By Beverly Belcher Woody
Did you know that one of Meadows of Dan’s premiere sheep farmers in the 1930’s was a wealthy heiress from Boston? I didn’t either, until I started researching the remarkable life of Miss Beatrice Farnham.
Miss Farnham was born in 1876 in San Francisco, California to Briggs and Minerva Farnham. She attended the finest art schools to study sculpting and painting before the family moved to South Weymouth, Massachusetts.
In 1905, Miss Farnham went out west to live with a Navajo tribe. She was quoted by the St. Louis Post as saying that “out on the Plains, one can learn more about art than in years of studying in Europe.” Reporters described Miss Farnham as always attired in a western riding costume, consisting of high boots, tan skirt, leather jacket, and broad sombrero. She carried a “quirt” or short riding whip of braided horsehair dyed every color of the rainbow and a handle weighted with buckshot. The Pittsburgh Press reported that she stated, “this is the only weapon I carry, and it would fell a man if wielded with a strong hand.”
In 1911, Miss Farnham returned to the Boston area to promote her new retreat in Monument National Park where society girls could camp, ride horseback, and study nature. She proposed to ban the “the three C’s-Corsets, Cocktails, and Cigarettes” and promised that the girls who tried this experiment would be much better off after a few weeks in the mountains.
While planning her new girl’s camp, Miss Farnham met John Otto, trail builder and recently appointed superintendent of Monument National Park. Mr. Otto proposed marriage by giving Miss Farnham a gold bracelet that was fastened to her wrist in such a way that it could not be taken off.
The grand wedding took place on the 20th of June 1911 before an altar of quartz and granite, fashioned by the bride, on a narrow ledge 100 feet off the ground. It was originally planned to hold the ceremony on the top of Independence Rock, a rock tower more than 500 feet in the air, but the minister refused to climb the rope ladder leading to the top. Miss Farnham wore her mother’s silk wedding gown, and the groom gave his bride a pack burro as a wedding gift.
When the couple returned from their honeymoon, Miss Farnham went back to her home in Boston, to collect her belongings and settle business affairs. She never returned to John Otto nor the cave dwellings within Monument National Park that he had designated as their home. Her divorce from Otto was finalized in 1914 when the court ordered Miss Farnham to pay him $3,000 in alimony.
Miss Farnham returned to her beloved Plains of the West and soon married Kansas cowboy, Dallas Benson, in 1915. Mr. Benson was a ranch foreman that she had met while traveling on a train. On several occasions, the couple performed a riding trick called “Chasing the Bride” in which Miss Farnham leapt from her horse and into Benson’s arms while their horses galloped beside of each other.
Exactly when the marriage to Benson ended is not known, but during World War I, Miss Farnham worked in military intelligence in Washington, D.C. After the war, she served as a lay psychologist for soldiers at the VA. In 1925, Miss Farnham and her widowed mother moved to Meadows of Dan. Miss Farnham purchased a large tract of land behind Cockram’s Mill and named it Lone Pine Lodge.
In April of 1932, Miss Farnham wrote a letter to the editor of The Enterprise and the following is an excerpt where she describes her lamb crop. “Dear Mr. Editor, You are such a good booster for Patrick County farm products that I am sending you a little story about the lamb crop this spring on the mountain at Lone Pine Lodge. One flock of 13 sheep have 23 lambs. Thirteen being an unlucky number that sounds like too many lambs; however, it figures out right. 2 sets of triplets, 6 pairs of twins, and 5 single lambs. These are mountain bred, Hampshire grade, black face sheep. If any others in Patrick County have a better record for blue ribbons, let’s hear about it. Faithfully yours, Miss B. Farnham.”
Miss Farnham had a long career as a farmer, painter, sculptor, and art critic. Although she lived a simple, almost rugged existence, she provided many young people in Patrick County with financial assistance for attending college. On her farm on the Dan River, she established a retreat for Franciscan Friars at her home and was a devout Catholic. During the 1950’s, she toured the United States in a van, stopping to paint when and where she pleased and in the 1960’s, she traveled to Puerto Rico. Miss Farnham made many religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
According to her obituary in The Enterprise, “Miss Farnham was a celebrated church artist whose work hangs in churches throughout the nation, as well in several local churches: Mountain View United Methodist, Crooked Oak Baptist, Stuart United Methodist, Laurel Fork Primitive Baptist, and Meadows of Dan Baptist. Her reproduction of da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ is at the Washington, D.C. Franciscan monastery.” One of her paintings can now be seen at the Patrick County Historical Society & Museum.
In 1976, centenarian Miss Farnham was crowned Bicentennial Queen of Patrick County and in 1979, she passed away at the remarkable age of 103. Paul Trask, a close friend of Miss Farnham commented to The Enterprise that “material things of this life weren’t that important to her and she gave what she had during her life to God.” Her body now rests beside her mother’s in Mountain View UMC Cemetery.
(Thank you to Martha Niedjela and Lanita Harris for their contributions to this article. Email Beverly at email@example.com with questions or comments.)