Caroline Amelia Maxson Wood
1840 - 1902
Caroline (Carrie) Wood, a gifted singer and pianist, was the first music teacher at Walla Walla College, now University, in Washington state. Both her talent and work in helping establish the first Seventh-day Adventist church in the Northwest made her a natural choice to teach at the college.
Carrie was born on July 4, 1840, in Milton, Wisconsin, one of eight children born to Stephen Maxson and his wife, Lois Babcon. By age fifteen, her musical talent was exceptional for one so young. A newspaper reporter, following a recital she gave at that age, observed, "As a singer she ranks among the best we have heard in many a day. If in Wisconsin we have ever heard her equal, we have not [heard] her superior."
By age eighteen, following her marriage to James Franklin Wood at age sixteen and a move to Omaha, Nebraska, at age seventeen with him and her parents, she gave a recital that elicited the following response from a writer in a local newspaper:
The principal attraction of the evening was Mrs. C. M. Wood. We were well prepared for a surprise, yet even we were astonished at her vocal powers. Her voice is a rich and powerful soprano, which excels in higher notes. Her trills in the Vale of Chamonix, her warbling in the Swiss Girl, sent a thrill of delight through our whole being.
In April 1859, at age nineteen, Carrie and her husband, along with the Wood family, set out for Pike's Peak as members of the "gold rush." Dissuaded by unfavorable accounts about the realities at Pike's Peak as they traveled west, they instead decided to go to the newly opened Walla Walla Valley in the Northwest, traveling on the Oregon Trail.
It was a slow, tedious trip. Six months later, following several harrowing experiences, including the near drowning of Stephen Maxson when crossing a stream, they crested the Blue Mountains and first viewed the Walla Walla Valley. They stopped, unpacked a melodian, and accompanied and led by Wood, sang to celebrate the moment. After descending into the valley, they joined with other families in camping by a stream near Fort Walla Walla, which had been established three years earlier. Carrie undoubtedly sang for the soldiers as they arrived and eventually had a permanent appointment to sing at the fort.
She continued her music activities after her first child was born the following year and eventually eight more followed. People in the region stood in awe of her voice, referring to her as the "Jenny Lind" of the West, a title she enjoyed.
Wood's father ordered a Hallet Davis piano from Boston in the 1860s for his daughter and her family. It was shipped by boat down the coasts of North and South America, up to Portland, and over to Wallula on the Columbia River before being transported to Walla Walla in 1867 by wagon. It was the first piano in the region.
The piano was sold the year after it arrived to finance a move by the family to San Francisco, California, in the autumn of 1868, where it was hoped Wood's husband could regain his health. While living there for nine months, they attended meetings by evangelist J. N. Loughborough and became Seventh-day Adventists.
Upon returning to Walla Walla, they were eager to share their beliefs, and by 1874 they had helped to convert a group of over fifty and established the first SDA church in the Northwest. They met in the Wood home until a church was constructed and dedicated a year later.
Wood's reputation as a singer led St. Paul's Episcopal School for Girls in Walla Walla to hire her as its first music teacher when it was founded in 1872. She would also later claim to have been the first music teacher at Whitman College in the 1860s during its uncertain beginnings as Whitman Seminary.
In 1878 the Woods traveled to Salem to attend the first SDA camp meeting in the Northwest, leaving their children in the care of friends. Caroline was in charge of the singing, and Ellen White and Loughborough were featured speakers. While there, they were contacted and told that their children were gravely ill and they should return home immediately. Three of their seven children had died from diphtheria by the time they reached Walla Walla.
To cope with her grief, Wood traveled with her four children to the new Adventist school in Battle Creek, Michigan, staying for a year before returning to the Northwest. Three years later, the family, which now included a two-year-old daughter, Grace, moved to Medical Lake, a small town near Spokane, Washington, because of her husband's continuing health problems.
She had sung for President Rutherford B. Hayes when he visited Walla Walla in the autumn of 1880. It also appears that she sang for former president Ulysses S. Grant, shortly after the move to Medical Lake when he officiated at the joining of the eastern and western segments of the North Pacific Railroad near Spokane in 1883.
A decade later, they returned to Walla Walla in the autumn of 1892, one of several families to settle near the construction site of Walla Walla College, a new Adventist school in the Northwest. Housing was at a premium, with only 25 houses in the area. Although they would live with their oldest daughter and son-in-law, Minnie and Clarence Ford, for the next two years, the Woods spent their first few nights sleeping in the construction workers' tool shed, across the street from the new building.
Carrie Wood was the music teacher when the college opened its doors on December 7. Her twelve- and ten-year- old daughters, Grace and Edith, were among the students. She was fifty-two. She taught for the first two years and then returned to Medical Lake with her family because of her husband's worsening health.
Eight years later, Caroline Wood died, in February 1902. Her daughter Grace became music head of a newly established School of Music at WWC that autumn.
Sources: Dan Shultz, A Great Tradition, Music at Walla Walla College, 1892-1992, 1992; Louise Kay Unruh Huff, The Music Department at Walla Walla College, research paper about music at WWC, 1943, updated and sent to Claude Thurston, June 1951; Interview with Huff by the writer, 26 October 1989; Caroline Reith Eros, Caroline Wood's granddaughter, interviews with and letters to the writer, 1990 and 1991; Eulogy given by her son Ralph M. Wood on 8 February 1902; Sixty Years of Progress, Claude Thurston, 1952; Doug Johnson, "A Gifted Musician in a Remote Frontier," North Pacific Union Gleaner, August 2006.