Olive Woolley Burt

Prolific writer, teacher, folklorist and journalist, Olive Frank Woolley was born on May 26, 1894 to Agnes Forsyth and Jed F. Woolley in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her father was attending the University of Michigan. Burt was the only daughter in a family of seven children. The family returned to Salt Lake City in 1897 where Olive Woolley was raised, developing a passionate interest in writing and literature, publishing her first poem in the San Francisco Examiner in 1905: she was 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. 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 Salt Lake Tribune.

As children’s editor, Burt was responsible for editing a new supplement to the Sunday section: Salt Lake Tribune Junior. Except for her own editorial, all articles and art in the Salt Lake Tribune Junior were created by children. Burt also edited “School News and Views,” a daily student-authored column in the paper. Her work with children’s writing and news soon earned Burt a position as coordinator for the Salt Lake Tribune’s Knighthood of Youth organization. 

Burt worked as the Salt Lake Tribune librarian from 1942 to 1945 before resigning to become a commercial writer and editor of Utah Magazine.  In 1945, she received the Louis Larsen Award for outstanding Utah author. 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.

It was while working at Deseret News that Woolley developed a fascination with true crime stories, which led to her extensive fieldwork research on murder ballads and their historical sources. This research later became her 1958 book American Murder Ballads and Their Stories, which in 1959 received a special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. 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. Still, Burt’s book—the only one of her 53 books written specifically for adults—proved significant to folklorists, songwriters and true crime enthusiasts.

Burt was an indefatigable 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, including Henry Holt, Bobbs Merrill, Julius Messner, John Day, and Franklin Watts, among others. 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."

Burt’s husband, Charles, died in 1968, and Burt herself continued to work and write. 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 by Messner in 1980. Olive Woolley Burt died in Salt Lake City on September 10, 1981. She was eighty-seven years old. 




American Murder Ballads, Oxford University Press, 1964

Children’s Literature

Our Magic Growth, 1937

Peter’s Story Goes to Press, 1943

Peter’s Silver Dollar, 1945

Luther Burbank: Boy Wizard, 1948

Prince of the Ranch: The Story of a Collie, 1949

Cloud Girl, 1951

Jedidiah Smith: Fur Trapper of the Old West, 1952

God Gave Me Friends, 1952

Oak’s Long Shadow: A Story of the Basque Sheepherders in Idaho, 1952

Ouray the Arrow, 1953

Camel Express: A Story of the Jeff Davis Experiment, 1954

Young Jed Smith: Westering Boy, 1954

When I Pray: Prayers for Little Folks, 1956

Jim Beckworth: Crow Chief, 1957

Canyon Treasure, 1960

The Cave of Shouting Silence, 1960

First Woman Editor, Sarah J. Hale, 1960

Space Monkey: The True Story of Miss Baker, 1960

The Ringling Brothers: Circus Boys, 1962

Jed Smith: Young Western Explorer, 1963

The First Book of Utah, 1963

Petticoats West, 1963

I Am an American, 1964

The First Book of Salt, 1965

Jayhawker Johnny, 1966

Old America Comes Alive, 1966

Let’s Find Out About Bread (with Mimi Korach), 1966

Mountain Men of the Early West, 1967

Ghost Towns of the West, 1967

Born to Teach, 1967

Young Wayfarers of the Early West, 1968

The National Road, 1968

Negroes in the Early West, 1969

Our World: Bulgaria, 1970

Black Women of Valor, 1974

The Horse in America, 1975

Physician to the World: Esther Pohl Lovejoy, 1973

Black Sunshine: The Story of Coal, 1977

Young Alden Young Puritan, 1980

Rescued! America’s Endangered Wildlife on the Comeback Trail, 1980

John Wanamaker: Boy Merchant, 2011


Olive Woolley Burt Papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah