Charles Dickens, Mignon Quaw, and The Long Trail (12/11/2020)

This is the last Friday Footnote for 2020. During the new few weeks focus on important things like family, friends, and personal renewal. If I could give you a Christmas present, it would be a quote from Charlie Brown:

The next Friday Footnote will appear on January 8. Now, for this week’s Footnote.

Charles Dickens, Mignon Quaw, and The Long Trail

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published in 1843. In this story, Scrooge (an elderly miser) is visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Scrooge is transformed into a nicer and caring man after the visits of the three spirits.

Dickens launched public readings of A Christmas Carol in 1849. The readings were so successful that he staged 127 readings until his death in 1870. A Christmas Carol has never been out of print and has been translated into several languages; the story has been adapted many times for film, stage, opera, and other media.

It is likely that this Dickens short novel was the inspiration for a three-act play written by Mignon Quaw, an extension specialist, at Montana State College in 1919. The title of the play was The Long Trail and focused on three distinct eras of agriculture. The play was performed 33 times in 30 different locations across Montana in 1919. The play was designed to encourage farmers to embrace change, work cooperatively, and support education in agriculture (Scholl, 2006). More detail to follow.

Who was Mignon Quaw?

Little is known about Mignon Quaw’s youth. Her father, Thomas B. Quaw, a Serbian capitalist, founded Belgrade, Montana, in south-central Montana in honor of the Europeans who invested money to complete the railroad line. Belgrade, its namesake at that time, was the capital of Serbia (Scholl, 2006, p. 3)

Mignon graduated from Montana State College in 1902. She was involved in several literary efforts at Montana State while a student. Professor Brewer, who taught freshman composition, expected the students to write and produce a play as part of their course work (The Weekly Exponent, Nov. 3, 1925). Mignon was involved in creating a play titled “The Purse and the Persons.” Later, Mignon played the role of Portia in a one-act drama produced by the Cliolian Literacy Society in 1901. This play was based loosely on the works of Shakespeare. (College Exponent, June 1901)

After graduation from Montana State, Mignon taught high school for a number of years. Then, Mignon received a master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1911. Her thesis focused on William Makepeace Thackeray, a British novelist who was a contemporary of Charles Dickens. While Thackeray and Dickens were literary rivals, they praised each other’s work in public. It is a certainty that Miss Quaw was very familiar with the works of Dickens. She returned to Montana and taught English at the high school level and then transferred to Montana State College where she taught English from 1916 to 1918. She also served as head of the English Department since Professor Brewer was involved in the war effort.

Figure 1. Mignon Quaw in 1911. From the Anaconda Standard, June 11, 1911

With the end of World War I Mignon was “drafted” by the Cooperative Extension Service at Montana State to become the recreation specialist and assistant state leader for home economics. During her tenure with the Extension Service, she made numerous contributions to rural life through the innovative use of plays and film. She was a strong advocate of using skits, pageants, and plays as an educational technique. She was even “loaned” to the USDA to help produce films about agriculture in the early 1920s.

In 1922, Miss Quaw married Elmo H. Lott, who was in charge of the county agents in Montana. Apparently, they left the state shortly thereafter. There are numerous newspaper articles from 1922 through the 1940s about her speaking at teacher conferences and leading recreational activities in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky, and other midwestern states. The 1940 census had them living in Louisiana.

Figure 2. Mignon Quaw in 1929. Image from the
Louisville Journal-Courier, August 2, 1929.

The Long Trail

Mignon Quaw’s acclaim began when she wrote a play titled The Long Trail. The play was written primarily to promote the Extension Service and the Farm Bureau. In the early days of extension work, the Farm Bureau and the Extension Service were synonymous and were basically one and the same (see the Friday Footnote for October 11, 2019).

Convincing farmers to adopt new farming practices was a challenge in the early 1900s and something needed to be done to educate farmers about the need to change. The idea of having a play to entertain the rural residents, but also educate them, and deliver a message to join the Farm Bureau was deemed to be a workable approach to the problem. Mignon spent several months in 1918 writing the play.

What was the rationale behind the title? According to Nelson (2020, p. 26) the manuscript for The Long Trail contained this statement “The trails of the world are many and long, but agriculture is the longest, the oldest, and the most widely traveled of all.”

What was the play about? According to Scholl (2006, p. 4-5):

The Long Trail in its final form was a three-hour, three-act play for seven characters. Extension specialists (agronomy, farm management, 4-H, and home economics) were the actors who combined their instruction during the day [apparently speaking at traveling Farmers Institutes] with this evening performance. Three acts represented three time intervals: 1868, 1893, and 1918.

