TITLE: Nellie Belle, Court Reporter
By Sydney Avey
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Nellie Belle Carter discarded her husband and laid down a split -- her children. John Sr. took John Jr. and remained in Southern California. Nellie removed herself and her girls to the Northern Pacific Coast. But this is not where her story begins.
Nellie was driven by ambition born of the dust bowl that impoverished many lives and enriched others in unimagined ways. When a scourge of locusts scraped the western Kansas landscape surrounding her family farm clean of all vegetation in the 1930s, it left hundreds of families facing starvation as winter approached. An appeal for money, clothing and food met a generous response by people in the East who also sent religious and inspirational books with the request that they be distributed among the children.
Nellie’s father Francis did not require financial aid for his family of six, but he did bring home a supply of books. Among them was a copy of Andrew Graham’s First Lessons in Shorthand. During the long cold winter that followed, Nellie and her brothers Louie and Frank kept warm in their snug three-room house and devoted their time to mastering the principles of shorthand, not knowing it had any commercial value -- not knowing it had any use at all.
In the spring, the committee that had been charged with distributing the books put out the word that a book titled The Man Without A Country had been donated by mistake and called for its return. The book had been a treasured gift from a grandfather to a grandson. A patriotic verse and the recipient’s name and address personalized the book’s flyleaf and the young man wanted it back. News travelled slowly in the county and Nellie was appointed by the committee to help search for the book.
One day Nellie was riding her horse in the hills in search of a stray lamb when she heard the sweet strain of a voice singing “Lead Kindly Light.” So unusual was this that she followed the sound. Shortly she came upon a sod house so near the color of the ground it was hard to distinguish as livable. Entering the hovel, Nellie found a large family of children. Lying on a ragged pallet in the corner she discovered a child who, blind from birth, had never been taught to walk. She had learned a few hymns from her brothers and sisters, who discovered them in one of the donated books. It was here that Nellie located the book she was searching for and they allowed her to take it away.
Nellie mailed the book back to its owner and in time received an acknowledgement followed by correspondence from the book’s owner. A couple of years later, the young man travelled to Kansas and stayed in Nellie’s home.
Nellie, an observer of life, noted amusing mistakes he made in adapting himself to his new surroundings and pined, perhaps, for a love affair that never materialized. The young man took an interest in the blind girl and gave her a new life in an eastern school for the blind. Nellie married a man she only ever described as being one of her own rank and station. They had three children and eventually left the farm in Kansas for the West, where Nellie subsequently left the marriage.
It was then that Nellie discovered the value of shorthand. With small children to support, she took employment at the State House during a term when the Legislature was in session. That marked her entry into the court reporting field, which enabled her to provide for the comfort and education of her children. She worked among attorneys and judges and in the Federal Courts of several Western states.
Nellie traveled on the court circuit, her youngest daughter in tow. She lived in hotel rooms in the cities where she was sent to report on the lives and crimes of people of her time and wrote lively stories about the people she met and the cases she reported. Rusty paperclips hold together yellowed typewriter assignments she must have taken in a writing class. Was she discouraged about the comments red penciled on the pages of her work?
“Never mind the love story or the sketch of your own life,” wrote the teacher. “Remember, the modern short story deals with only one central character, confronted by one problem which must be solved within a short period of time.”
And so that love story is lost, but others remain, stories about a disappointed miner’s wife, a husband with a roving eye, high school sweethearts whose lives are invaded by a stranger – and a glimpse at the life of a young girl named Nellie Belle who taught herself shorthand on a farm in Kansas and became the first female court reporter in the state of Washington.
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