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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Behind a Good Man is a Good Woman: the story of Fannie White" by Rebecca Lee

On March 13, I posted former interpretive seasonal Rebecca Lee's article on her cavern's historical namesake, Elizabeth Lee. Here is another good article by Rebecca, her paper on "Fannie," Jim White's wife and Jim White Jr.'s mother.

I like Rebecca's style of writing and hos she develops her ideas. She is one of my favorite historians. She does a great job of bringing Fannie Hill White into focus.

Thanks again, Rebecca, wherever you are.

Behind A Good Man Is A Good Woman

by Rebecca R. Lee

Exploration was not the only role women played at the cavern. During the 1920's Fannie White, Jim White's hospitable wife, found herself catering to the visitors that her husband was drawing to the cavern. The story of Fannie White can not be told without telling the story of her husband. But, Fannie's contributions to the cavern successful or not are enough to place her among the women of Carlsbad Caverns.

When Jim White's family moved from Texas to a small ranch near Eddy (later called Carlsbad), New Mexico in 1896, Jim age 14 had no idea that the 2 year old blue eyed, black haired daughter of his neighbor, Boyd Hill, would forever be remembered in his history. (1) Fannie Hill quickly became Jim's childhood playmate and sweetheart taking no longer than 16 years to make her his wife. (2) Fannie was deeply in love with Jim and his meagerness was of little importance to her. (3) The folks at the Eddy County Courthouse had no idea of the events the marriage of these two on New Year's Day in 1912 was about to have on the town. (4)

"I don't have much to offer now, honey, but someday I will,"
Jim told her.
"It doesn't matter," she answered.

excerpt from One Man's Dream by Ruth Caiar.

By 1901, Jim White using homemade ladders had begun exploring the big cave in the desert. (5) Mostly by himself and carrying little more than a coffee pot lantern, Jim crept down the main passage descending deeper and deeper into the unknown. (6) He recounts that while riding the range one day a swirling plume of bats he mistook for smoke drew him to the mouth of the cave. (7) Curiosity grabbed him and later he climbed his way past the menacing natural entrance.

When mining of bat guano in the cave for fertilizer began around 1903, Jim instantly became a miner and foreman of the operation. (8) He had been a foreman for close to ten years before marrying Fannie. (9) Down times and days off, Jim explored as much of the cave as he could. (10) He could rarely talk anyone into exploring the cave with him and seeing the cave's outrageous sights. But at the time it did not matter because Jim White was having fun.

Before marrying Jim, Fannie knew all too well about his obsession with that big hole in the ground. An obsession with which she knew she would have to compete. Jim and Fannie spent ample time studying about bats and caves together in preparation for the day the visitors came. (11) However, Fannie only occasionally ventured into the cave with Jim on weekends as her desire to be in the cave was solely to be with Jim. (12) She even joined in early explorations in 1928 to a new room of the cave called the Mystery Room. (13) Each time she visited the cave, Fannie understood Jim's passion more clearly but her passion was more for him. (14) Jim and Fannie jumped from homestead to homestead eventually living in a shack near the mouth of the deep cavern. The guano mining companies built cabins in the area above the Bat Cave and the White's lived in a two room cabin while Jim continued to mine for the operation. (15) When James Larkin White Jr. was born on March 23, 1919, Fannie had driven to the town of Carlsbad to give birth to him. (16) After three days, she returned to her home on the cave and continued the simple life she knew. (17)

"I can't wait until he's big enough to see the cave,"
Jim told his wife one evening.
"You'll wait until he is big enough to walk, won't you?"
she asked.

excerpt from One Man's Dream by Ruth Caiar.

As the guano mining operation was suspended in 1921, the owners offered Jim a job as custodian of the mines and allowed his family to move into a four room cabin farther from the cave's entrance. (18) Fannie was delighted with the added space and relieved that it removed the possibility of Jim Jr. falling into the cave. (19) The loss of their only offspring would have been a historic tragedy.

