Lansing native pens new book about Harriet Hosmer

Availability of book coincides with Mt. Hosmer Challenge for RAGBRAI Saturday in Lansing

by Julie Berg-Raymond

Other books have been written about Harriet Hosmer (October 9, 1830-February 21, 1908) - a neoclassical sculptor considered the most distinguished female sculptor in America during the 19th century, and the woman for whom Mt. Hosmer in Lansing is named.

Most of those books tend to focus solely on Hosmer’s unconventional life and career in the context of a society that observed strict gender norms. If Lansing and the hill named for a woman who spent one afternoon there, early in her life, are mentioned at all, it is most likely as a reference to one interesting event in a long and fascinating life.

But a new book, “Blazing a Trail: The Unconventional Life of Harriet Hosmer,” written by Lansing native and Viroqua, WI-based holistic therapist Barbara Kailean Welsh, takes that one interesting event as its starting point: the sheer improbability of a landmark being named for someone with no connection to the place other than having run to the top of it one June afternoon in 1851, on a lark.

“Just the randomness of that,” as Welsh describes it, was intriguing to her from the start.

According to Welsh, there are actually two stories about the events of that day. Lansing co-founder H.H. Houghton (whose stone house on the hill greets visitors to Lansing) told the version that has become most widely shared - that she decided to “race” to the top of the hill that would, from that day on, be named for her.

Houghton’s business partner, John Haney, Sr., had a daughter (Martha) who told a slightly different version. In that telling, there wasn’t really a race; she just wanted to run up the hill, and asked the boat’s captain how long he would be in port. The captain sent a clerk to accompany her because he feared it might not be safe for a woman; but she was already way ahead of him.

“She practically met him on the way back down,” Welsh notes. “The story is that the clerk … (went) to the home of Houghton’s partner, John Haney, Sr., and asked if the bluff had a name yet; and when they said it didn’t, he asked if it could be named in honor of this unusual young woman traveler - and they said yes.”

Hosmer did hear, many years later, about the fact the hill was named for her. “She was pretty tickled by that,” Welsh says.

Hosmer had come to the Midwest out of a desire to become a sculptor, Welsh says. She wanted to study anatomy, because she knew she would need that training for her work; but she couldn’t get into school back east - the schools didn’t think that was an appropriate subject matter for women.

“She used some connections she had in St. Louis, and was allowed to study with a professor during morning hours,” Welsh says.

She ended up in Lansing because she and a friend decided to take a trip on the Mississippi River.

“Her friend bailed on her pretty quickly,” Welsh says, “but Hosmer continued south to New Orleans, and then headed north.”

For Welsh, the story of that “unusual young woman traveler” resonated on several levels. Welsh had been practicing traditional psychotherapy for some time, and decided it was too limiting. “I’ve been interested in metaphysical and spiritual studies for 30 years,” she says. “There was an element missing in traditional psychotherapy. It only went so far.”

As she was researching and learning about Hosmer and the way she followed her own truth, despite what others said, and despite ridicule or criticism, Welsh says she was going through a similar process.

“I didn’t want to do traditional psychotherapy anymore,” she says. “I felt that I could offer greater healing to people outside the system, but I had so many people tell me that I’d never make it if I stopped taking insurance, that people wouldn't pay out of pocket, or make themselves a priority that way.”
Like Hosmer, Welsh says she had to decide what was right for her - despite cultural expectations, despite financial fears, despite the naysayers.

“People are really good at telling you what ‘will never work',” she says. “Like Harriet, I had to be courageous enough to do what was right for me.”

Sculpture, Welsh notes, was Hosmer’s soul mission, “even though it was a man’s world. Mine is helping people have a greater life experience, even though spirituality doesn’t fit the medical model for psychotherapy and mental health. I had to step outside of the box to do the work that I know I was meant to do.”

“Blazing a Trail: The Unconventional Life of Harriet Hosmer” is due to be published July 28. Copies of the book are expected to be available in Lansing during RAGBRAI’s stop there Saturday, July 29.

Interestingly enough, a “Mt. Hosmer Challenge” - a bicycle ride to the top of the hill - is also being organized for Saturday, July 29, aimed primarily at RAGBRAI riders. Gundersen Health System is sponsoring the Challenge, and a prize will be awarded. For more information about that event call 563-538-9229.

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