A Name on a Tree
I remember watching a weekend TV news show where a reporter began with the premise that everyone has a story to tell. He chose his next subject by throwing a dart at a map of the United States, then picking a name at random out of the community phone book.
I started with a name on a tree.
In more than 20 years of hiking my favorite local trail, I had pushed past the old aspen dozens of times. But one evening last summer I finally stopped to study the message carved into the bark.
“MAE ROSENLOF,” it said in block letters, the last name sprawled halfway around the trunk.
Underneath was a word in smaller letters that had become disfigured over the years. And below that, in large, sweeping script, was the year: 1922.
I normally think of aspen inscriptions as a form of vandalism. But the fact that this message was more than 80 years old put it in a different light. Like graffiti uncovered in Pompeii and ancient Greece, it had become a piece of a historical puzzle.
Mae Rosenlof. Who was she? What was she doing in this canyon in 1922, if in fact she had carved her own name into that tree? If someone else had carved the name, then who? Someone carrying a torch for her, perhaps.
My search for an answer started on the World Wide Web. I went to Google, typed in “Mae Rosenlof” and got a single match. It was a site dedicated to the genealogy of Helen Louise Wells. One of her relatives, Winfield Kenneth Smith, had married Edna Mae Rosenlof on June 18, 1924.
Edna Mae? Could she be the one on the tree? Based on the dates alone, it was certainly possible.
I searched Utah’s 1920 census records without finding an Edna or a Mae Rosenlof.
My next stop was www.familysearch.org, maintained by the Mormon Church. Winfield Kenneth Smith was there, all right, and so was his marriage to Edna. They were married in Nampa, Idaho. According to the site, they had no children.
A few more clicks of the mouse brought me Edna Mae’s pedigree. Her father, Nils Frank Rosenlof, married Olive Ann Hatfield in Boise, Idaho, in 1898. They settled in Nampa and had four children. The youngest, Edna Mae, was born on May 19, 1905.
And Nils Frank Rosenlof had a Utah connection. He was born in Mt. Pleasant, in the central part of the state.
A brief online search led me to Nampa’s daily newspaper, the Idaho Press-Tribune. The paper’s electronic archives produced an obituary for Edgar Rosenlof, Edna Mae’s older brother. Edgar had died in March, 2000 at the age of 97. The obituary said he was preceded in death by his parents, a daughter, and two sisters, Pearl Emmel and May Hutchinson.
A visit to the individual records at www.familysearch.org answered the riddle. Edna Mae Rosenlof had married twice. After her marriage to Kenneth Smith, she had married a Warner Hutchinson.\A link to the U.S. Social Security Death Index confirmed what Edgar’s obituary had already told me. An Edna Hutchinson, whose birthday matched that of Edna Mae Rosenlof, had died in Oceanside, California, on December 14, 1993.
At that point my online information spring ran dry. But Edgar’s obituary had also listed a surviving daughter, Ann Henry, who lived in Nampa. I found a phone number and gave her a call.
Ann deserves a lot of credit. A guy from Park City, Utah, was on the phone, saying he might have found Aunt Mae’s name carved on a tree. And he had some questions. What kind of a nut was this?
But Ann opened up. She told me that Edna Mae was known as Mae by family members. She told me that Mae used to visit relatives in Utah. She told me that, after her divorce from Kenneth Smith, Mae had set out on her own career.
“In the 1930s she worked for one of the major cosmetics companies as a model,” Ann said. “She was a very, very attractive lady. And she was quite a businesswoman. Primarily real estate.”
Then came the kicker: She told me that Kenneth and Mae had, in fact, had three children. Two had died but the third, Gaylor Smith, was living in California. She gave me a phone number.
I gave Gaylor a call. And I was overwhelmed by his willingness to share the details of his mother’s life.
I won’t try to repeat our conversation. Instead, let me jump ahead a few weeks. One day in September I hiked up the trail and tacked this note to the tree:
“Greetings. My full name is Edna Mae Rosenlof, but my family called me Mae. And this is my story.
“I was born in Nampa, Idaho, in May 1905. My father was the son of Swedish immigrants who crossed the Atlantic around 1860. He settled in Nampa, a few miles west of Boise, and became a leading citizen there. You can still find a street named after him. My mother was a Hatfield, a relative of the celebrated clan that shot it out with the McCoys in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“At Nampa High School I was the center on the basketball team. I loved to paint. And I played the piano. In the 1920s, I played the accompaniment to the silent films at the Ada Theatre in Nampa.
“When I was 17, I lived for a few months with my step-grandmother in Salt Lake City and worked in bookkeeping for Kress, a five-and-dime-store chain.
“In Nampa my father owned a service station, and I used to help him out from time to time. One day a young rancher came in with a flat tire. While the tire was being fixed, he struck up a conversation. Well, one thing led to another and, in June 1924, Kenneth Smith and I were married.
“He told me later that he had let the air out of that tire two blocks from the station.
“Ken and I had three babies — a girl and two boys. The girl lived only about a day, and the older boy died from cerebral palsy at 18. But the younger boy, Gaylor, is living today in Oceanside, California.
“I’m sorry to say that the Great Depression took a toll on our marriage. Ken and I split up in 1934. He stayed on the ranch with the boys and I moved to Portland, Oregon.
“Not long after that I met the Ogilvie sisters, who ran a family hair-care products business. You may have heard of it. It’s owned by Playtex today. Anyway, they hired me to model their lines and work as a manufacturer’s representative.
“It was a great job. If you had driven down Hollywood Boulevard in the late 1930s, you could have seen my likeness on billboards promoting Ogilvie products. Before long I was managing their sales force in 12 Western states.
“My son Gaylor joined me in Southern California in 1941. He went to an elite military school and later graduated from UCLA. After college, he trained as a jet pilot and spent 20 years in the U.S. Navy. Following his retirement, he lived in Lakewood, Colorado, serving three terms on the city council, before moving back to California.“Speaking of military men — in 1946 I got married again, to a World War II veteran named Warner Hutchinson. We settled down in West Los Angeles.
“I left Ogilvie when the company sold in the mid-1950s. I earned my real-estate license and walked into the office of a major Los Angeles company to apply for a job.
“The owner looked stunned. If he hired a woman, he said, every man in his office would leave!
“It was my turn to be stunned. Was this the 1950s or the 1850s? Anyway, I turned around and bought my own real-estate business. I specialized in selling properties in Westwood, Brentwood and Bel Air. You’d recognize the names of many of the people I represented. Some became personal friends. In the late 1960s my success in business got me listed in ‘Who’s Who of American Women.’
“I sold the company about 1970 and could have retired. But I found it impossible to slow down. I kept working, managing residential high-rise buildings, until I was 84. In my spare time — what little there was — I relaxed by painting oil landscapes.
“Hutch died in 1972. After that I lived on my own until I moved into Gaylor’s home in Oceanside a couple of months before my death in December, 1993.
“Well, I hope this satisfies your curiosity. Thanks for taking the time to read it.”
Only one question remains. Exactly how did Mae’s name end up on that tree? Neither Ann nor Gaylor could offer more than a guess.
That will have to remain Mae’s secret.
David Hampshire is a former editor of Park City magazine. He says that Park City’s trail system is one of the best things about living here.