It was the year 1909. Of course, there were headlines of important events. Some of the milestones that changed history, however, were to be found ‘way back in the printed pages of yesteryear.
Few outside that field of medical science, psychoanalysis, had ever heard of Sigmund Freud who was in the United States to lecture. Or had heard of psychoanalysis for that matter.
There were the regular stirrings of war or wars-to-be but were so far away little attention was paid to them. They’d never touch us, would they? Like Mahammad Ali was deposed as Shah of Persia, his twelve year old brother taking the throne. Anglo-Germany were discussing taking over the Baghdad Railroad. The Angol-Persian Oil Co. was formed. One thing leads to another.
H.G. Wells, Mann and Maeterlinck were authors you still read today. Composers Richard Strauss, Franz Lehar, Rimsky-Korsokov live on in their wonderful music a hundred years later. Frank Lloyd Wright designed and completed the Robie House in Chicago, the “prairie style” becoming popular. Mary Pickford became the very first film star, promoted by director, D.W. Griffith. Newsreels were made and shown for the first time.
While William Howard Taft was inaugurated to the presidency in 1909 there was little debate over that election when compared to the argument over who had been the first at the North Pole, Richard Peary or Frederick Cook. It would take years before the answer was decided upon.
Bakelite had been invented in 1908. Objects were manufactured of it in 1909, the very first to open the Plastic Age. Have grannie’s dresser set made of it?
Girl Guides were organized in Britain in acknowledgment of the feminine. In Germany women were first admitted to university. Permanent waves were used by hairdressers in Britain for a first in cosmetological science. That changed history!
Although marching for women’s rights for decades, it would be another ten years and a bit more before women could vote. They were once in awhile appearing in headlines.
One of them was Alice Ramsey. She was twenty-two years old, mother of a year old baby who was left in the charge of her husband, John Ramsey, a former congressman, and doubtless, a progressive thinker. Why else would he have been a Mr. Mom?
Already Alice Ramsey had made headlines by driving in two contests, one from her home in Hackensack, New Jersey to Philadelphia, not a long drive but because she was a woman it made the print. The more spectacular drive was taking part in the “Montauk Run,” a tough run because it was over sand dunes. One of the other drivers in the “Run” was the public relations man for the Maxwell car company who was amazed at Alice’s driving skill. A woman at the wheel in a contest was unprecedented.
Automobile manufacturers in those days, the first few years of the “Automotive Age,” were to enter or sponsor “runs” or contests which would show off the attributes of their cars (or their flaws, see advertisement “Early Advertising,” F. Clymer, needing pounding out). And of course to compete with rivals.
The biggest drawback in that period were the roads. There wasn’t more than a few hundred miles of paved road in the entire nation. If roads weren’t dust, they were mud ... Rutted, deep mud that were a constant challenge. For men drivers let alone the female.
In downtown Creston, Illinois a mural depicts a special event in the early days of the first designated transcontinental highway with the scene being two local men installing a water fountain on the main street. Creston was one of eleven towns in Illinois to receive the honor as part of the Lincoln Highway. That now famous route wasn’t yet in existence when the four ladies passed through the area in 1909.
Wasn’t it the Maxwell car that comedian Jack Benny used in his long-time radio series? It was driven by “chauffer” Rochester. In the photo of the ladies in the Maxwell in the Dixon Telegraph it had steering on the right.
Maxwell Automobile company was accepting the ultimate challenge ... Driving across the entire nation ... New York to San Francisco.
The public relations man of the company was so impressed with Ramsey’s driving ability he suggested her as the pilot for the trip ... It would be a double win ... ‘Cross country/woman driver.
Alice would be accompanied by three other women; a nineteen year old friend and two of her husband’s sisters. There was a concession made for their comfort, however. The company hired the automotive editor of the Boston Globe to precede the entourage to publicize their coming and to make accommodation reservations in hotels along the way as often as possible. (Motels hadn’t been thought of in 1909.)
The car did carry camping equipment which was used from time to time plus their luggage and extra tires. Tires were a delicate item those days and not easily obtained everywhere. They “blew” often, too and had to be changed regularly especially in the rutted, muddy roads of the day. The local newspapers often printed residents trips, how far they’d gone and how many flats they’d had to change. The headline-making news was if no tires “blew.”
The four women left Times Square, New York City on June 9, 1909 to travel through New York state, Pennsylvania, Ohio to Goshen, Indiana where less navigation had to be mapped out because a fairly well-traveled highway (for the times) could be followed and which became the Lincoln Highway. It wasn’t that yet.
Not until four years later was it christened that, the FIRST TRANSCONTINENTAL HIGHWAY in America. The ladies preceded it. In the year 2000 it was designated a National Scenic Byway, Times Square to Lincoln Park, San Fran.
(One Illinois segment of it has “headquarters” at Franklin Grove with Dixon and Morrison giving tribute to it also. Other towns are following suit to display just one more historical chapter for visitors. We’ll cover that interesting subject in future.)
The Maxwell auto group, women, were a unique chapter in the book of progress and who arrived in Dixon, Illinois on June 23, 1909, two weeks after the start in New York.
The car was suitably covered in mud from radiator to trunk. They stayed over night in a hotel to proceed west through Sterling to the Fulton-Lyons bridge where they crossed the Mississippi River.
The four were wearing identical ankle-length “dusters,” the garment that kept clothing from the dust and grime of the roadways, veils and wide-brimmed hats decorated with the usual feathers, ribbons or flowers, the fashionable style of the day. They certainly needed protection as they made their way westward and the lonely reaches beyond Iowa.
At Weasel Creek they had to camp because of flooding. In the morning Alice waded across the tumultuous stream to judge its depths. They proceeded on to Mechanicsville, Iowa where they stopped for the night waiting out a thunderstorm in a livery stable. Were the horses nervous seeing this new contraption which they sensed might replace them?!
Out in Wyoming they ran into a problem they hadn’t planned for. They’d had the typical troubles motorists experienced those days: broken springs and axles, dead coils, fouled spark plugs but the most disconcerting of all was at the hotel in Opal (O-paul) where they woke in the middle of the night to find the bed covered with thousands of bed bugs. They slept on the table in the lobby the rest of the night.
After a full, adventurous trip, the first of its kind by women, they arrived at San Francisco in early August, a journey of fifty-nine days. Success! And northern Illinois had a small part in that history-making event.
Alice Ramsey kept a detailed diary throughout the trip to write a book from it in 1961, Veils, Dusters and Tire Irons, to which Greg Franzwa added a hundred pages, Chasing Alice, which he’d researched extensively. The book has been reprinted with the addition and can be found with Patrice Press. (The original sells for $400 on eBay!) He is completing a seven volume series concerning the entire of the Lincoln Highway and if you are interested in that, it is also available at patricepress.com.
The Maxwell automobile ladies set the tone for women drivers to come, the reason for their trip ... Driving anywhere held “little terror” for their feminine compatriots. It certainly did the trick. In 1916 the VanBuren sisters also passed through Dixon, going across country on Indian motorcycles. In 1915 the celebrated etiquette maven, Emily Post, stopped in Rochelle going across country but was stranded in the notorious Illinois mud. The automobile changed history. Their drivers made history.