Who is the first person that comes to your mind when I mention Yosemite? If it’s Yosemite Sam, then, Class, we’ve got us some book larnin’ to catch up on. Today, we’re not going to talk about the gun slinging, Looney Tunes prospector with the giant, red “moostache”, although I have to admit that would be a fun topic. But, no . . . today we’re going to learn about Clare Marie Hodges, who was best known for being the first female park ranger. It seems that she and Yosemite Sam had absolutely nothing in common, if you don’t count the fact that he had Yosemite in his name and she made a name for herself at Yosemite.
Back in 1890, when Yosemite became a national park, women were pretty much a secondary part of the big cultural picture. It’s fair to surmise that between 1890 and 1918, the most important job women had when it came to Yosemite National Park was to fry up the chicken that went into the picnic baskets.
The first park rangers hit the trails in Yosemite in 1898. The first civilian protection force for Yosemite Nation Park consisted of eleven local men who were assigned to two special agents. Those armed rangers on horseback rode around fighting forest fires, arresting people who brought firearms into the park, and ejecting trespassing sheep. Don’t laugh! Sheep were a big problem. Between June and September of 1898, they redirected 189,000 head of misguided sheep.
During those early years, the job of looking after Yosemite went back and forth between U.S. military troops and civilian rangers. But, no matter who was in charge of patrolling the park, they all had one thing in common . . . a Y chromosome. Yosemite might have remained a male domain for many more decades, were it not for a little something that put the position of “park ranger” in jeopardy. That little something was World War I.
By 1918, the park was experiencing a serious man shortage. The able-bodied men were mostly off fighting the Kaiser. As fate would have it, Clare Marie Hodges had already been working as a teacher at Yosemite Valley School for two years. The California native had fallen in love with Yosemite as a teenager, during a four-day horseback ride in the park . . . alone. She knew that park as well as Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo Bear did! Plus, she was way smarter than the average bear.
Hodges decided that she wanted to fill the obvious need for rangers in the park, and paid a little visit to a man named Washington B. Lewis, the Yosemite Park superintendent. She pulled back her shoulders, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Probably you’ll laugh at me, but I want to be a park ranger.” And, at that moment, something amazing happened. Lewis didn’t laugh. He didn’t snort, chortle, giggle, or guffaw. He didn’t even chuckle. He said, “I beat you to it, young lady. It’s been on my mind for some time to put a woman on one of these patrols.” That was perfect because, for all the fine qualities Clare Marie Hodges had, she didn’t have a Y chromosome. She was woman, hear her roar!
All Dressed Up
Clare always told people that she took the job of “lady ranger” because of her deep love of Mariposa county and the mountains. I have two thoughts on that:
- I love how people just tacked the word “lady” onto the front of any job title. I wonder what the first “lady doctor” thought about that as she pulled bullets out of dying men.
- I’m sure she did take the job because of her love of the mountains, but that outfit she wore had to have offered a little incentive. Okay, maybe that just would have been an incentive for me to take the job. But that hat they gave her was awesome!
Yes, the first fully commissioned lady park ranger saddled up her horse and rode into Yosemite history wearing a snazzy Stetson, an official badge, and a split skirt. I hope she wouldn’t mind me saying that she looked spectacular! Spectacular looking or not, park goers were confused as to what in the world a lady was doing in a park ranger uniform. Maybe she should have worn a sign that said, “Hello. I’m a lady ranger!” Besides the split skirt, there was one other thing that separated her uniform from the other rangers; she refused to carry a gun.
No Gold Watch
You may be asking yourself how long the first female park ranger stayed on the job. Well, she wasn’t on the job long enough to get a gold watch, or whatever the park ranger equivalent is for staying on the job a long time. Clare Marie Hodges wore that Stetson and badge from May 22, 1918 until September 7, 1918. She never intended it to become a permanent career. She just wanted to help out during her summer vacation from teaching school.
Don’t think for one minute that she didn’t really do the work of a park ranger though. She took gate receipts from Tuolomne Meadows to park headquarters. That was an overnight ride. She reported directly to the chief ranger. It wasn’t some publicity stunt.
It was thirty years more before there was another fully commissioned female park ranger. Oh, there were other female park employees, but they were given jobs like collecting fees and waitressing. And, not a one of them got to wear a Stetson! In fact, female park employees didn’t wear the same uniforms as men until the 1970s. What did they wear? I’m glad you asked! They wore pillbox hats and dresses, which were modeled after the flight attendant uniforms of the day.
Clare Marie Hodges went on to marry Peter J. Wolfsen, a stockman who lived near Mariposa. Together, they ranched and worked with a Seventh Day Adventist junior camp. She passed away in 1970, but not without leaving her mark on the area she loved. In fact, The Wolfsen Nature Trail is named after Clare and her husband. That is a claim to fame that neither Yosemite Sam nor Yogi Bear can make.