Glory Trailed Dora Keen Handy to West Hartford

  • Dora Keen and her future husband George Handy in Alaska. (Dora Keen Collection, Anchorage Museum)

  • Climbers in Alaska, including Dora Keen. (Dora Keen Collection, Anchorage Museum)

  • A 1913 portrait of Dora Keen. (Creative Commons)

For the Valley News
Friday, October 12, 2018

It seems that the people of the Upper Valley didn’t quite know what to make of Dora Keen Handy, who came to West Hartford to farm with her husband, George, after their marriage in 1916.

Only 5 feet tall, she cut a larger figure. She was considered somewhat eccentric locally; she could be stern with children, pushy with adults. She was no typical farm wife: She had grown up in elite society in Philadelphia, and graduated from Bryn Mawr College.

Long before women could be Olympic heroes or extreme athletes, Handy had been a celebrated mountain climber. The New York Times and National Geographic both carried reports about her exploits. These days, she might be a “Girl Power’’ figure — someone for youngsters to look up to.

A 2013 Outdoor Journal article summed her up with this subhead: “Historical Badass.”

But the fame has faded with the years. Judy Roberts of West Hartford thought West Hartford’s Handy Road, where she lives, was so named because it’s a useful shortcut. A staffer at the West Hartford Library told her about Dora Keen Handy, whose story is included in two books in its collection: Adventurous Women, by Dorcas Miller, and Women on High, by Rebecca Brown.

Roberts decided to learn more, and earlier this year led a Hartford Historical Society presentation on Handy. “I think she was amazing. I really do,” she said recently.

Handy was born in 1871. Her father, William Williams Keen Jr., was nationally prominent, a physician who assisted at a cancer surgery for President Grover Cleveland and was called to Campobello when future president Franklin D. Roosevelt first showed signs of polio. (The correct diagnosis was not immediately made.) He was a pioneer in brain surgery and a president of the American Medical Association.

After college, Dora Keen worked for philanthropic causes, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the American Society for Labor Legislation, which promoted labor reforms.

She was also a world traveler. One account lists “the North American continent from Alaska to Panama, both coasts of South America,” much of Asia, northern Africa and numerous trips to Europe.

In her younger years, she had hiked and climbed in Europe, but in her late 30s she pushed higher. She was on teams that climbed a number of peaks in the Alps, including the Matterhorn. She described the expeditions in the July 1911 National Geographic: “I climb for pleasure, for the wonderful views and vigorous exertion, for the relaxation of a complete change for mind and body, and because of the inspiration to the spirit,” she wrote. “To climb requires a good heart and endurance. The rest comes with experience.”

Her report was “presented in all modesty,” because she said those climbs, while difficult and having some degree of danger, didn’t compare with the rigors of expeditions to the Himalayas, the Andes or Alaska.

She didn’t need to be modest for long. That same year, she traveled to Alaska, by her account “merely to see the wonderful scenery.”

When she learned that Mount Blackburn, the territory’s second highest peak at over 16,000 feet, had never been climbed, she hastily put together an expedition; it failed, partly because it lacked the necessary equipment.

“Nothing stopped Dora,” said Judy Roberts. She came back the next year, and led a new team of Alaskan men that included George Handy. They were better equipped, but avalanches were a constant threat and a raging blizzard stopped them at 12,000 feet. The expedition was forced to hunker down for days in snow caves.

Only three of them made it close to the peak, and one had to turn back because of altitude sickness. Dora Keen and George Handy made it to the summit. She was 40 years old.

The May 26, 1912 New York Times contained a brief but excited account. It led with Dora Keen’s telegram: “After 13 days’ snowstorm, spent in caves, made the summit of Mount Blackburn.”

The Times continued, “Miss Keen won out after struggles and experiences that would have daunted many men. She is the first woman to reach to the top of Mount Blackburn, and no man had ever conquered it before her.”

The expedition later took a 300-mile wilderness journey to the Yukon River, and made scientific observations of glaciers. She became a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in London in 1914, and delivered lectures, including a series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on “Adventure in the Alps and Alaska.”

Handy hoped to inspire women, saying “I believe more and more in the economic independence of women and in productive activities for them as for men. I am eager to help the faint-hearted and that is my chief aim in writing and lecturing — to pass on the courage I have gained from my wonderful experiences.”

In middle age, Dora Keen apparently had also found romance. She married George Handy in 1916, within sight of Mount Blackburn.

Their ensuing life in Vermont was a much different chapter. Author Cameron Clifford, of West Hartford, who has researched local culture and characters for his writings, has spoken with older residents who knew the couple. He wryly reported at the Hartford Historical Society presentation that some folks thought the German-born George Handy might be a German spy, as if West Hartford was on the kaiser’s map.

Some thought Dora’s father secured the farm for the couple because he wanted to get the rough-edged George, who had been a soldier, miner and even a cowboy, far away from Philadelphia society.

Roy Black, of Wilder, recalled that a retired teacher told him some years ago that the couple was poorly matched because of their backgrounds. “She said, ‘He didn’t even know how to handle his silverware properly.’ ”

Speculation is that the farm, on the West Hartford end of the Quechee-West Hartford Road, wasn’t self-sustaining. One story claims that the couple once filled oat sacks with sawdust to make the visiting Dr. Keen think their harvest had been good.

The marriage lasted 16 years and ended in divorce. Afterward, Dora Keen Handy worked for a time at the West Hartford Library, where it’s said she could intimidate noisy children. She also sold insurance – with determination.

One story says she appeared at a busy White River Junction physician’s office and demanded to see the doctor immediately. The woman in charge of the office let her in, partly because of her advanced age, and Dora Keen Handy proceeded to try to sell the doctor insurance.

At the Historical Society presentation, people in the audience said she was the kind of woman who would stop her car in the middle of the road to pick up something that caught her eye, or would blurt out to another shopper at the market, “If I buy this potato, would you take half of it?”

But Handy did not lose touch with the wider world. Roy Black found a brief item in a local newspaper that noted her exotic trips abroad even later in life. The book Adventurous Women said in her 80s she found Florida “just filled with old people … so she went instead to South Africa, the Congo, Australia, New Guinea, Kenya and Java.”

In 1962, at age 91, Handy set out on a world tour. She returned to Alaska, then continued on to Asia. She died Jan. 31, 1963 in Hong Kong.

A tribute appeared that year in an American Alpine Club publication. “She liked her independence,” the writer declared. “She was a remarkable little person, full of confidence and wanting no one to worry about her — she could manage quite well by herself.”

Her legacy goes far beyond Handy Road. A special collection at Alaska’s Anchorage Museum holds more than 1,000 images and press clippings she created or collected. Even more permanent is a tribute in a remote section of the Chugach Mountains in Alaska. It’s still on the maps, the Dora Keen Range.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com. Further information about the Anchorage Museum’s Dora Keen Handy collection can be found at www.anchoragemuseum.org.