Jim was free to explore the cave all day long if he wanted and he did. Fannie typically filled her day with housework while Jim was away in the cave. Many times during the mining operation when Fannie's housework was done, she would climb down the ladder leading to the Bat Cave and commence to sew sacks for guano or do any other job she could. (20) Sometimes building on a dream is a lot of work.

However, some of her work was made easy when she and Jim taught a burro named Joe to lug water in cans from a nearby spring. (21) Jim, when not submerged in the cave, would lead Joe to the spring, fill cans with water, strap the cans to Joe's back, and send him home. (22) The little burro would trot his way back to Fannie where she would empty the cans and send Joe back to Jim. (23) If Jim could have taught the burro to fill the cans, he certainly would have spent even more time in the cave and Fannie would have been left to tend the job alone. (24)

A chore Fannie happily faced daily was feeding her family. She evolved into a decent cook preparing meals for miners and visitors alike with random praise. (25) Her country style cooking reminded the weary of back home and it was a taste just like "mama used to make." Years later, she was hired as a cook for the Pennsylvanian Willis T. Lee and other east of the Mississippi members during his 1924 National Geographic expedition. (26) They particularly enjoyed her rabbit stew and dumplings and were eager to eat anything else she made as long as it had that country flair. (27) Of course, the rabbits she and Jim easily shot from their porch and Jim Jr. would dash quickly through the sotols and cat claws to retrieve the kill. (28) It was not so much country cooking as it was economical cooking. Although rabbit was the meat of choice, Fannie's menu was one of great variety perhaps experimenting with native dishes like pan fried prickly pear, roasted mescal, buffalo gourd soup, and mesquite bean bread. Eventually, Fannie's culinary skills would lead her to ideas of grandeur.

"I'm tired of eating rabbits. That's all we have anymore.
Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit," Jim Jr. complained.
"Now, Son, I think Mama fixes rabbit real good," Jim replied.

excerpt from One Man's Dream by Ruth Caiar.

As Jim tried to spread word of the cave and its magnificent beauty, disbelief of his stories grew. Texans were known for telling tall tales and Jim was Texan born and bred. (29) Few people wanted to believe a bragging cowboy and ride for two days to see a dark, musty cave which was being mined for bat guano.
Fannie's only frustration with life at the time was Jim's inability to attract anyone to the cave. (30) But, the cave needed less help attracting visitors than Jim or Fannie thought.

For example, two young and curious boys drove to the White's house early one morning. Jim met the fellows and quickly learned of their desire. "We heard you found a big cave around here and we thought we would like to see it. Any chance of it?" Ruth Caiar wrote in her book. "You bet," Jim said grinning. Jim and the boys talked about the adventure and beauty that lay ahead of them but the boys remembered they did not have flash powder to light the cave for their pictures. Before the boys returned to Carlsbad to purchase the flash powder, Jim encouraged them to convince a professional photographer to return to the cave with them and they did. Ray V. Davis was the photographer and for a cut in the distributing rights of any pictures he took he agreed to come along. Astonished by the cave's beauty outside of the guano mining areas, Ray snapped photo after photo which would soon be seen nation wide. (31)

By 1922, publicity of the cave was on its way. (32) As one of his first tours, Jim guided 13 visitors down the makeshift trails to a world they had never before known. (33) While the group was scrambling through the cave, Fannie "put a pot of beans on the stove, never knowing when they'd come back." (34) She also drove burros to the entrance of the cave with water for the thirsty men to drink when they emerged. (35) Earlier she had made a special point to scrub the inside of the guano bucket which took visitors into the cave so the stench was not so offensive. (36) She was clearly trying to achieve Jim's dream.

Excited and overjoyed that the interest of folks to see his cave was growing, Jim never thought to charge for his tours. (37) The 13 visitors remembered that Fannie had fed them a splendid supper and breakfast and they had slept comfortably in the empty cabins. They decided to at least pay $1 a head for those accommodations. Jim reluctantly took that $13 and used it to buy materials to improve the cave's trail. (38) Fatefully, Jim White was making history with the visitors and Fannie White was feeding them.

