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The Story Behind Dear Mad’m

August 24, 2009

Stella Patterson
Stella Walthall Patterson
October 14, 1866 –
December 23, 1955

By Judy Bushy

This weekend we took a drive down Highway 96 just to enjoy the sunshine on the River, and the forest and blue skies. We came to the pullout near where Stella Patterson had her cabin and stopped to enjoy the view.

At the time of her eightieth birthday, Stella W. Patterson was faced with a dilemma. Her decision involved when a person is OLD and how she wanted to live her “senior years.” Stella made a surprising decision and became a hero to seniors who have since loved her book, Dear Mad’m.

Stella was born October 14, 1866 in the bustling city of San Francisco. Stella enjoyed the urban opportunities for social and cultural life, but after the earthquake of 1906 she left the city.

At the time of her 80th birthday, while visiting friends in Arcata on the northern coast, she was invited to live with relatives eager to do for her and take care of her in “declining years.” When a doctor told her that she had “young legs” it set her thoughts in a different direction. She owned a cabin on a mining claim in the wilds of Clear Creek near the friendly little town of Happy Camp, on the Klamath River. She decided to give living in that little cabin a try for a year. She wrote to the caretaker and set off for Willow Creek where she rode with the mail delivery up to the mailbox on Highway 96 below the cabin.

The title of her memoir of life on the Klamath came from, perhaps a senior moment, when Fred, the caretaker arrived, and she’d forgotten his name. In her correspondence she had said, “Dear Sir,” so she fell back upon that salutation. Fred replied, “Dear Mad’m,” and thus the nickname, which was later to become the title of the book, began.

The book tells of her life in that solitary and somewhat primitive cabin in its beautiful surroundings. She lived alone there with her dog, Vickie, and it turned out she had many adventures.

While Stella Patterson still traveled some, her delight was to return to her little cabin on the Klamath. She loved to garden and put up jams and jellies. She sent the memoir of the year she moved to the cabin to agents, critics, and finally a New York publisher who edited it. She called it “slashing,” her story. In the fall of 1955 she moved to an efficient little travel trailer, near Everett and Thelma (who had been like a daughter to her) in Redding. Her life drew to a close there in December 23, 1955 at the age of 89. It was just two weeks before Dear Mad’m was to be published, January 6, 1956.

The book had far reaching effects. It became a popular book club selection. Three ladies from Chicago retired from the Telephone Company and came to live near Happy Camp, because of reading her story. They enjoyed gardening and artistic endeavors and were active in the community. They were loved and appreciated in the community although they too are gone now. When Highway 96 was improved and straightened (Yes, it is possible that there were more curves and corners!) the road went right through her cabin, which was moved out of the way.

Naturegraph, a local Happy Camp publisher, kept the book in print since that time, for which we are grateful. Stella was a hero of sorts to persons of mature years, who still have more years to appreciate life and blessings. It’s a good book to read to remind a person of all the wonderful reasons we love life on the lovely wild Klamath River at the top of California.




26 Comments »

  1. What a beautiful story. I have some family living there and have been there a few times. It really is a beautiful little place. I love going there.

    Comment by Barbara Land — August 24, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  2. Thanks for this….it is my all time favoriate book. Any chance of a few images of the area?

    Comment by Christopher Fry — October 7, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book this summer… It was given to me by my grandmother who had enjoyed the book as well… :) Hopefully I can visit my mom in Happy Camp and take a drive there in the future… :) Thank you Judy for the great background story… we couldn’t get from the book!

    Comment by Simoné Reichel — October 26, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  4. I have read the book twice…who was she? what of her earlier life ?Was she a writer ? How many children did she have ? Why leave them ? What became of everyone? I cant seem to find answers on the web….

    Comment by susan coltrin — December 26, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  5. I bought this book about 14 years ago and it is a favorite. I re-read it every couple of years and have given several copies as gifts. I have long wanted to find out more about Stella; the book would be even better if there were photos of the author and of the people she talked about in the book and of course of the surrounding region! My husband and I are planning a trip to Yreka and I have an interest in seeing if there are any memories of Stella in the area still?

