(Editor’s Note: I have selected some photos from Getty Photos and other sources that help illustrate the story, and may or may not be exactly representations of the people and places mentioned. For example, the above photo is a photo of forested parkland.)
This article is one of an 8-part series about Charlotte Fairbairn, and was written by our patron, John Fairbairn. To read the intro by the editor and see links to the other 7 parts of the story, refer to the Table of Contents page. On to the story—
In 1954, Charlotte Judd Fairbairn became one of the first women in the history of the United States National Park Service to be hired as a uniformed ranger who stayed. Up to then, women who applied had been relegated largely to clerical positions and non-uniformed status. The few who applied for Ranger positions consistently quit within a week. Charlotte insisted in her employment interview that she could do anything any man could do. When the superintendent demurred, she asked him to allow her to prove it.
“Did this gentleman have to do this to get his job?”
He asked her to take a 50-pound fire extinguisher off its hook on the wall and carry it out onto the street. There she was to trigger it and direct it as if fighting a fire. As she walked into the corridor with the superintendent following, Charlotte noticed a man about her height wearing the Ranger’s uniform. Turning around, she asked pointedly, “Did this gentleman have to do this to get his job?” The superintendent’s face turned fiery red with embarrassment, and he shook his head. Charlotte looked him up and down, nodded, and walked on to the fire extinguisher. Grabbing it as she would a mid-sized child, she calmly lifted it enough to clear the hook, walked out into the street, set it down, kicked it over, and began playing the hose from a crouching position as if fighting a fire.
The superintendent walked up behind her, laid a hand gently on her shoulder, and said, “Mrs. Fairbairn, I would be proud and pleased to have you on my staff. You’re hired.” Turning around, he told the male Ranger to return the used extinguisher to its place in the corridor and call maintenance to refill it. The man was unable to lift it by himself. No one ever again told Charlotte that she was ‘incapable’ of doing a man’s job. That is not to say that she did not receive challenges from men who perceived her as being a threat to the male bastion of Park Rangers. However, these always were based on particular situations, never on general fitness for the job. Her reputation preceded her.
She sat on the floor of her living room, literally howling with laughter at the sight of such out-of date clothing.
Charlotte started the following day. After a week, she inquired of the superintendent when she would get her uniform. He called in a clerk and directed her to put in the necessary paperwork. Ten days later, the uniform arrived by Parcel Post. Charlotte brought the package home at the end of the day, and inside found a pair of bloomers, a shift, a middy blouse, an ankle-length, tight-hemmed (Gibson Girl) skirt, a knee-length jacket, high-button shoes, and a corset and bustle. The ladies’ uniform was the one designed in 1897, when the Park Service first came into being. It never had been updated. She sat on the floor of her living room, literally howling with laughter at the sight of such out-of date clothing. When she finally managed to be calm, it was to exclaim, “No wonder no uniformed women rangers exist in the Park Service!”
The following day, Charlotte went to work in civilian clothing. Shortly after starting her day, she received a summons to appear before the superintendent. As she came into his office, he looked up and a frown of disappointment crossed his face. “Mrs. Fairbairn, I expect all my Rangers to be in uniform. You are a Ranger. You received your uniform yesterday. Why are you in civilian clothing?”
She explained the situation. Unexpectedly, he sat back in his chair, looked at her levelly, and said, “I’m sorry. That is the prescribed uniform. If you will not wear it, I will have to discharge you.”
Charlotte thought quickly, and then asked if she might make a telephone call before making up her mind. Somewhat annoyed, he nodded curtly. To his surprise, she reached across the desk, picked up his phone, and called her friend, the State Senator, to whom she briefly described the situation. He asked to speak with the superintendent. She could not hear what the Senator said, but the response was instantaneous. The superintendent thanked the Senator profusely.
Hanging up the phone, the superintendent smiled, rubbed his jaw, and asked if she could sew. When she replied in the affirmative, he nodded. “The Senator tells me you make all your own clothing, and that you have made a number of beautiful outfits of your own design for his wife in the past. Would you be willing to design a uniform for yourself?” Charlotte replied that she would, and asked if she might return home to begin. “Do so, and don’t come back until it is finished. I will give you two weeks. Oh, and bring the pattern you use. I will forward it to the Procurement Quartermaster’s Office so they can order more made for future female employees.”
Charlotte stood before him in a smart, trim uniform, quite similar in style to ones then popular for airline stewardesses.
On the way home, Charlotte stopped at a ladies’ clothier. She purchased two white Lady Manhattan® blouses with round-point Peter Pan collars, some sewing notions, and a pair of new Natural Bridge® walking shoes. At home, she had the Gibson Girl uniform ripped apart by noon and the material stacked. By two in the afternoon, she had a pattern outlined on butcher paper. By three, the pattern was cut out and pinned to the material, and by four the fabric was cut. Then she began sewing. She worked late into the night.The next day, she went to work. Again the summons came. Again she went to the superintendent’s office. As she walked in, he began to speak without first looking up from his paperwork. “Mrs. Fairbairn, I expressly told you not to return out of uniform …” and he stopped, staring in amazement. Charlotte stood before him in a smart, trim uniform, quite similar in style to ones then popular for airline stewardesses. It was the Lady Manhattan blouse, with a short black tie crossed at the throat.