Realizing with the help of a local businessman that feeding and bedding visitors for free was going to break Jim and Fannie, they talked it over and decided to charge a reasonable fee of $2. In return, the visitor received a meal, a trip into the cave, a place to sleep, and "some fine company." (39) They inadvertently created what is known in modern times as a bed and breakfast. With the terrain so hard, visitors were overjoyed to find good food and a warm bed in the harsh desert environment and in turn visitation to the cave increased. (40)

Jim persistently worked on the trails in the cave. He was intent on improving them as much as possible. Mabel Otis Robison wrote in her book, "Jim said, `I feel that I am blazing a trail to some of the most unusual sights in the world. I've heard songs about lone cowboys on the prairie, but I'm a lone cowboy in a cave, hoping that someday, people will come.'

Fannie hesitated, `Maybe...maybe you ought to find another job. A job where you could make more money. Perhaps the mines will never open up again.'

`Money!' Jim laughed. `My cave is more important than any money.' Fannie said nothing. She knew how Jim felt about his discovery."

When Jim's tools needed sharpening, Fannie would stick Jim Jr. in the front seat of their Model T and they would ramble down the rugged mountain to take the tools to town. (41)

Fannie was supportive of Jim's dream but sad that it was taking such a toll on him. Jim would return home tired and torn each evening after laboring in the cave but all Fannie could do was understand why. (42) She asked Jim if he ever felt like giving up and Jim quickly shook his head no. (43) Ruth Caiar recounts, "Often Fannie would sit quietly and watch Jim's face as he stared silently toward the cave entrance, and she wondered what his thoughts were. There were times when she felt a little frightened by his consuming passion for the place. Twenty years, she thought. For twenty years he has worked there without the slightest encouragement, and never once has he thought of giving up."

As people began to visit the cave, Jim's spirits grew high and Fannie could not be happier for him. (44) Yet, she still worried. Fannie was afraid that Jim's work would be lost if a land prospector bought the land above the cave and she knew that would destroy Jim. (45) If the cave became famous, it might also become lucrative and just the right businessman could snatch it up. Fannie put her worries aside and let Jim relish the joy he had
found. The everpresent wife, Fannie's worth was immeasurable and later she would attempt to grab a little glory of her own.

"You're happy now, aren't you Jim?" she said.
"Yes," he answered simply.
"It was a long road, but you finally reached the end of it,"
she said softly.

excerpt from One Man's Dream by Ruth Caiar.

The National Park Service took over the management of the cavern in 1926 and Jim naturally became the first Chief Ranger. (46) He, Fannie, and Jim Jr. continued to live rent free in a house the guano company built. (47) However, Jim Jr. and Fannie had to pack up and move to Carlsbad every winter in order for him to go to school. (48) Later when a school was established at the cavern, Jim Jr. attended the classes of Laura Robinson. (49) Fannie was then free to spend her time as she pleased but they were far from afternoons of bon-bons and soap operas.

While Jim guided visitors through the cave, Fannie assumed a new job. The first electric lights running through the cave were powered by a 25 horsepower generator. Fannie's job was to pour water into the radiator and gasoline into the tank, hope she did not mix the two, cross her fingers, and trust the generator to run. Sometimes it did and sometimes it did not. She was paid $50 a month to do this but it was a job that required little skill from her. (50) She held this job until the growth of the plant increased duties only manageable by a man. (51) Fannie's real worth was in her cooking and she knew it.

