An Innate Drive
Ella Rhoads Higginson was always reluctant to tell her age, but most biographers agree that she was born in 1861 or 1862 in Council Grove, Kansas, to Charles (1821-1881) and Mary (1826-1898) Rhoads. She was the youngest of six children, though by the time she was born only two of her siblings (a much older sister and brother) were still alive. When she was a toddler, the Rhoads immigrated to eastern Oregon and lived in La Grande and in the Grande Ronde Valley. In 1870 the family moved to western Oregon, where they lived in Portland and on a farm on the Willamette River south of the city before settling in Oregon City.
Young Ella had an innate drive to write even in her earliest years. Though her public education -- even by the lax standards for girls in those days -- was very basic, that didn't stop her. One story says that she wrote her first poem at age 8, only to be dissuaded by her mocking brother from trying again for another few years. But she did try again, and when she was 14 her first published poem appeared in the Oregon City Enterprise. (Historian Dorothy Koert notes that the editor of the paper was Rhoads's Sunday school teacher, which may have helped.) It was a short, simple poem that told of faded romance:
Ten years have flown since we sat there alone.
In our hearts' sweet summertime
But I'll never forget or cease to regret
Those days of rapture sublime.
Learning to Fly
When she was 16 she was hired by the Enterprise, where she learned everything from typesetting to editorial writing. Her writing bloomed. What she hadn't learned in school she now learned by reading and analyzing other writings. She began writing short stories under the pen names Ann Lester and Etheline Ray for Portland-area newspapers. She wasn't paid for these early works, but they gave her a wealth of experience, which served her well later.
It was during her years at the Enterprise that she met her husband-to-be, Russell Higginson (1852-1909). A Portland pharmacist, Higginson was smitten with the budding muse. By this time in her early 20s, Ella Rhoads was likewise attracted to the earnest, worldly Higginson. And there was something more: Unlike many men she had met, he was willing to give her the freedom she craved to pursue her writing. They were married in 1885 and lived in Portland for a year before moving to La Grande. There she helped her husband in his pharmacy and wrote in her free time, now using her own name. Her years of effort began to pay off. She received her first check in February 1888 when The Youth's Companion, a children's magazine, paid her $20 (a respectable sum in those days) to publish her short story, "Only a Dose of Salts."
In 1888 the Higginsons relocated to Washington and settled in the town of Sehome (later Bellingham). Russell Higginson opened a pharmacy (he eventually expanded to at least three stores) and Ella kept writing. In the winter of 1889 Collier's Once a Week (subsequently shortened to Collier's) published her sonnet, "Winter on Puget Sound," and shortly after, the popular magazine Harper's published another of her poems. She was thrilled. As she explained to her husband, "I never dreamed that anyone paid for such foolish stuff as poetry ... perhaps this is the most genuine happiness I'll ever receive" (The Lyric Singer, 40). She could not have been more wrong.
It wasn't long before she found out how wrong, because 1890 marked a turning point in her life. She moved into a house on High Street that would be her beloved home for the next 50 years. More significantly, that spring she wrote "Four-Leaf Clover," which would eventually become her best-known work. She later said that she wrote it "on one of the heaviest-hearted days of my life" ("Ella Higginson's Four-Leaf Clover,") in an orchard along Elm Street in Sehome (later State Street in Bellingham), next to the village post office.
Fame didn't come right away. The poem was published by Portland's West Shore magazine that year and was well received, but it would be more accurate to say that it helped cement Higginson's place on the national literary stage a few years later rather than being the work that launched her into the spotlight. Over the years it was made into a song by several different composers (a 1940 obituary named two: Leila M. Brownell and C. Whitney Coombs) and for decades it was the official song of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs, an alliance of local women's clubs.
The poem follows:
I know a place where the sun is like gold,
And the cherry blooms burst with snow,
And down underneath is the loveliest nook,
Where the four-leaf clovers grow.
One leaf is for hope, and one is for faith,
And one is for love, you know,
And God put another in for luck --
If you search, you will find where they grow.
But you must have hope, and you must have faith,
You must love and be strong -- and so --
If you work, if you wait, you will find the place
Where the four-leaf clovers grow.
One of her obituaries said that Higginson believed the four-leaf clover had a spirit. "If you step on it, it goes down flat," she explained, "but just glance over your shoulder and you will see it lifting its head serenely" ("Ella Higginson, Poet Laureate ..."). She clearly felt a spiritual connection to the clover, and fought valiantly but unsuccessfully in 1892 and 1893 to have it named Washington's state flower.
Historians have commented that Higginson had her "low moments" (The Lyric Singer, 52) and was "given to sudden quicksilver moods" (The Fourth Corner, 227). Reading of her occasional outbursts, one wonders if she would have been diagnosed with some form of depression had she lived in the twenty-first century. She was keenly observant of the people she encountered, and was often dismayed by what she viewed as their superficiality and hypocrisy. This sentiment found its way into her stories. She has been described as a reserved woman, but with many friends. She was proud of her work but reluctant to be seen as bragging about it, and she typically turned down offers to speak publicly.
