This article is about a local heroine, who had the same gumption I equate with another historical figure of significance, Gertrude Bell. Mary Gerritse, to me, was Oregon’s very own Gertrude Bell. For those who have not heard of Gertrude Bell she was a traveler, explorer, and mapmaker, and at times an accidental policy maker. She was also a woman history books often forget. According to Georgina Howell, who wrote Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, Bell was acquainted with Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence), and did or helped do many of the things that he is thought to be responsible for. I will never forget one of the beginning scenes of The English Patient where the soldiers desperately peer over a large map. They are desperate for escape so another soldier pulls out the Bell Maps, he points to a pass marked on this map that is unfamiliar to him and the other soldier says, “Let’s hope he was right”. HE!
Gerritse would not have thought of herself as an intrepid or courageous woman. She was a woman who did what needed to be done. She did, however, have a lot in common with Bell, they were both fond of traveling, both were fond of going where most women were not expected or even allowed to go, and they both ruffled a few feathers along the way. Mary enjoyed quiet moments to herself with the wind rustling her hair with her horse, Prince, by her side.
Not unlike Gertrude Bell who ventured into the Saudi Arabian desert by camel back. Mary plunged through the wilds of the Oregon rainforest, braving Northwestern Squalls, changing tides, and narrow cliff hugging trails to deliver the mail from 1897 until 1902. Gerritse was fearless. Once while delivering the mail she came upon several men on the trail she frequented. The waved at her not to come, the trail was rather narrow and they were afraid that she would not be able to pass. Without hesitation Mary plunged onward. One man became so afraid he clambered up the opposite Cliffside clinging to grass while she rode past, Mary commented in her journal, “I felt sorry for him. The other side of the trail went down 400 feet to the ocean. I did not know how to be afraid.”
On more than one occasion Mary held herself together when most would have struggled with fright. Whether it was coming face to face with a bear or a cougar Mary held her ground. When Prince, Mary’s beloved horse was close to skittering down a cliff into the sea, Mary remained calm, slid down the 150 feet to where Prince teetered on the edge and soothed him back onto the trail. Despite Prince’s cracked ribs, and Mary’s own slide, the mail was saved!
In Mary’s journal she recalls that summer tides often forced her to rise earlier to deliver the mail. She would arise at 3:30 a.m.! On these days she would return to the location of one her old cabins, though the cabin was no longer there (perhaps lost in a fire), she would rest there and nap while Prince grazed on clovers growing nearby. Prince was the ideal horse, as much of a friend to Mary as a human being.
There were two trails that Mary would often take to deliver the mail, one was the back trail – it went over the mountains and through the woods, the other was the front trail and went along the shore in some spots. It was along the front trail on one frightful occasion when Prince was lost to a change in the tides. The loss devastated her. She blamed herself for the death of her favorite horse – and yet she plowed on. She rode a new horse, this one not nearly as kindhearted as Prince. The horse was so temperamental that few could control him.
Like Bell, Gerritse ruffled feathers. She refused to ride sidesaddle, as was customary of women at the time. She felt that she was doing man’s work, so should be able to ride like a man! Mary says, “When I carried the mail, I rode astride on a saddle. I got a lot of criticism because, because it was not lady-like.” Under a thin skirt Mary wore boots and overalls. She hoped that this would appease the neigh-sayers and as she says, “What was the difference? I was not doing a lady’s work anyway.”
Mary was also accomplished at fishing, racing, and hunting. After a close encounter with a cougar she demanded her husband teach her how to use a gun. He armed her with a 32-caliber pistol. A year or so later a bear wandered onto the Gerritse property. In order to protect the livestock she ran out to face the bear. “I knelt on the ground and took sight across my knee, waited until he (the bear) was about 50 feet away,” Unbeknownst to Mary the pistol was not loaded. Lucky for her the bear was frightened by the sound of the gun clicking and took off.
Mary Gerritse grew up in the Manzanita Nehalem area and stayed there for most of her life, living in one place or another. She spent many hours of every day in the deep woods alone, walking trails that many found too hazardous, and taking on work that many women would scoff at. The Gerritse mail route took Mary from Nehalem to Seaside and back once a day or once a week. Along muddy narrow trails she and her horse trudged on. Like Gertrude Bell, Mary did not think of herself as doing anything overly courageous. She was doing what made sense. Mary’s life story was recently adapted for a one-woman show entitled Lost Pioneer, which followed the lives of three courageous North Oregon Coast woman. The show played in Manzanita, Tillamook, and Pacific City, but could come to Cannon Beach, if there was enough interest.