Polly Mead Patraw became the first female ranger at the Grand Canyon in 1929. As a ranger-naturalist, she was only the second female in the entire park service.
In 1927, at the age of 23, Polly first laid eyes on the Grand Canyon. She was a botany student at the University of Chicago. The Grand Canyon was a stop on a summer-long trip that included visits at several other national parks in the west. When she first saw the canyon, from the North Rim, she was wonder struck. It was “a most emotional experience. It was wonderful.” She later stated. Polly wanted to learn more about it and decided to use it as the subject for her master’s thesis.
When Polly graduated, her benefactor, who was also her aunt, gave Polly the choice between a European trip or a trip back to the Grand Canyon to do research. Polly chose the Grand Canyon. She spent the next two summers researching near the canyon’s North Rim. Usually she stayed twenty miles north of the rim at a lodge but occasionally went on overnight trips to study plant life and collect specimens. On these trips, Polly would bring only a bedroll, canteen and a little pistol for protection. She completed her thesis by the end of her second summer. It was a complete study of the Kaibab Plateau (which borders the Grand Canyon’s North Rim).
After her thesis was accepted, Polly wanted to stay at the canyon. She first applied to the Forest Service but was denied because they did not hire women as ranger-naturalists – the position she wanted. Undeterred, Polly applied for the same position on the South Rim with the National Park Service. They accepted and, on August 1, 1930, Polly was sworn into office by Preston Patraw, the park’s Assistant Superintendent.
Her uniform consisted of the standard National Park Service uniform (similar to that of a riding habit). It had to be tailored to her since they did not have female uniforms. She also wore a soft-brim hat. Her job as a ranger-naturalist included many different things such as campfire lectures, auto caravan tours, nature hikes, planting wildflower gardens, and writing about various projects and her findings.
Polly began dating Preston Patraw, who sworn her into office. During a drive around the canyon’s rim in March 1931, Preston and Polly became engaged. They married within two months. Preston wanted Polly to stop working and stay home. She agreed. “I just said, ‘Yes, dear,’ as we did in those days.” Polly later remarked with a laugh. The family moved from park to park, going wherever her husband’s job took them. She missed the Grand Canyon but enjoyed discovering the similarities and differences between it and other parks.
Though no longer an employee with the National Park Service, Polly continued to study and write about botany and her own side projects. In 1954, Preston became the Superintendent of the Grand Canyon National Park and the family moved back. Her husband retired a year later and the family again moved. This time back to their Santa Fe home, where they had lived from 1947 to 1954. In addition to paving the way for other female rangers, Polly added significantly to the research and literature of plant and flower life in the Southwest. Polly died in 2001 but her legacy as a trailblazing ranger-naturalist still lives on in her beloved Grand Canyon.
Betty Leavengood, Grand Canyon Women: Lives Shaped by Landscape, Grand Canyon: AZ: Grand Canyon Association, 2004.
R. Bryce Workman, “National Park Service Uniforms: Breeches, Blouses, and Skirts, 1918-1991,” National Park Service, No. 4 (1998).
Grand Canyon National Park, “Insider’s Look at Grand Canyon: Webisode #33 – Women History Month Transcript.”
“Canyon Lodges: Grand Canyon,” PBS.