In 1894 Higginson won a writing contest sponsored by McClure's with her submission of the short story "The Takin' In of Old Mis' Lane," which appeared in the magazine that December. The $500 prize (more than $13,000 in 2015 dollars) thrilled Higginson, but even more thrilling was the national attention it brought. A review by the New Orleans Picayune called it "the perfect model for a short story" (The Lyric Singer, 68). Suddenly the possibilities seemed endless. She sold short stories to some of the big-name magazines and newspapers of the day, such as McClure's, Lippincott's, and Leslie's Weekly. On a more local note, she began writing a literary column for the Sunday Seattle Times in 1900 titled "Clover Leaves." The column ran sporadically for about four years.
By this time she was also writing books. Her first book, A Bunch of Western Clover, was released in 1894 and consisted of a collection of some of her better poems. The Flower that Grew in the Sand, a compilation of many of her short stories that had been published in magazines, came out in 1896. This book is considered by many to be Higginson's first "real" book, and it certainly generated more national buzz than had her book of poetry two years earlier. It was republished in 1897 under the title From the Land of the Snow Pearls: Tales from Puget Sound. That year A Forest Orchard and The Snow Pearls (another book of poetry) were also published.
Mariella and Alaska
In 1902 her first (and as it turned out, only) novel, Mariella of Out West, was published. It was a pioneer romance, set in a fictional Puget Sound village in the 1880s that resembled the village of Whatcom. The plot is a sentimental and at times melodramatic (a popular writing style at the turn of the twentieth century) tale of a woman in love with two different men -- one a wealthy gentleman of leisure, the other a poor farmer. But it goes deeper than that, detailing the protagonist's struggle that many poor and uneducated Western pioneers dealt with in the late nineteenth century -- not just in trying to survive and prosper, but also in dealing with the newly rich as well as recent arrivals from the East Coast, many of whom had an inflated sense of self-worth that they tried to impress upon already-established pioneers.
The book was not without controversy. Many Whatcom-area residents thought they saw themselves in the book. One neighbor said "Mrs. Higginson used her friends in her stories, often making them recognizable, but putting strange dialect forms of speech in her characterizations of them, which turned them into enemies" (The Lyric Singer, 226). Higginson denied having any particular individual in mind when she wrote the book, but instead claimed that she incorporated the characteristics and personalities of several persons into her characters.
Higginson had another book of poems, The Voice of April-Land, published in 1903, and she kept writing short stories for various magazines. However, by the mid-1900s her focus was changing. During the second half of the decade she took four summer trips to Alaska, which resulted in her travel book, Alaska: The Great Country. Written in the vivid, colorful style that was Higginson's trademark, the book incorporates her experiences of what she saw and felt, along with the area's history and geography. It was first published by New York's MacMillan Company (the same publisher that published most of Higginson's books) in November 1908.
Higginson took a different, and unusual, turn in 1912 when she managed Frances Axtell's (1866-1953) political campaign for Washington's House of Representatives. The effort succeeded: That November Axtell became one of the first two women elected to serve in the Washington State Legislature, only two years after women had received the right to vote in the state. This seems to have been Higginson's only dalliance with politics, and it was more of a reflection of her support of women's issues of the day and of women generally than a desire on her part to become politically active.
She kept writing through the 1910s, but her pace slowed as the decade advanced. Her last book of poems, The Vanishing Race, was published in 1911; one of her last significant magazine publications came in Collier's in 1914 with her story "The Message of Anne Laura Sweet."
Little is written of Higginson's last two decades, the 1920s and 1930s. She unsuccessfully tried her hand at writing plays for the new medium, movies, during the 1920s. But her output continued to dwindle. Lucile McDonald (1898-1992) wrote in 1964 that "illness ended Mrs. Higginson's writing career" ("Ella Higginson's Four-Leaf Clover"), but offered no additional information. Other biographies give scant coverage to her illness.
Still, there were bright moments. One came in June 1931 when she was named Washington's first poet laureate by the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs. It was an honorary title (Washington didn't have an official position for poet laureate until 2007), but one that was appropriate in its timing, because by the 1930s some of Higginson's works were disappearing from print. The honor of being named the state's first poet laureate and the additional publicity that it generated helped secure her place in Washington history.
Higginson lived her last years in near seclusion. During 1940 her health markedly declined; the few accounts that discuss the particulars suggest it was heart failure. She died on December 27, 1940, at her home in Bellingham, having had 10 books and countless poems and short stories published during her lifetime. Though not a well-remembered writer today, she nevertheless made a sizeable -- and valuable -- contribution in her time.