It is believed that Emma Lee Orr (or Emily as she is sometimes listed in government documents) was born in July 1881 in Falmouth, Pendleton County, Kentucky. From an early age, Emma decided to become a teacher. In 1903, her dream became a reality when she accepted a teaching position in Falmouth.
Emma contracted an illness soon after she began teaching. Physicians believed a cold climate would benefit her health. In 1903 Emma Lee Orr set sail for the Alaska Territory. She became a teacher, writer and explorer during the next 12 years. Her experiences were recorded in a number of books including Nancy’s Adventures in Eskimo Land (1952) and an unpublished manuscript which she titled Mukluks and Dog Sleds. In Alaska, Orr supported herself by teaching. She taught the children of the indigenous peoples of Alaska in both Candle and Nome. From 1903 until 1917, she taught at the Seward Peninsula Elementary School and from 1918 to 1920, Orr held the position of Superintendent of the Nome Public School system.
While in Alaska, Orr immersed herself in the culture and customs of the local people. She traveled by dogsled and visited mining and hunting camps. She was the first known white women to own a reindeer heard in the territory. Over the years, she amassed a large collection of photographs and other memorabilia on Alaska. These materials were eventually donated to the Kenton County Public Library by her family.
Following her Alaskan experiences, Orr moved back to the Greater Cincinnati area. For many years she lived at 401 Wallace Avenue with several of her sisters. She taught in the Cincinnati Public School System until she was forced to retire due to her age in 1953. Most of her work in the Cincinnati schools was with learning disabled children. She is remembered by many of her students as a kind and caring mother figure. She also conducted lectures for area groups and on local radio stations.
Orr died on July 3, 1965 at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Covington, Kentucky. She was survived by six nieces and three nephews. Services were held at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in Covington. She was laid to rest at Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.
Additional Information on Alaska Photos:
Nome Photographers: Lomen Bros. & Beverly Dobbs