Olive Woolley Burt
A prolific writer, teacher, folklorist, and journalist, Olive Woolley Burt left a lasting impact on Utah’s literary community. Over the course of her life, she wrote over fifty books and received accolades from esteemed organizations such as the State Historical Society, University of Utah, the National League of American Pen Women, Sigma Delta Chi, and Delta Kappa Gamma. She also received a Louis Larsen award and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Olive Frank Woolley was born on May 26, 1894, to Agnes Forsyth and Jed F. Woolley in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the only daughter of seven children. The family moved to Salt Lake City in 1897, where she developed her passion for writing and published her first poem at nine years old. In 1913, Olive Woolley began teaching elementary school in Washington and Garfield Counties while also writing newspaper articles. In 1918, she received her B.A. from the University of Utah through correspondence courses and soon went on to teaching high school English.
Olive Woolley Burt at a book signing for her books, featuring her new book "Brigham Young" published 1956
She married Clinton Ray Burt, a fellow teacher, in 1922, and in 1927 returned with her husband to Salt Lake City, having quit teaching to work full-time as the children’s feature editor for the Junior Tribune at the Salt Lake Tribune. Burt also originated and conducted the "School News and Views" junior journalism program, which published articles by, and for, children. Her work with children’s writing and news soon earned Burt a position as coordinator for the Tribune’s Knighthood of Youth organization.
Burt acted as the Tribune librarian from 1942 to 1945 before resigning to become a commercial writer and editor of Utah Magazine. Burt then spent two years freelancing until, in 1947, she became a staff member of the Deseret News, a position she held until her retirement in 1967. During her years with the Deseret News, Burt taught freshman level English courses and an upper-division course in magazine writing at the University of Utah. The year following her retirement she taught adult classes in creative writing at Brigham Young University . She was also involved in community service such as organizing the "Shower of Books for a Town Without Books" for Bluff, Utah in 1950.
Burt was actively involved with a number of professional organizations throughout her writing career. In 1936 she helped organize the Utah Chapter of the League of Western Writers and became its charter president. In 1940, when the Utah group withdrew to become the independent League of Utah Writers, she continued to have an active role in the organization. She was also charter president of the Utah Chapter of the National Federation of Press Women, organized in 1956. Mrs. Burt was given their "Woman of Achievement" award in 1964, having also been nominated in 1962 and 1963.
Burt was an assiduous writer and researcher. Besides raising three children and working on the Tribune and the Deseret News, she wrote and published 52 books for children—sometimes three per year—as well as countless poems, articles, stories, and plays. Her many years as editor and teacher served her well in her writing career, and Burt soon established a national reputation as a children’s author, publishing her work with the major children’s literature publishing houses of her day. In addition to her numerous children's books, her one adult work, American Murder Ballads and Their Stories—the result of years of research and collecting—received the 1959 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Burt’s husband, Clinton, died in 1968 resulting from a car accident. Burt continued to work and write until the end of her life. An inveterate traveler, when Burt was named a Distinguished Alumna by the University of Utah in 1978, she had to fly home from Australia to accept the award.
Burt’s final book, Rescued! America’s Endangered Wildlife on the Comeback Trail, was published in 1980. Olive Woolley Burt died in Salt Lake City on September 10, 1981. She was eighty-seven years old.
American Murder Ballads and Their Stories
While working at the Deseret News, Burt developed a fascination with true crime stories, leading her to do extensive fieldwork and research on murder ballads and their historical sources. This research later became her 1958 book American Murder Ballads and Their Stories, which received a special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1959. The book contains dozens of folklore stories and songs from across the United States, ranging from pioneer times to the prohibition. The book also highlights many Mormon ballads, many of which were previously unknown to the rest of the country. The ballads were collected over years of research and painstakingly transcribed by memory into music and melodies. Critical reviews of the book were mixed, with some critics noting inadequate or inaccurate sourcing, and the paucity of African American ballads in the collection. Burt’s book—the only one of her 53 books written specifically for adults— has proved significant to folklorists, songwriters, and true crime enthusiasts alike.
One ballad of interest is that of the Mountain Medows Massacre. A tragedy that occurred in Southern Utah, Burt gives a complete history of the event and discusses how she collected the ballad. The story was incredibly taboo at the time of her writing, and she went to great lengths to find a completed version of it. Only after "much persuasion and [Burt's] solemn promise never to reveal her identity, I induced an old resident of 'Dixie'—Utah's southern region—to sing the song over and over until I could memorize the melody, which my husband later put on paper for me." The following stanza is one of thirteen stanzas put together by Burt from the Mountain Medows Massacre ballad:
Nearly all of Burt's literary output since 1927 when her first book appeared were devoted to juvinille or young adult readers; from biographies like The Ringling Brothers, Jediah Smith, and Brigham Young, to how, what, and why books like First Book of Salt, Let's Find Out About Bread, The First Book of Utah, and American Railroads. Many of these books became standard works for school children.
Over her lifetime, Burt wrote 52 children's books, as well as numerous poems, articles, stories, and plays. Her wide-ranging interests are reflected in the diverse historical subjects of her books. Burt’s books for children often included overlooked histories of the West and indigenous or non-Western cultures. Her innate curiosity about and respect for racial difference was likewise reflected in her work, leading one New York Times reviewer to declare of her book I Am An American (John Day) that it was "an indoctrination in democracy by a veteran author and teacher."
Additional Archival Material
Olive Woolley Burt photograph collection, 1835-1969 (finding aid) (digital collection) - This collection contains photographs from her books and articles and negatives; also slides of miscellaneous subjects.
Olive Woolley Burt papers, 1936-1980 (finding aid) - The Olive Woolley Burt papers (1936-1980) consist of manuscripts, research material, photographs, illustrations and correspondence of several of the books written for children by Burt during the years 1928-1980. The manuscript for her "American Murder Ballads and Their Stories," is included. Also among the papers are scrapbooks and other materials depicting her professional interests as a writer. Olive Burt was an author, newspaper feature writer, and teacher.
Photographs taken by Olive Woolley Burt - (digital collection)
Olive Woolley Burt works at the Marriott Library - ( library collection)
In Memorium: Olive Woolley Burt. 1894-1981, Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol 49, No. 4, p. 388-390
Olive Woolley Burt, Mapping Literary Utah website
"Utah Author Olive Woolley Burt, at 75, is Busyily Writing Her 48th Book", The Salt Lake Tribune, 19 April. 1970, 8E.
This exhibit page was prepared by Kallin Glauser, Spring 2021.