It was 100 years ago when Alice Gray, an intelligent and free-spirited young woman, responded drastically to society’s rigid conventions: she excused herself completely from its rules and routine. This Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago traded her single, working woman’s life in Chicago for a rougher, yet more thoughtful, existence in the untamed dunes. Quickly dubbed “Diana of the Dunes” by the press, Alice became a legend in her own time.
We thought this week it would be fun to have author, Janet Zenke Edwards, answer our questions as if she were Alice. Janet is an expert on Alice as she has written the book Diana of the Dunes: The True Story of Alice Gray.
What brought you to the dunes?
“I was working in Chicago, making little in the way of money, doing little of importance in the world, it seemed. I had measured myself with the world—and the results were not encouraging. I came here to measure myself with nature.” (As quoted in the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, Aug. 1, 1916)
How long did you live here?
Ten years. I arrived in the Dunes on Oct. 31, 1915. I was 34 years old. I lived alone in a primitive fisherman’s shack, which I named Driftwood. I later moved into another shack with my companion, Paul Wilson; we named it Wren’s Nest. In this home, I died of uremic poisoning in 1925.
What was your favorite thing to do in the area?
My best days were spent exploring the Dunes and writing about them. Unfortunately, my manuscripts did not survive, but here is an excerpt from my diary—I wrote this soon after I took up residence in these sand hills:
“How glorious this outdoor life is—how good life feels and tastes and smells down close to the great elemental things; this blazing fire, with the white brilliance in the west, just one star (Venus or Jupiter?) high up in the southeast, the dull white snow patches in the hollow and on the southern slopes, and the snow-flecks brown of the western slope, and the light gone for writing and the time come for supper.”
Tell us a secret about the dunes
It’s probably not a great secret now, but it was a growing sentiment in my time—and you do need to experience the Dunes firsthand to understand this: there is a mysterious, healing spirit permeating the sand hills that settles into one’s soul and sets right the most windblown and tattered of sails. I felt it almost instantly when I arrived, and it never left me. From my 1915 diary:
“Now, on this cloudy afternoon, as I sit and look over the milky green on the lake between the trees defined at the horizon with something darker than I should not know whether to call greenish or bluish or reddish. I feel sometimes as if I could faint with the rapture of it.”
“I love the great silent darkness up there; the silence that lives in the noise of winds and water, the darkness that finds itself in the fleeting, eternal waves of those reaches of waste sand; the only reality of life for me is there.” (Spoken to a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1916, when he asked if I would ever leave the Dunes and move back to the city.)
Give us your top three “hidden treasures”
a) Driftwood and other lake treasures are both useful and interesting to scavenge. “Everything I have here, this chair, this cap I wear, these tins, are driftwood, drifted in from the lake – I, too, am driftwood.” (As quoted in the Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel, Aug. 1, 1916) And Paul made furniture from large driftwood pieces to make money for us.
b) I loved reading books and studying history. In my time, I was known to frequent the Miller Library, but I also borrowed books from neighbors like Agnes Larson, who lived along my path into town. The first one I borrowed from her was Frances Howe’s French Homestead in the Old Northwest, about the founding family of Baillytown. If you’re curious, as I was, about Dunes area history, visit the Westchester Township History Museum. (And in case you have more questions about me, they know my story quite well.)
c) The night sky is wondrous. I worked for two years at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and had long been fascinated by the stars. On a clear night, you can see much of the heavens from the top of a dune!
What would you like to teach people about the dunes?
I studied the geological history of the Dunes, and the flora of Dune Country. I spoke about their importance and advocated for their preservation. Through my writings, I had hoped to teach people what I learned. I spoke these words during a public meeting held to encourage preservation of the Dunes Country (Chicago, 1917):
“So the glacier which came down from the north to give Illinois its chief treasure—its deep, rich soil—tarried at Chicago on the way back to give birth to the lake. … To the east, in Indiana, it left a somewhat narrower strip of fine level sand. In this the northwest wind, having shared with Chicago its vigor and joy and renewed its delight as it passed over the lake, has moulded the dunes. … Besides its nearness to Chicago and its beauty, its spiritual power, there is between the Dune Country and the city a more than sentimental bond—a family tie. To see the Dunes destroyed would be for Chicago the sacrilegious sin which is not forgiven.”
In my day, it seemed liked everyone was interested in my life and how I chose to live it here in the Dunes. The local and national newspapers consistently got it wrong, and I resented the attention from reporters and people in town who whispered about me. I wish she had let my story fade because I preferred not to be bothered, but Janet Zenke Edwards apparently found some enduring inspiration in it and wrote a book about my life and times. It’s based on facts, anyway, not ghost stories and sensational journalism (although she tells you about all that, too). The book is titled, Diana of the Dunes: The True Story of Alice Gray. Visit the Westchester Township History Museum to buy it locally — book sales support their wonderful and insightful exhibits on the region’s past. (And join others who are interested in her story on Facebook here.)
While she lives in St. Louis, Mo., Edwards and her family are third- and fourth-generation summer residents of Porter Beach. As a writer and editor at Maryville University, and as a longtime former journalist, she has always favored stories about remarkable and inspiring people. Diana of the Dunes: The True Story of Alice Gray is her first book-length work. She became enamored of the story in part because, “To study Alice Gray is to learn about digging our toes in the sand and standing firm, despite the inevitable shifting that takes place beneath our feet.”
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