after this happened, Maud revealed the dreadful secret to a close friend who also kept quiet until right before his own death. Doctor Gray was murdered at the hands of a hitchiker in 1938.
Still, these sad occurrences didn't deter Maud from her constant efforts to do more with her life. Determined to forget she studied pharmacy under the tutelage of her foster father, and in 1906 became the second woman in Arkansas to register as a pharmacist. Soon after that she opened a pharmacy/drug store in Winslow. She and her foster father worked together in the M.D. Pearce Pharmacy. The M. D. stood for Maud Dunlap. In 1907 she petitioned the court to change her name back to Dunlap. Soon after that she announced her engagement to a young newspaperman, Gilbert Nelson Duncan, whose family had recently arrived in town.
Soon after their marriage in 1908 they purchased the monthly newspaper, the Winslow Mirror, changed the name to the Winslow American and in September began weekly publication. Maud began to write editorials on national questions such as women's suffrage and the paper supported the United State participation in World War I, taking part in large war bond sales. It appeared she had at last reached her goal in life.
But happiness was brief for Maud. Gilbert died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Despite her sorrow, she picked up the shattered pieces of her life and became active in civic matters. In 1925, only a few years after women gained the right to vote, Maud and some of her friends who were businesswomen in town formed a full slate of women candidates and ran for city council. What had begun as a dare by some of the men in town became a reality when they won the election and took over the reins to the booming resort town. For two years they governed and found some fame in several newspapers.
One tale goes that Maud tore down the one-room jailhouse and announced that if anyone broke the law in her town, they'd answer to her. They raised money to build a new road to replace the steep one that ran straight up the mountainside. Women drivers had a tough time negotiating the difficult climb. Today that road remains in two long loopy S curves going west out of town. The women encouraged business owners to plant flowers and pretty up the town, which they did. After a second term, the women declined to run again. Their work was done.
The pharmacy burned in 1935. Maud continued to produce the newspaper over the long years after the Great Depression all but destroyed the town as a resort area. It became her only way to earn a living, and she would handset the lead slugs to print out three or four pages of notebook size paper which she distributed herself. Too stubborn to give up she would walk the streets, selling ad space so she could afford to buy wood for heat and food. Local people bought ads they didn't need because it was the only way they could help her. She refused charity. She died in 1958 and is buried in the cemetery at the church her foster father built so many years earlier.
In a time when it was so very difficult, women like Maud blazed a bright trail for those who came later. Their stories should be told and preserved.
Maud's story written by Velda Brotherton was published in Arkansas Biography, edited by Nancy A. Williams in 2000, by the University of Arkansas Press. For more information on this courageous woman see the Arkansas Encyclopedia Online.


Gwyn Ramsey said...


Love your story. I feel so special to be a part of the WWW group. Your covers on your books are fantastic. Keep writing.

Alethea Williams said...

I really like this post. Thank you.