The Girl Detective Who Haunts Potter CountyJul 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Judith Sornberger
Summertime, and the reading was easy (even in the steamy Nebraska heat) for a ten-year-old girl sprawled across an old armchair in the cool of her home’s unfinished basement. I’d recently received a treasure trove of books handed down by my paternal aunts. They were mostly Nancy Drew mysteries, but also some featuring a less well-known, but equally spunky, girl detective—Judy Bolton. All summer I shadowed these adventurous girls as they solved mysteries and righted wrongs. How thrilled I’d have been to learn that one day I’d live only an hour’s drive from where Margaret Sutton, author of the Judy Bolton books, grew up, basing the fictional town of Farringdon on her true girlhood home of Coudersport. Little did I know that one day I’d follow clues provided by her many enthusiastic fans to places, houses, and objects, hoping to further flesh out not only the girl-sleuth, but also her creator, Margaret Sutton (neé Rachel Beebe).
Nancy Drew was the privileged and glamorous only child of a well-off attorney. Her mother had passed away, and their black housekeeper Hannah filled in somewhat as a mother figure. There was affection between the two, but even as a ten-year-old, I knew what it meant that the housekeeper called the girl “Miss Nancy,” while Nancy simply called her “Hannah.” Although too young to drive myself, I envied Nancy her blue convertible sports coupe and rode along with her as she followed clues to their surprising conclusions.
But Judy Bolton seemed more like someone who could be my friend. She lived in a two-parent family like mine along with a sibling (a brother, though I had two sisters). And we shared the name Judy. Although her dad was a doctor, Judy didn’t have access to the unlimited frocks and fancy wheels that Nancy had. And there were no servants. Judy generally got from place to place by walking, riding her grandfather’s colt, or being driven by friends (or, in one case, by a kidnapper). Like her, nobody would be buying me a car of any kind once I had my driver’s license. I’d be lucky to borrow my family’s Ford station wagon.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Rachel Beebe was born in 1903 in Odin, Pennsylvania (about eight miles south of Coudersport), referred to as Dry Brook Hollow in the Judy Bolton books. Her father, Victor Beebe, was a carpenter, musician, and historian who wrote a History of Potter County. Her mother, Estella Andrews Beebe, loved to tell stories, so it isn’t hard to fathom where the young girl got her love of history and literature. The family moved to Coudersport when Rachel was nine. As a child, she had an imaginary playmate who later became the character of Melissa Smeed, and later yet was renamed Judy Bolton.
Dave Costano, president of the Potter County Historical Society, noted that Sutton was “way ahead of her time as far as a woman thinking independently.” In those days the area was “growing by leaps and bounds,” with lots of industry, including a clothespin factory, a silk mill, Anchor Toys, a basket factory, and furniture manufacturing. Rachel “saw a lot of single women in industrial settings working for low wages” and realized that, even with a high school diploma, “she wouldn’t be able to move up.” Becoming a teacher, like her two maiden aunts, was out of the question since, in those days, it would mean she could never marry or have a family (most school districts forbade female teachers from getting married). So, Rachel quit school at sixteen and earned a degree at Rochester Business Institute, later working as a stenographer and then in a print shop.
In 1924, Rachel married widower William Sutton, who had a six-year-old daughter named Dorothy. The Judy Bolton books were born as stories Rachel told Dorothy and later recorded in writing. (The couple would eventually have five more children.)
In 1932, when Grosset & Dunlap purchased the first four “Melissa of Dry Brook Hollow” stories (all dedicated to Dorothy), they became the Judy Bolton books. Not only did her publisher change her young heroine’s name to Judy, but they also insisted on the author taking on the name “Margaret,” since they felt that “Rachel” was unsophisticated. The author’s daughter, Lindsay Stroh, has suggested the real reason was that the name Rachel sounded Jewish, and there was a lot of anti-Semitism in those days. From then on, except to her family, she was known as Margaret.
What’s a Nice Sleuth like You Doing in a Place like This?
The Judy Bolton series (thirty-eight volumes published between 1932 and 1967) was the longest-running girls’ series written by a single author, earning over $5 million. Steve Green, the affable CEO and president of the Eliot Ness Museum in Coudersport, was generous and enthusiastic about introducing me to many sites and sources related to Margaret’s life and writing career. He met me at the museum.
Why, you might ask, would I find Judy Bolton clues at the Eliot Ness Museum? Steve explained that they were “two detectives of yesteryear,” which is why he found the pairing appropriate, albeit “one real and one fictional.” Like Ness, Judy “brought gritty determination to her work, while reflecting concern about social issues and sensitivity to members of differing socioeconomic classes and cultures.”
Steve’s mother, the late Marjorie Green, created the museum exhibit consisting of early editions of the novels, with drawings Margaret had made to help give her ideas for her books, and several photos of the author. In a charming one from The Potter Enterprise in 1962, Margaret signed a book for an adoring young fan, Jane Heimel (Metzger), as her mother Barb Heimel looked on. In the article accompanying the photo, eleven-year-old Jane is quoted as saying, “It was so exciting… She isn’t at all what I expected. I thought authors were, oh, I don’t know—stuck up, I guess. She was so nice!” The Society of Phantom Friends, a group of Judy Bolton fans, added to the exhibit with the publication of the detailed and informative book A Guide to Judy Bolton Country.
