In 1872, Yellowstone became the nation’s – the world’s – first national park. The concept was so new, Congress had no idea what to do with the park once it was established. For twenty years, people continued to exploit and destroy the features that Washington tried to protect, because there was no one who would protect them. The army was finally called in in the 1880’s to protect the thermal features and the animals. In 1916, the National Park Service was established, and the army handed over control of the park in 1918.
Although women married to National Park Service personnel had assisted their husbands for years as unpaid help (like the military, it came with the territory), the first woman to be “officially” employed by a park was a California school teacher by the name of Claire Marie Hodges. She worked as a seasonal naturalist, and was soon followed by two more women, one of whom would make history in her own right.
Born on October 2, 1901 at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, Jane Marguerite Lindsley was destined to help shape the park’s history. She grew up during Yellowstone’s “old army days,” to cannons booming at sunrise and sunset, and yellow stagecoaches pulled by teams of mules taking visitors along the bumpy roads in the park. Always adventurous and daring, Marguerite remembered that her most memorable escapade as a youngster was the thrill of trying to stay on a runaway Indian pony.
Because there was no school at Mammoth for the children of army officers and park employees, she was homeschooled by her mother though the eighth grade. At fourteen, she entered prep school at Montana State College, and finished high school in three years. She continued her studies there and she took four years of pre-med work, majoring in bacteriology.
Marguerite spent her school breaks in Yellowstone, but the summer between her junior and senior year in college was very different. She was going to work as a ranger and get paid for explaining the wonders of Yellowstone to park visitors. In June of 1921, newspapers around the country reported that Miss Marguerite Lindsley had been chosen to teach tourists about Yellowstone, but more importantly that she had been awarded the official title of National Park Ranger. Two other women had been awarded the title previously, but Marguerite would become the first woman, three years later, to attain a full-time ranger position in the park.
She was described as an “honest-to-goodness outdoor girl, and experienced horsewoman, and a master of the technique of camp life,” and did not fit the profile of the average American girl. She herself once remarked that it must have been a mistake that she was not born a boy. “I love the work of the rangers, and if I were a boy, I would make the park service my life’s work. It was born in me, I know it.”
After graduating college, she applied unsuccessfully to medical school in Philadelphia, but was accepted into the Masters Program in Bacteriology. She accepted a position with a research Laboratory, but soon realized that she wanted to return to Yellowstone. “I could almost smell the melting snow and growing things, and feel the thrill of an early morning horseback ride.” So, she returned to Yellowstone, riding her Harley Davidson on a 2600 mile cross-country trip, which she described as “next to the greatest escapade of my life.”
From Harleys to horses, Marguerite made the park her permanent home. One summer, she accompanied “Uncle Howard” Eaton on a three week horseback trip through Yellowstone that included 200 horses and 125 people, 75 of which were tourists. She offered to guide tourists through the Gibbon Paint Pot (now called Artists Paint Pots) area, and broke through the crust of a thermal area where she found herself in boiling clay up to her knee. This experience not only gave her third degree burns, but also the nicknames “Geyser Peg” and “Paint Pot Peg.”
In late December of 1925, she was offered her dream job: the position of permanent ranger. She would assist the park service’s newly formed educational division.
In 1926, however, her dream was nearly shattered. Chief Inspector J.F. Garland, Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior visited the park . His report stated, “We do not believe that a woman is physically suited for the arduous duties of a ranger and that the service, which is already undermanned, suffers by the loss of what a qualified man in her place could perform. It is recommended that women rangers not be employed….”
Lucky for her, Park Superintendent Horace Albright ignored the recommendation.
Ironically, among all this controversy of women rangers, an article was published about Marguerite in the Christian Science Monitor in 1927. “Lady Ranger ‘Makes Good’ in Yellowstone Park Post, Only Girl among 24 men…” While her position was stirring up Washington, her position as “full-fledged park ranger” was making her a celebrity in the news. Obviously impressed by her qualifications as a superb horsewoman, botanist, sometime attendant to orphan antelope, elk, and bear cubs, and all-around outdoor woman, reporters contended that she “fully deserved the commission which had been conferred to her.”
Marguerite was not only adventurous and educated, but she was attractive as well. She had many male admirers throughout the years, most of which she kept under her hat. Literally. The inside of her wide-brimmed ranger hat held the signatures of at least a dozen hopeful suitors. A fellow ranger recalled that she “could marry anybody she wanted. She could marry any of us.” More than likely, all of her male suitors were well aware that marrying Marguerite also meant having the spirit and vitality to keep up with her.
On April 17, 1928, she did marry – Ranger Everett LeRoy (Ben Arnold), who was stationed at Mammoth. She defied the expected conventions of the traditional wedding day in her own signature style when she “dressed in a blue gown and wore a corsage of roses.”
Because she couldn’t keep her full-time position that would allow her to live in the same location in the park as her new husband, she resigned from her position in Mammoth and opted to work only seasonally.
For the next 25 years, the couple lived and worked in Yellowstone. Marguerite died on May 18, 1952. Throughout her more than fifty years of residency in the park, life in Yellowstone never left her at a loss for entertainment and she firmly believed that the park was the “country’s greatest wilderness playground.” For her, it was a place where a young girl’s as well as a woman’s heart, soul, and imagination could all take wing and soar above the conventions of the day.