Nylon stockings and simple black low-heel pump shoes covered her lower legs and feet. An A-line, knee-length skirt with a fitted Eisenhower-style field jacket completed the basic ensemble. And to top it off, she wore a Scots Glengarry bonnet with a black ribbon down the back. That still is the ladies’ dress uniform for the U. S. National Park Service.
Charlotte became an invaluable person in that first assignment. She worked a rotation with other rangers of providing reception and interpretive service in the visitor’s center and on various trails in the area. In the process, she provided personalized contact with thousands of people each week. These people came from all walks of life, and from all over the United States, and indeed from many foreign countries.
Many of them commented on her courtesy, and their delight at having the history of Harpers Ferry presented from a perspective other than dry historic facts. She included in her tours such interesting tidbits as the things ladies wore, how to button high-button shoes, why detachable lace ruffs were worn at the cuffs of both men’s and women’s sleeves, and many other such historic inconsequentia that fascinate people when they hear them.
She wrote an entire booklet on the manufacturing history of Virginius Island in the Shenandoah River. This was the place where John Hall had built his Rifle Works that produced guns with interchangeable parts, on the world’s first fully mechanized manufacturing and assembly line. In addition, she was able to accumulate a sizable collection of personal correspondence from Captain Hall, the contents of which she transcribed and made available to the Park Service.
However, her real forte and love was title research. It is Federal law that the U.S. Government can not purchase land that has a disputed title. Between 1956 and 1966, the Park Service was charged with expanding its holdings substantially. Harper’s Ferry National Park was part of that expansion. Every square foot of the land acquired for that and all other parks had to have its title researched and cleared. As a research historian, Charlotte turned out to be a gold mine for the Park Service. She could find ways to trace verifiable ownership of land when no one else could. It was she who discovered that from Colonial days many county clerks and parish clerks had been Scots. Their many hundreds of years of anguish with the English had taught them to keep duplicate copies of official records in day journals at home. By persistence with the families and heirs of these dedicated public servants, she was able to recover entire wooden boxes of duplicate books of data to restore information that county courts had written off as lost forever.
Charlotte became a recognized and accredited expert in transcribing the sometimes almost illegible handwriting of these documents.
In addition, she was able to trace people who had first-hand knowledge of transactions. Many of her live interviews involved very elderly individuals, some of whom had been born before the Civil War and who gave depositions regarding events they observed as children who had accompanied their parents to the land offices of the time. Much of their information would have been lost if there had been delays of months or a few years. Others had private correspondence that validated property transfers. In many cases, individuals turned over crumbling packets of letters and business documents that the families had considered throwing away. Charlotte became a recognized and accredited expert in transcribing the sometimes almost illegible handwriting of these documents. As a result, she was shipped on temporary duty assignments all over the country to do this task in areas where official records were thought completely destroyed. Many of the techniques that she developed to a fine art still are used as common research methods.
Privately, she continued to write, mostly material of a historic nature. She published several articles regarding Captain Hall, his firearm design (the world’s first successful breechloader), and his manufacturing techniques in The Gun Report magazine. In addition, she began writing a historic fiction novel based on Captain Hall’s life.
A couple years after beginning her work for the National Park Service, Charlotte’s elder son entered the U.S. Army and became self-sufficient. Her younger son accompanied his mother on her early travels, sharing and benefiting from the wide variety of places she visited on her temporary assignments.
Eventually, he attended a private boarding school for two years in an attempt to bring some semblance of order to a chaotic school situation. When he reached his junior year in school, he again accompanied her, by now becoming the assistant she had been to her husband. Then in his senior school year, Charlotte was permanently assigned to a site in Eastern Pennsylvania, the location of a Revolutionary War iron foundry.
The following year, he also went into the service, leaving her (for the first time in nearly 30 years) with no one to care for but herself. Charlotte met, and became quite fond of, a retired Corps of Engineers Colonel from the U.S. Army who did consulting work for the Park Service. Shortly after John left home, she accepted his proposal of marriage. In April of 1964, before her beloved children, she wed Edward Parker Crouch, scion of a venerable Charleston SC family whose ancestors originally came from the Inverness district in Scotland. Thus, she continued her life of being a Scottish wife.
Next week, John wraps up Charlotte’s story, including a look into Charlotte’s generous and charitable heart, and how she impacted her friends, neighbors, family and other young women right up until the very end.
Link to “Epilogue” to be published October 31, 2017