The Case of the Vanishing Girl
I followed Steve’s car from the museum to 202 Mill Street, the enormous brick, turreted, and towered structure locals call the Judge Lewis Mansion. The mansion, built in 1889 and remodeled in 1900 by Judge Lewis for his bride, is set on 2.8 acres and boasts six bedrooms, six fireplaces, a ballroom, and a guest house. In the Judy Bolton series, it’s known as the Farringdon-Pett house.
We initially hear of the Farringdon-Pett house in that first book, The Vanishing Shadow, when fifteen-year-old Judy makes friends with Arthur and Lois, whose family lives there. Unlike characters in other series, the protagonist and her friends in the Judy Bolton mysteries age throughout books. We see Judy grow from a young teenager to a married woman of twenty-one. The mansion is the setting for the double wedding ceremony for Judy and Peter and their friends Arthur and Lorraine in The Rainbow Riddle (1946).
As I stopped to take a photo, I met a young woman and her daughter. She and her husband had recently bought the property and are planning to run an Airbnb there.
The Mystery of the Missing Headstone
Our next stop was the Homer Cemetery where the author was buried in 2001. It was a sunny spring afternoon, and our drive to Inez was on roads curving through mountains budding bright green. I’d heard the grave could be found at the top of the steep hill near a stone bench. I began feeling like a true detective when, after climbing to the top and discovering several Beebe monuments, I found no marker for the author. Hmmm. Then I spotted some writing etched into the base holding up the stone bench and got down on my knees to read: “In Loving Memory of Margaret Sutton Hunting, Born Rachel Beebe.” Margaret’s husband, William Sutton, had died in 1965, and ten years later she married Everett Hunting, thus the name on the marker. Her daughter Lindsay remembered walking up to the Beebe graves one day with her mother, who later left a note, reading: “This is such a steep walk. There should be a bench where people can rest.” That was how the bench, carved with “Come Rest Yourself ” became her monument.
It was a lovely spot overlooking the valley, and I would have enjoyed spending the rest of the afternoon there, reading—what else—a Judy Bolton mystery. But Steve promised more adventure ahead at the Southwoods Farm Nature Preserve, also in Inez.
Killing Three Clues with One Stop
As a girl, the author frequently visited her schoolteacher aunts Gladys and Marjorie at their home in Inez. We stopped at the beaver pond across the road from their house, the inspiration for The Puzzle in the Pond. While the original beaver dam is long gone, Steve pointed out an active dam, assuring me there have been many generations of beavers building dams there since Margaret’s visits.
Today Steve makes his home in the schoolteachers’ house and, with the air of one unveiling valuable clues, showed me around. A variety of treasures and artifacts were on display, museum-like, including drawings by his artist-mother and framed pressed flowers original to the house. Right off the living room and an enormous stack of firewood was the staircase believed to be the one in The Black Cat’s Clue, featuring Judy’s cat Blackberry (the cat’s fourth appearance in the series). Steve’s long-haired gray cat Smoky obligingly posed for us there. After climbing the famous staircase, Steve showed me his late mother’s room, kept just as if she still slept there, and at the foot of the bed, a trunk that “might have been” the one in The Forbidden Chest. It is certainly of the same vintage.
Judy and the Austin Dam Tragedy
No trip to Judy Bolton country would be complete without a visit to the ruins of the Austin Dam, the site at the heart of her first mystery. The largest of its kind in Pennsylvania at the time, the dam was built across the Freeman Run Valley in 1909 to provide a steady stream of water for the Bayless Pulp and Paper Mill. Designed to be thirty feet thick, with an underground concrete slab to prevent water seepage, the finished dam was only twenty feet thick and, because it was deemed too expensive by the paper mill, didn’t include an underground slab.
The dam burst in 1911, killing seventy-eight people and destroying the paper mill, as well as much of Austin. It is said that the madam of the town brothel saw the water coming and was able to send out a warning that saved many lives.
In The Vanishing Shadow, Judy discovers the construction flaws of the dam (called the Roulsville Dam in the novel). She overhears some men who are working on the dam—one threatening another to keep his mouth shut “about the dam…and about the pit.” Being a girl with a strong sense of responsibility, she realizes: “Some sinister plot was undoubtedly hinged on those words.” Since Judy and her friend Edna are the only ones who hear them, it is their duty to see that the plot is foiled. But how? After the threatening man realizes she has overheard, he tries to bribe her with a string of pearls, but Judy scoffs at him, saying, “I don’t accept bribes from you or anyone.” As the dam begins to fail, her brother, Horace, rides a colt through the town of Roulsville, Paul Revere-style, warning the citizens, and there is only one death—that of the paper mill owner. Later, “Judy seated herself beside the tree and turned the pages absently. Her own adventures that day had been as exceptional as any of her book heroine’s and she wondered, with an apprehensive shudder, what might happen next.”