    Comment by Deborah Donovan — January 8, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  6. Ijust took a trip to Happy Camp, hoping to find some info on Stella. No Luck. Where is the turnout near her cabin site?

    Comment by Joan McCrummen — July 13, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

  7. I lived in Happy Camp in 1956. I actually lived in more than one residence there that year as a first grader. I would love to get more information about the town as it was then for my novel. Is there anyone I can contact that would be knowledgeable of that time?

    Thank you.

    Comment by Cheryl Stapleton — September 25, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

  8. Cheryl, you’re welcome to leave questions here… Judy (the editor) has a lot of information about Happy Camp history. I’m a novelist too and have written a couple novels based here.

    Comment by LindaJM — December 30, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  9. What has happened to the follow up book Dear Mad’m,Who Was She, suppose to be published by Naturegraph fall of 2010?

    Comment by Pamela Thompson — May 22, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  10. Thank you for asking Pamela. We recently checked with Barbara at Narutegraph and were told that it is taking longer than expected but will be published next spring. We also have come upon another article on Stella’s life before Happy Canp and hope to publish it with photos of the area soon. Thank you for your patience!

    Comment by Judy Bushy — May 22, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

  11. I ordered Dear Mad’m as my 2nd copy. I Still love reading it as we had prospected for many years.
    I first read Dear Mad’m in the 1960’s. In the 90’s I ordered my own copy. My copy was loaned out too many times and was lost in the process. Ergo the 2nd order…

    Comment by Di — June 4, 2011 @ 10:35 am

  12. Glad you are enjoying Dear Madam, Di! You may find the article on the Patterson ranch where James & Stell lived for a time on the history page of Happy Camp News. There will also be more to come as the local Chamber of Commerce is plannning an event and more this summer celebrating Stells.
    __editor note

    Comment by Judy Bushy — June 4, 2011 @ 7:48 pm

  13. Glad you are enjoying Dear Madam, Di!
    You may find the article on the Patterson Ranch (where James & Stella lived for a time before she moved to the mining cabin) on the history page of Happy Camp News. There will also be more to come as the local Chamber of Commerce is plannning an event and more this summer celebrating Stellas story.
    –editor note

    Comment by Judy Bushy — June 4, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  14. My family and I visited Happy Camp today. We live in Grants Pass, Oregon. We have all read Dear Mad’m and loved it. We are looking forward to Dear Mad’m, Who Was She?

    Could someone please let us know when the Chamber of Commerce event celebrating Stellas Story will be held?

    Thank you. Pat Wolff

    Comment by Pat Wolff — July 7, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

  15. Dear Judy,

    Thank you so much on answering my question. I am looking forward to the next article on Stella’s life before Happy Camp.
    Pictures are certainly a plus for us that live to far too visit…

    Comment by Pamela Thompson — July 17, 2011 @ 11:09 am

  16. Dear Judy,

    I forgot to ask is Dear Mad’m on cassette, my Aunt is blind and 83 years young I know she would enjoy very much listening to Dear Mad’m…

    Comment by Pamela Thompson — July 17, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  17. It’s January 9th 2012–when will Dear Mad’m, Who Was She,
    be available for purchase? I can hardly wait for it to come out–Loved Dear Mad’m–I’m going to purchase copies for all my friends and family.

    Comment by Yolanda Flanagan — January 10, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

  18. Enjoyed the book tremendously – it was recommended to me by a sales clerk in Calico where I purchased the book. It’s every bit as good as she said it was.

    Comment by Katie O'Brien — February 16, 2012 @ 11:45 pm

  19. I would like to hear more about the other people in the book, Nora, Up-n-up, Dear sir and Benji. Benji would be about 67 now and may have some memories, (if he grew up with her on the river for the next 9 years) or stories he heard from his parents. Any contact with him?