Each act began with lantern slides to set the theme. The first act illustrated man’s march to civilization, with agriculture being the oldest and the most traveled road. Act II emphasized education, the establishment of the Montana agricultural college, and the experiment station. Act III focused on the war years, the farmer assisted by Extension and the role of the farm bureau. Local orchestras played music to coincide and separate each time period.

Extension annual reports note that the play was performed thirty-three times in thirty different locations over a three-month period (January 7 to March 29, 1919), to a combined audience total of 14,692 (Quaw 1919). The department provided $1,000 seed money, and the local farm bureaus each paid $15 to ship six large trunks of props. A small admission charge was collected, and the proceeds were used to establish farm bureau sites at each location in which the play was shown. These reports also show the schedule of performances and the breakdown of profits. Farm bureaus of Montana received $3,830 dollars from the play proceeds and the department seed money was not only reimbursed, but an additional $75 deposited for future programs (MCEAR 1918, microfilm).

In a gentle, effective, and consistent manner, the play was said to have “urged” the close cooperation of all farmers in improving farm conditions, creating strong support for educational and social programs in the state. Director Cooley reported that The Long Trail enabled us (Cooperative Extension) to put out our message more strongly than would have been possible in any other way. It had dramatic merit and enough human interest to hold an audience through a long performance” (Cooley 1933).

Figure 3. An article about The Long Trail that appeared in the Billings Gazette, Jan. 8, 1919.

The opening scene of the play is in Guv Harrison’s backyard on his ranch. The year is 1868. Guv is boiling mad. His son, Ed, has gone against his wishes and bought a horse-drawn threshing machine. It took 10 days to cut, thresh, and bind the wheat. There was no need for hired labor. Following are abbreviated excerpts of the dialogue from Act 1 (Nelson, 2020, p. 26)

GUV – See here son;…Look at this cutter, binder and thresher. (Pats his muscles.) Don’t cost nothin’ and I tell you it does the business. You’ve got the queerest notions about saving yourself trouble. I don’t know where in the world you got’em. You certainly ain’t like me–

AUNT MAGGIE (from the kitchen) — Thank God

GUV – This business of buying new-fangled thing’s got to stop. Go slow has been my motto for pretty long time.

ED  (mopping his face with a towel) – It’ll stop as far as I am concerned. 

AUNT MAGGIE – Don’t mind, Edward. your fathers doesn’t realize what it means to you. He just can’t see very far ahead. Don’t let the time ever come when you can’t tolerate a thing just because it’s new. Don’t sit back contented to let things run on as they are.

In the third act of the play, 50 years after the first act, Ed is now the family patriarch. Do his views change? Since the play was so long, Mignon used humor to keep the attention of the audience. An article in the Helena Independent focuses on the humor in the play.

Figure 4. An article from the Helena Independent, January 28, 1919,

Recently the Montana Farm Bureau celebrated its 100th anniversary. As part of this celebration, an abbreviated version of The Long Trail was performed and recorded. It can be viewed at

Concluding Remarks

One of the insights we can gain from this Footnote is the use of skits and plays is an effective teaching method. As a high school agriculture teacher, I taught a unit on Agricultural Law. How does one make bankruptcies, liens, loose livestock, contracts, etc. exciting? I assigned students to small groups where they would research the legal topic assigned to them and then create a dramatic skit to be performed in front of the class where they would cover the salient points related to the legal topic. After the initial grumbling, the students got into the assignment and we had some interesting and entertaining dramas that were educational. The students enjoyed this activity. Having students create plays fits into the self-actualization (being creative) level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Think about it.

Also, the use of humor in teaching should not be overlooked.

While I can’t prove that Mignon Quaw’s The Long Trail was influenced by Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, there are certainly numerous similarities. Both have scenes focusing on the past, both look at the present, and both inspire and encourage change in the future. Scrooge came out of his experience a renewed man. Hopefully, the people who attended the performance of The Long Trail emerged with a renewed hope and optimism for the future.

As we wrap up this year, we need to focus on the future. This is a time for reflection and renewal. It is time to move on. The past is past. What are you going to do in the new year to balance work and family? What do you need to do less of and more of? How can we improve as educators and humans? Let’s focus on the phrase “in the promise of better days” from the first paragraph of the FFA creed.

Have a Merry Christmas and a safe Happy New Year.


A big thank you to Laura Nelson for introducing me to Mignon Quaw. She asked me to review her book manuscript (about the Montana Farm Bureau) for historical accuracy. In the process of doing this, I learned about Mignon Quaw and The Long Trail.


Nelson, Laura 2020. Legacies – The Values, Principles and Purpose of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. Bozeman: Montana Farm Bureau.

Scholl, J. F. 2006. Using recreation to teach family and consumer science concepts: an historical case study with implications for today. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues. Vol. 11, No. 2.

The Weekly Exponent (November 3, 1925). Mrs. Vanderhook Offers Prize for Student Play.