On February 13, 1926, Fannie began to brag about her cooking and attempted to contract the lunch concessions in the cavern. Her idea was to sell "sandwiches, lunch, and such other things as might be necessary in such cases including Indian and Mexican curios and that sort of thing." In a letter to Stephen Mather, the Director of the National Park Service, Fannie cited the necessity to be with Jim at the cavern as a significant reason to obtain the concession. After all, she was going to be at the cavern anyway, why not make a little money? Fannie promised the Park Service that she "will endeavor to give satisfactory service" and it was a promise she intended to keep. She was completely prepared to erect her own building as stipulated for whoever received the concession. (52)

Custodian McIlvain sent a follow up letter to Mather recommending Fannie be granted the concession. He was impressed with Fannie's cooking and character and stood solidly behind her. (53) With no response from Stephen Mather, Fannie was compelled to write another letter on May 18, 1927. Fannie, in almost desperation, wrote two paragraphs solely on her ability to operate a concession. She wrote, "Mr. Boles, the present
Custodian, has several times complimented me on my cooking and on the cleanliness of my kitchen," and, "I believe I could handle the lunchroom to the satisfaction of the National Park Service, as well as to the satisfaction of my patrons." (54) Fannie was hard pressed to give up. Jim did not give up on his dream and neither would she.

Using the word "pestering", A. E. Demarey, Acting Director for the National Park Service, wrote Custodian Boles of the White's or particularly Jim's behavior. Demarey said in his letter that the White's had given nothing to support their financial ability to construct a decent building on monument land but what is more interesting is the amount and type of wording used to address a scandalous problem with the White's or with Jim specifically. Jim's drinking was more of a concern to the National Park Service and the fear that Jim may have to be dismissed as a result gave the Park Service pause for thought. If Fannie obtained the concession and Jim was fired, he might hang around or even, "have him lying around the place without much chance of getting rid of him." (55) Fighting a losing battle, Fannie lost the concession bid in 1928 to the Cavern Supply Company co-created by Ray V. Davis. (56) A man who just a few years earlier helped Jim White and his cavern become recognized. It was just another incident to perpetuate the White's continual struggle for recognition but one might wonder had Fannie received the concession if lunches of rabbit stew and pinto beans would have been on the menu.

By 1929 at the age of 48, Jim began to feel the aches and pains of cave exploring. His tours at a length of 7 hours or more were taking their toll. Jim petitioned Superintendent Boles to create a new, more relaxed position for him with the prestigious title of Chief Explorer. (57) Jim would still explore the cave but at his own pace. Assured in his mind that Boles would heed Jim's suggestion, Jim went for a vacation to Hot Springs, New Mexico. (58) Upon his return, Jim resigned as Chief Ranger in anticipation of his new job. Time went by and Jim heard nothing about the job's creation. (59) Jim was not worried though Fannie obviously was.

"What if you don't get the job Jim," Mrs. White asked.
"Now don't you worry," he told her.

excerpt from One Man's Dream by Ruth Caiar.

After waiting almost six months, Jim finally began to worry. Feelings of betrayal consumed him and he launched a letter writing attack. His efforts were fruitless and Jim was crushed. He was rejected after an intense exchange of letters from one dignitary to another. (60) It seemed the National Park Service on rumors of Jim's heavy drinking was releasing Jim of his responsibilities to the cavern. If Jim did not have a drinking problem prior to his resignation, he would have one now. Jim and Fannie White were at loss of what to do.

The writing of the book Jim White's Own Story told by Jim in 1930 to Frank Ernest Nicholson was the catalyst for Jim regaining his dignity. (61) He was able to sell his book in the cave's underground lunchroom. (62) It was a humble living. In order to protect Jim and his family as they grew older, Superintendent Boles asked for a bill to be passed that would assure the White's a decent living from the book sales. (63) Despite government grumbling, the bill as documented in the Tom Meador collection was passed on January 16, 1936 and the future of Jim and Fannie seemed secure. (64)

Ruth Caiar's slant however, tells a different and more vindictive story. She attests that two state officials offered to help Jim and Fannie obtain all of the concession rights to sell Jim White's book for 75 cents. The National Park Service heard about Jim's desire and while the bill for the White's concession awaited signing countered with an offer of their own. They would give Jim and Fannie the concession "at one dollar per year as long as he or his wife lived, but that they wanted to renew the agreement each year." The agreement was made and the bill was lost. (65)

Whatever the real story, Jim was to make money from the sale of his book. It is ironic that now that Jim was much older, he suddenly cared about money. He felt he could stop worrying about Fannie and her means for survival after he died. (66) Sadly, his death was only a few years away.

Jim's health began to fail by 1941 and he and Fannie moved to the town of Carlsbad to be near a doctor. Jim's trips to the cave were decreasing so that Fannie eventually had to take over the sale of the books and Indian curios. (67) After Jim died in 1946, Fannie sold the book on her own. (68) Jim Jr. helped occasionally but his disgust with the book selling regulations forced him to stop. (69)

Ruth Caiar wrote that the Department of the Interior reneged on their original agreement by realizing the profits that were being made from the book and demanding almost half. Fannie's business sense was minute and she was left unsure and confused. However, her pride was intact and she enlisted the help of newspapers and the citizens of Carlsbad. As part of the White's letter writing tradition, many letters and rallies were made. But once again, the park service was not denied. Fannie lost her battle to reclaim her husband's dignity and rumors of her excessive drinking began to emerge. To make it worse, the Park Service insisted that the words "discoverer" and "first explorer" be removed from future book covers. (70) Not long after the insistence of a title change on Jim's book, the Park Service included other changes to the book they wanted made. The resulting work entitled Jim White's Story of Carlsbad Caverns was printed around the early 1950's after a steady trade of letters and debates. A watered down and modern version of the book, Fannie took this book's sales with a grain of salt.

Fannie continued to sell Jim's book from a booth near the elevators in the underground lunchroom. Jim's original guano bucket hung prominently above her. (71) Without fail, she reported her earnings which were recorded in the "Superintendent's Monthly Reports" although sometimes she forgot to pay the franchise fee. (72) Visitors would recount to her the time they had a copy of the book autographed by Jim White himself and Fannie would grin with delight proud of the man with who she spent 34 years of her life. (73) But life goes on and Fannie married Virgil G. Barron some years later. (74)

In 1959, the Park Service placed a plaque dedicated to the memory of Jim White in the cavern's visitor center and Fannie was once again delighted that her husband was being remembered. (75) She stared at the small monument perhaps wanting it to be larger, perhaps wishing Jim could see it. But, neither wish could be granted and Fannie would walk away solemnly.

The day Fannie saw a 14 year old boy rope a chicken for practice, the day she saw him return bloody and bruised from building the trail, the day Fannie saw Jim beam with pride when his son was born, the day she saw Jim smile because the visitors were coming, and the day Fannie saw him cry when no one cared were all the days that would define Fannie White- a childhood sweetheart, a supporter, a mother, a lover, and a wife. These are all of the roles women typically play. A role that was played until her death on October 26, 1964. (76) Fannie was laid to rest forever beside Jim in a cemetery in Carlsbad. (77) "The concession permit issued in 1948 for 20 years or for Mrs. White's lifetime, was automatically terminated with death." (78) For eternity, Jim and Fannie will be remembered in the struggle for the good of the cavern.

No matter what tilts were put on any story of the White's, the fact that they were part of the story includes them in history. When Jim White died he knew of about 19 of the now 30 miles of passage in the cavern. Without the exploring efforts of Jim White, Carlsbad Caverns may never have been known as the national treasure that it is today. Without Jim White, Fannie's role in the history of Carlsbad Caverns National Park would have been left unplayed. Jim White is praised for his fortitude, for being a man descent and good. But the age old and sometimes scoffed at saying rings true for the epic story of Jim and Fannie- behind every good man there really is a good woman.

