Ella Rhoads-Higginson was born in Council Grove, Kansas in 1861, but moved with her parents to Portland, Oregon when she very young. Her youth was spent in Oregon City and Portland, but after marrying Russell HIgginson in 1885, the couple moved to the small town of Sehome, Whatcom County, Washington Territory in 1888, just one year before the territory was admitted to the Union as the 42nd state. Russell, an aspiring businessman, promptly opened a drug store on Elk St. (now State St.). Meanwhile, Ella pursued her aspirations of being a writer, with a good deal of success, her poems and stories being published in such nationally circulated journals as Collier’s, Harper’s Monthly, and McClure’s magazine. The work for which she is best known, however – the Poem, “Four-Leafed Clover” was published in 1890.
In short, Ella made good, and by the turn of the century she had already achieved national notoriety. Meanwhile, she was very active in the civic sphere, especially in regard to women’s rights and various issues affecting women, in addition to being a member of several local clubs and societies. She also worked to establish Bellingham’s first public library, thus bringing the gift of literature within the reach of everyone, rich or poor.
In 1931, Washington State Governor Roland Hartley appointed her state Poet Laureate, yet, paradoxically it was not long after this that her popularity began to wane. WWU English professor Laura Laffrado, who is presently is researching the life and works of Higginson stated in the Bellingham Herald that “at the beginning of the 20th century, she was the great Ella Higginson…By 1940 [the year of her death] she is forgotten entirely.”
I myself have come to the understanding in recent years that Higginson, once a badge of pride for Bellingham, has been mostly forgotten. While it’s possible to quibble endlessly about the reasons for this, I surmise that HIgginson’s fall from notoriety seems to coincide with the waning popularity of poetry, in general, as an art form and entertainment, which in turn coincides with the rise of more passive forms of entertainment – first the radio, then the cinema and television, and later…well, I hardly need expound on the passive distractions available to the average person, today, while the lyrics of popular songs – many of them abysmal or incomprehensible at best – approximate the “poetry” of the day. Prior to these diversions, however, poetry as literature was highly prized as a means to entertain, to englighten, to tell stories and educate. Rural families, largely confined to the house during much of the long winter, where Whittier’s “red logs beat the frost line back with tropic heat,” would read poetry aloud to each other, as well as to themselves…and the magazines and books that could be had in those times were much prized. As for the poets of the day, some of them assumed a stature more akin to what we think of as “rock stars,” and less like the bookish “nerds” that a part of our “modern” culture now derides.
I digress, however. I return again to the simple fact of the matter: once a famed and honored writer and poet, Bellingham has largely forgotten who Ella Higginson was (heaven forbid Baltimore do the same with Poe!). Thus I was gratified to see that Laura Laffrado at WWU is researching the works and life of Ella Higginson, in the hope of bringing her writings back into the public eye…and the hope of seeing a statue honoring her erected.
“Onward!” says I; it can only do us good to connect with the past that is our heritage, here in Bellingham, Washington.
FOR FURTHER READING: