The poster for the “OK, I’ll Do It Myself” exhibition in the Mercantile Library on the University of Missouri, St. Louis campus. The collection illustrates how women grappled with the challenges of the American frontier and in getting their voices heard in print. Courtesy photo
Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Women in the American wilderness find their voice

There they are, resting in the glass case just below a photo of their owner — pink rhinestone boots that belonged to television/movie singing cowgirl Dale Evans. And across the aisle, also under glass, rests a small card with an inch-tall red heart pierced by five bullet holes. To the left of the heart, a tiny photo of the shooter, Annie Oakley. She plugged the heart from 30 feet away — while it was nine feet in the air.

Impressive, to say the least, as are the other artifacts, books and diaries of the amazing women of the West who are represented in this exhibit.

Rhinestone-festooned pink boots worn by singing cowgirl, actor and songwriter Dale Evans (1912-2001) are on display. Evans, wife of singing cowboy/actor Roy Rogers, is quoted as saying, “The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses … They defend the things they hold dear.” Photo by E’Louise Ondash

These treasures, displayed at the St. Louis Mercantile Library on the campus of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, are part of the exhibition called “OK, I’ll Do It Myself, Narratives of Intrepid Women in the American Wilderness: Selections from the Caroline F. Schimmel Collection.”

Don’t let the cumbersome title scare you away.

Along with personal items of women both well known and unknown, there are the writings of pioneer ladies who “grappled not only with day-to-day circumstances in remote frontier areas,” but also “struggled to assure that their accounts saw the light of day in print.”

A second exhibition in the library features campaign buttons from elections-gone-by. Called “100 million buttons can’t be wrong,” the name is inspired by the button Wendell Willkie made famous in the 1940 presidential election. All of the buttons belong to the Dr. Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker American Political Collection, which contains more than 3,000 items, including a George Washington token dated 1789. Some of those items, including shot glasses, cigar boxes and cigarette packages promoting presidential candidates, and a Florida voting booth that comes with yellow punch cards from the 2000 election (“the lines don’t match up”) that were displayed in the library in 2012.

The Mercantile was founded in 1846 in downtown St. Louis as a membership library. The historic building included a 2,000-seat auditorium and was the site of the first Missouri Constitutional Convention in 1861 that voted to stay in the Union. At the same site in 1865, delegates decided to abolish slavery in the state.

The library moved to the UMSL campus in 1998, and is the repository for historic maps; official file copies of the St. Louis Post Dispatch; the clippings and photo morgue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (10 million documents); photo and film archives of Trans World Airlines; the authenticated journal of St. Louis founder St. Auguste Chouteau (written in English, Spanish and French); and an extensive collection of model railroad cars and 45,000 volumes of railroad documents and photos.

Best of all, the library and exhibits are free and open to the public.

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E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at