Bibliography for "Behind a Good Man is a Good Woman: the Story of Fannie White"

(1) Meador, Tom. "Carlsbad Caverns And Jim White: A History."
Carlsbad Caverns Archives, 1984.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. U. S. A. 1957, pg. 27-28.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Nymeyer, Robert and William R. Halliday, M. D. Carlsbad
Cavern: The Early Years
. Carlsbad, New Mexico, Carlsbad
Caverns- Guadalupe Mountains Association, 1991, pg. 36.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid. pg. 34-35.
(8) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York, 1966, pg. 71.
(9) Ibid. pg. 78.
(10) Denny, Jeff. "The Developing Legend Of Jim White: An
Attempt To Discover The Real Explorer Of Carlsbad Caverns." Carlsbad Caverns Archives, 1992, pg. 16.
(11) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 79.
(12) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 28.
(13) Meador, Tom. "Carlsbad Caverns And Jim White: A History."
(14) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 28.
(15) Ibid. pg. 27.
(16) Hoff, Bob. "History Leads And Resources 94-14." Carlsbad
Caverns Archives, September 2, 1994.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 29.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid. pg. 28.
(21) Ibid. pg. 27.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 78.
(25) Nymeyer, Robert and William R. Halliday, M. D. Carlsbad
Cavern: The Early Years.
pg. 41.
(26) Sutherland, Mason. "Carlsbad Caverns In Color." National
Geographic Magazine
. October, 1953, pg. 438.
(27) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 99.
(28) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 51
(29) Ibid. pg. 15.
(30) Ibid. pg. 28.
(31) Ibid. pg. 33-35.
(32) Nymeyer, Robert and William R. Halliday, M. D. Carlsbad
Cavern: The Early Years
. pg. 41.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Sutherland, Mason. "Carlsbad Caverns In Color." pg. 438.
(35) Ibid.
(36) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 90.
(37) Ibid. pg. 91.
(38) Ibid. pg. 90-91.
(39) Ibid. pg. 93.
(40) Ibid.
(41) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 39.
(42) Ibid. pg. 31.
(43) Ibid. pg. 29.
(44) Ibid. pg. 35.
(45) Ibid. pg. 31.
(46) Ibid. pg. 50.
(47) Ibid.
(48) Meador, Tom. "Carlsbad Cavern And Jim White: A History."
(49) Ibid.
(50) Ibid.
(51) Meador, Tom. Carlsbad Caverns Archives Collection.
(52) Meador, Tom. Letter from Fannie White to Stephen Mather,
February 13, 1926.
(53) Meador, Tom. Letter from McIlvain to Stephen Mather,
February 19, 1926.
(54) Meador, Tom. Letter from Fannie White to Stephen Mather,
May 18, 1927.
(55) Meador, Tom. Letter from A. E. Demarey to Tom Boles,
July 11, 1927.
(56) Nymeyer, Robert and William R. Halliday, M. D. Carlsbad
Cavern: The Early Years.
pg. 91.
(57) Denny, Jeff. "The Developing Legend Of Jim White: An Attempt To Discover The Real Explorer Of Carlsbad Caverns."
pg. 24.
(58) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 54.
(59) Ibid. pg. 55.
(60) Ibid. pg. 55-71.
(61) Ibid. pg. 80.
(62) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 121.
(63) Denny, Jeff. "The Developing Legend Of Jim White: An
Attempt To Discover The Real Explorer Of Carlsbad Caverns."
pg. 27.
(64) Ibid.
(65) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 86.
(66) Ibid. pg. 87.
(67) Ibid. pg. 89.
(68) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 122.
(69) Hoff, Bob. "History Leads And Resources 94-14" Carlsbad Caverns Archives, September 2, 1994.
(70) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 101.
(71) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 122.
(72) "Superintendent's Monthly Reports." Carlsbad Caverns Archives, June 6, 1952, pg. 2.
(73) Caiar, Ruth. One Man's Dream. pg. 88.
(74) "Fannie White Barron Dies." Carlsbad Current Argus.
Tom Meador scrapbook, Carlsbad Caverns Archives,
October 26, 1964.
(75) Robison, Mabel Otis. The Hole In The Mountain. pg. 123.
(76) Hoff, Bob. "History Leads And Resources." Carlsbad Caverns
Archives, October 25, 1994.
(77) Ibid.
(78) Ibid. November 10, 1964, pg. 6.