First Women

First Woman Driving Across the United States

It isn’t very often one can pick up a book, published in 1961 about a journey in 1909, and identify with it. Yet, I’ve just finished reading Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron and I’m both very impressed with its author, Alice Ramsey, and completely surprised to realize just how much the world is both different and the same one hundred years later. Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron is the story of the very first woman to drive herself across the United States, along with her three female companions  – which she did in 1909 driving a Maxwell car.

Alice embarked upon this epic journey when she was just 21 years old, yet she wrote the book in 1961 when she was 73 and going strong. Driving cross-country doesn’t strike anyone as an amazing feat nowadays. But go back over 100 years to 1909. Consider the automobile. Consider the role of women. Consider the roads – or lack thereof. We don’t always remember that the car has been a “transportation revolution that has altered the social and economic boundaries of a nation and a world.” (as said by the Automobile Manufacturers Association in a letter to Mrs. Ramsey in naming here the First Lady of Automotive Travel.)

What I think is unique about Alice is she seems to unaware that she’s doing anything extraordinary. Saying she was always mechanically minded and the opportunity to do the trip just sort of came about. Travelling further than any other ladies in her town, charting nearly untraveled territory, doing things people thought only men could accomplish – these all just seemed like a normal day in the life of Alice.

While the world has changed dramatically since the days of this first journey, it still remains the same in ways. The automobile, women’s roles, and society are nearly unrecognizable from what they were in 1909. But there’s something about being a woman involved with cars that still garners surprise and creates a spectacle. I have to admit that sometimes I appreciate this undeserved attention. But under it all, I’m no different than all the guys out there. Cars, working on them, driving, and enjoying the many facets of the larger car world all just happen to be things I’m extremely passionate about.

I respect Alice for who she was – a woman simply doing what she enjoyed. Not caring or acknowledging that she was in any way different from other women of her era. I can’t help but smile, in finding a friend from so many years ago. She sought out to do what many saw as extraordinary – simply because she knew she could do it and it sounded like fun.

And really…isn’t that how many extraordinary things get accomplished? It’s a beautiful thing.

Here are some examples I found interesting in Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron – if you want to delve deeper into the story, search Amazon or Ebay and find the book for yourself!

Automobiles

Alice got the Maxwell automobile in lieu of a horse – as her husband thought it may be safer than a hard-to-tame horse and “The man from the Maxwell agency thinks you could drive an automobile without any trouble,” he said. The Maxwell had: four individually cast and water-jacketed engine cylinders, individual gas and spark throttle levers, a front crank to give the motor its initial impulse then switching to magneto, a ruled stick to lower into the gas tank to see how much fuel you had, and non-electric headlamps. All of this to be able to reach top speeds of about 40 miles per hour!

Maps

Road maps were non-existent, not to mention technologies we depend on so much such as Google maps. Instead they used “Blue Books.” Alice describes them as such;

“The dependable Blue Book with its accurate mileages from one town to another and detailed instructions where to turn or which fork in the road to chose, was nearly as necessary as gasoline in the fuel tank…The first volume was New York State, followed by New England; one by one other sections were added. By 1909 they extended only to the Missouri River, leaving a vast void in the great wide West.”

So in the initial segment of their journey, they followed these Blue Books and kept close attention to their odometer. However, without signs and clear roads, sometimes they would still find themselves lost. Such as the time when the Blue Book gave the direction to: “At 11.6 miles, yellow house and barn on right. Turn left.” Not seeing a yellow house they continued on, thinking they might not have paid close enough attention to their odometer. At the next corner they found a lady out working in her yard, so stopped to ask about any yellow houses around. The lady replied, “last year the man wanted to paint his house and barn, and he decided to change the color. He’s against automobiles. So he said, ‘Now you watch! We’ll have some fun with them automobile drivers.’ “ Ha! Not only were there not maps – this and other situations expressed that not all of the country was happy about the growing increase in automobiles around. In many places, a car driving by was quite an event and people would come out to watch it pass by.

Changing a Tire

Car tires were nowhere near our modern day ones. Upon the ladies first flat of the trip, they happened to have another car of men riding alongside them as a “pilot.” When one of the ladies of the expedition suggested to Alice that the men could change the tire, Alice said “I can’t let them do that. I’m supposed to do things like that myself.” Keep in mind this wasn’t just a wheel change, it was a tire change. After jacking up the car with an extremely unsafe jack of the variety of that day, she had the other ladies bring her pliers, two tire irons, and the tire repair kit and pump. Alice first used the pliers to remove the tire valve stem. She then pried off the outside tire bead, and reached in to get the tube out. Once the tube was out and assessed that it could be repaired, a file was used to rough the rubber and cement and a patch was applied to the spot of disrepair. Next, the repaired tube was dusted with powder and placed back into the tire casing with a couple of rings to hold it in place. After pumping it full of air, the car was road-worthy again. What a process! To think that a good amount of people nowadays don’t even know how to change the wheel on their car! (if that’s you…check out my former article about just this subject!)

Tires weren’t the only thing that Alice dealt with mechanically on the trip. There were broken axles to be replaced, spark plugs to disassemble and clean, leaf springs to be oiled and replaced, and more. Surprisingly however, they didn’t experience any real engine trouble.

Road Conditions

However, it wasn’t in her mechanics that she or others took surprise in, it was in the venturing out so far. Most of the roads they were driving weren’t paved and weren’t even meant for cars. Thanks was expressed a number of times for how high the Maxwell was off the ground, because the rear differential needed all that clearance to get past obstacles in the road. Many delays came about because of rain -  causing very wet roads that the car could hardly stay on and big puddles that threatened to suck you in. When they reached the West, there were large, steep hills to maneuver. At one point the women had to get approval to travel a ¾ mile stretch on the railroad tracks. Driving those conditions in a modern off-road vehicle sounds treacherous enough – but imagine them in a 1909 Maxwell!

People

They also encountered interesting people along the way. Other then the folk who were wary of the new automobiles – there were folks excited about it and folks surprised to see women alone so far from home. There were farmers, miners, rock-quarrying prisoners, and even Indians on horseback trailing a rabbit. Some nights were spent sleeping in the car. Once they were stopped and interrogated about a murder. They travelled through towns that still practiced public hangings.

The ladies were exposed to conditions and adventures it’s a little hard for us to imagine. Alice and her three traveling friends seemed to take the grand adventure in stride. And for being sophisticated East coast ladies, were able to meet the demands of wherever they were with optimism and grace.

So happy trails to you. May you each continue on your own journeys – accomplishing the ordinary and maybe even the extraordinary!

4 Responses

  1. pati

    Love this book. I was especially delighted when she said her husband didn’t like cars and was a white-knuckled passenger in them… but bought her new ones regularly because she liked them so. Pretty open-minded and big of him in that era!

    Reply
  2. Lori B. Law

    Beautifully written, Kristin! You hit many of the points that also struck me deeply as I read. I wish we could have met Alice. What an extraordinary woman!

    Reply

Comment & Join the Conversation!