    Comment by Heather Anne — February 23, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  20. The second annual Dear Mad’m Day will be in Happy Camp, CA on October 13, 2012. That’s a Saturday. Events will start on Friday evening, October 12, and continue until Sunday afternoon. There will be a reception, dinner, book signing for Dear Mad’m: Who is She?, luncheon on Saturday with speakers and award presentations, bonfire and song circle that evening, and on Sunday, a special pancake breakfast using Stella’s menu of sourdough pancakes with blackberry syrup, and then a trip to the Dear Mad’m cabin site. Proceeds will go toward having CalTrans create an official historic marker for the site of her cabin and mining claim. I hope you can attend! For more information, see http://www.dearmadm.com

    Comment by Linda Jo Martin — April 28, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

  21. Stella was the 2nd cousin of my grandmother for whom I was named. Stella’s grandfather Madison Walthall was the oldest of a large family and went from Richmond, VA, to California by way of Mississipp. Was a captain in the Mexican War. He represented San Joaquin Co in the 1st legislature when the territory became a state (Google him.) He died after falling from his windmill near Stockton in 1868. My uncle Madison Walthall Turner moved to Orinda in 1950, and in 1960 my father moved our family to Astoria, OR, where my grandmother died in 1962. The next year we moved to Redding. I just read that Stella died in Redding in 1955. Clear Creek and Happy Camp are familiar names to me, altho I moved from California to Virginia in 1975. I just copied the Walthall Family book for 15 Walthall cousins who requested it. (Have copied for many over the years since the 1963 book was out of print.) I should expand on the book’s listing for Stella, using what I have just learned from this site. Her book was sent to me a few years ago by a Walthall cousin in Texas. My great grandfather went to visit his brother in Australia in 1911 and stopped in San Fran to visit cousins. Stella’s father Madison Walthall, Jr. died in 1873. The Madison name is from Stella’s great grandmother Catherine Madison who was a cousin of President Madison. Of all the distant cousins who contact me, I have never heard or been able to contact any descendants of Madison, nor do I have a likeness of him to add to the book. I descend from his youngest brother. His nephew Edward Cary Walthall was a general in the CSA and a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Wish I could get to Happy Camp this summer! Grace Walthall Turner Karish, Oakton, VA

    Comment by grace walthall karish — May 14, 2012 @ 7:11 am

  22. After reaching age 62 and moving into senior housing, I sort of believed my allways active life was over. Then I somehow recieved “Dear Madam”.
    I grew up on the upper Rogue River in OR and had a full life in the woods, hunting fishing gathering from the wild and I knew after this book that I wasn’t ready to turn it all in! I found a new life partner and started over and fished, hunted, and even panned a bit more gold! I bought several more copies and still have 2. Loaned one out again today! I lost my partner in Jan 2011 and gave up once more, but will read it again for the 5th time and know that we pioneers don’t ever really give up!!!

    Comment by Lourine Kent — June 13, 2012 @ 5:04 pm

  23. Sixty six years ago Stella turned 80 when she arrived at the little mining cabin on the Klamath River to see if she could stay a year. Isn’t it amazing how inspiring and encouraging her book still is to people today!! Looking forward to seeing Dear Mad’m fans October in Happy Camp to celebrate!!

    Comment by J Bushy, editor — June 14, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  24. our son is now related to the family of mr Patterson. when we all visited Eureka, I bought the book and loved it.
    Hear the family hopes to go to the festivities in october.
    I will try to buy the new book too!

    Comment by maaike hamel — August 18, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

  25. I read this after starting into college and have two copies of my very own. I love the character and the location. I live in similar circumstances in the remote NC mountains. Good Luck to Happy Camp!

    Comment by Dr. Marilyn Lee — January 27, 2014 @ 6:37 pm

  26. Let me know when the next book is out! I love knowing anything of historical background, especially Happy Camp and Stella! THANKS FOR KEEPING THIS ALIVE.

    Comment by Dr. Marilyn Lee — January 27, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

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Happy Camp River Access Buck

A buck at the Happy Camp River Access.


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The Elk Creek Bridge.


Klamath River

Downriver, about four miles.