As I looked down from the highway over the dam’s ruins—like an ancient, half-toppled castle—it occurred to me that it must have been tremendously satisfying for Margaret to posthumously “save” the town of Austin. Today, the town’s historical society contains artifacts pertaining to the fictional girl, including a bow tie quilt that appeared in The Clue in the Patchwork Quilt.
The Austin Dam area is now a park memorializing the disaster with a marker naming the flood’s victims. There are hiking trails, and the lushly forested park offers eco-friendly camping, picnicking, fishing, and in August the return of a music festival. (Find out more about the park and its offerings at austindam.mailchimpsites.com.)
Visiting an Old Friend
The Coudersport Library, founded in 1850, prides itself on being one of the oldest public libraries in the nation. Inside, it’s redolent of the scents of old pages and bookbinding paste. As I entered, those familiar fragrances plummeted me back into my youth, visiting our public library with my mother and sisters. The Benson Library in Omaha was situated in an old church, and in the summertime the lights were kept low to preserve the coolness provided by a rattling window air conditioner. I always left with girls’ series books—more Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton, and the Campfire Girls books. I also snagged a few Cherry Ames books. The series was about a nurse, and later inspired me to become a candy striper the summer I was fourteen.
Library Director Teri McDowell greeted me, handing me a packet of photocopied articles about the author and her protagonist. A former journalist herself, she knew what I might find most helpful. I wondered how many times Margaret herself (still Rachel in those days) visited the library and felt the same anticipation I did carting home an armful of books that promised hours of delicious reading.
Although the Coudersport Library has a large collection of Judy Bolton books in early editions, they are not left out in general circulation, and patrons need to ask for them. Otherwise, the books are so valuable they might “just walk out the door.” Teri discovered the series as a journalist covering Margaret Sutton events, and now she is hooked. Recently, her son called from a large book sale and asked if she wanted a complete set of the books offered at a remarkably low price for her personal library. Did she?! When asked why she thinks adults still enjoy the books, she said, “People like to go back to them, like visiting an old friend.”
Teri pulled out some of the older editions with original book jackets illustrated by Pelagie Doane. She also showed me photographs of Victor Beebe, Margaret’s grandmother, two aunts, and one of the young Margaret as a flapper in a large-format book titled Moments in Time: A Pictorial History of Potter County. The author? Teri McDowell.
The Plots Widen
When I interviewed Margaret’s daughter Lindsay, her pride in her mother, not only as an author, but also as a proponent of social justice, was obvious. Her mother marched along with Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington in 1963, she said, and she remembered her mother going to a reservation to do research for her 1951 novel The Spirit of Fog Island. Margaret had come home and cried and cried. The conditions under which the people lived on the reservation “broke her heart.” In the novel, the first to take place entirely outside Pennsylvania, Judy befriends a Native American girl and works with her to protect her people’s land. Judy’s compassion and activism came long before concern for Native Americans was widespread.
The same could be said of Margaret’s 1966 novel, The Search for the Glowing Hand, in which Judy tries to help Muslims who are facing prejudicial treatment and threats. I was fourteen that year and considered myself too old for girls’ mysteries, but if I had known that Judy was moving in this direction, I would’ve been intrigued.
I also would have been proud of Judy’s behavior toward girls who were less well-off than she was. In her newsletter/blogpost “The Case of the Neglected Girl Sleuth: Margaret Sutton’s Judy Bolton,” Sally E. Perry writes about Judy’s befriending the seventeen-year-old Irene in Seven Strange Clues. Because she must work by day in a silk mill to support herself and her disabled father, Irene attends an industrial school at night. Judy is sensitive to the ways working in a mill, studying at night, and worry for her father make Irene look and feel older than her years. Parry writes: “As Judy becomes more sensitive to the concerns of her millworker friends, she solves several mysteries related to their problems. Poor housing, unsafe conditions at work, and fear of unemployment seem to haunt them.”
Now that I know Judy better, I wish that when I taught “Women of Mystery” for the Women’s Studies Program at Mansfield University I had assigned one of the Sutton books as a text, rather than Nancy Drew. Or perhaps in addition to her. Judy definitely espoused all the virtues of a feminist—one who believes in equal rights for everyone. And what fun it would have been for us to take a road trip to visit some of the sites where Margaret Sutton set her stories.
The last Judy Bolton novel was published in 1967, but Applegate books has reprinted them, and all thirty-eight are available in paperback. The stories don’t end there, though. Check out judybolton.com, where you can learn all about the upcoming Judy Bolton Weekend (October 6 to 8) in Coudersport, featuring a tour for Judy Bolton fans, a book signing with Lindsay Stroh of Letters to Live By (a children’s book co-written by Margaret and two of her daughters), visits to the Eliot Ness Museum and the Potter County Historical Society, and an awards ceremony for winners of the 2022 Margaret Sutton Writing Contest for Potter County.