(My apologies for disconnected images… site crash wiped out the photos, gradually rebuilding!)
FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA – Think about this. If you wanted to take a road trip with three girlfriends, you’d grab some snacks, load up the iTunes, and away you’d go. No big deal, right? With air-conditioning, cup-holders, comfy suspension, and protection from the elements, modern life on the road isn’t that tough. Sure, you could have a breakdown, but there’s AAA, or a gas station nearby, or… CELL PHONES.
Now imagine you found a time machine and traveled back to 1909. The four of you, all women, will traverse the country in a 1909 Maxwell automobile with no GPS, modern maps, or even roads at times. On the journey, you alone will be responsible for driving and maintaining this new technology–and we’re not talking a basic oil change or cleaning your air filter. We’re talking having to regularly stop and put tubes in tires. About hand lighting the carbide gas headlamps. About risking a broken arm just to crank start the darned engine. Even about repairing a broken axle.
 Oh, and did I mention there’s no room for bulky luggage? Nope. With the voluminous skirts of the day, each lady gets only one extra change of clothes. No mood dressing allowed. Can’t be done? Not true.

Alice Ramsey and her friends did just such a journey.

It’s easy to spot Alice in this picture. She’s the one with fire in her eyes.
I learned about Mrs. Ramsey from a borrowed copy of an autobiography called VEIL, DUSTER, AND TIRE IRON. The story of her adventure, told in her words, is absolutely riveting and inspiring.
Last year a friend surprised me on my birthday with a copy of the book, complete with Alice Ramsey’s autograph. It’s something I treasure.
Vassar educated Alice Huyler Ramsey was born with an adventurous spirit and a natural mechanical inclination, one she credits to her father. Her husband, nearly twice her age, had no interest in automobiles. He in fact, would rarely even ride in one. He knew how much Alice loved them, so bought a red 1908 Maxwell Runabout for her, hoping it would keep her closer to home instead of traipsing off on her horse.

Things didn’t work out that way.

During a New York endurance run in her Maxwell, Alice impressed the heck out of Carl Kelsey, the sales manager for Maxwell, who said she was the greatest natural woman driver he’d yet seen.  He made her a proposition, the “greatest promotional idea of my career,” he said. The idea was this:
[quote]You are going to be the first woman ever to drive an automobile across the United States of America, from Hell Gate on the Atlantic to the Golden Gate on the Pacific… and in a Maxwell![/quote]
Alice of course accepted the challenge, and on a rainy June morning in 1909, 22 year-old Alice left her two-year old child in the care of her husband, and with her companions–two forty-something “fastidious” sisters-in-law, and a 19 year-old friend–they crank-started the four-cylinder Maxwell 30, and roared out of the city on a cross-country adventure, 3800 miles in total–only 152 paved. Over the next 59 Days (41 of them driving), they met horrendous road conditions, inaccurate directions, a pack of Indians, slews of mud and rain, arroyos, rivers with no crossings, and even a manhunt for a killer.
Even though they often had people from the motor company meet up with them, Alice insisted on doing everything herself from the very first day. In New York when they were ready to leave…
[quote]Willing hands reached for the crank handle at the front end but, suddenly recalling that this was to a women’s expedition, I said, Wa-a-it a minute! We’d better get ourselves started![/quote]

She maintained that attitude throughout the entire journey, doing repairs herself, taking full command in an age when women generally took a backseat.

This was also in an age when not everyone appreciated the automobile. In fact, one farmer changed the color of his house from the yellow notated in the Blue-Book, to green simply to throw drivers off track.


The Challenges

Because this drive was a publicity event, the entire trip is well documented. Alice even had a small camera along with her, plus a publicity man, J.D. Murphy, who traveled by train and met up with them along the route to interview the women. With no set itinerary, and no cell phones to check in, it’s amazing he was able to keep up, surprising even Alice.
[quote]I never could figure out how he knew in what town he would find us![/quote]
Iowa was a particularly difficult stretch due to the rain and the mud. At one point, the folks in the lobby of their hotel encouraged them to put the car on a flatbed to Missouri. Alice wouldn’t hear of it.
[quote] I’ll drive every inch of the way if it kills me! To me, it would have been cheating of a sort to use railroad transportation for part of the journey across the continent.[/quote]

Not once did Alice relinquish the wheel, not when she had to drive straight down into an arroyo, or when a prairie dog hole caused the bolt to come out of the tie rod, not even when she had to climb near vertical hills. She wanted every mile, to be her mile. It was her job. And she succeeded.

Alice, Nettie, Margaret, and Hermine arrived in San Francisco on August 7th, to great fanfare. After two months on the road, the women had achieved their goal.

[quote]What a day! But for that matter, what a journey!–a prelude to the thousands of women drivers who would later make this same trip–in much shorter time–from hell Gate to the Golden Gate![/quote]

Alice Ramsey and friends

From one car lovin’ girl to another, thank you Alice, for blazing the path.

So was the publicity stunt successful for Maxwell? Judging by the numbers, I’d say so.  20,500 Maxwell’s were sold in 1910, up from 9,460 in 1909. Pretty good jump! By 1925, though, the Chrysler Company absorbed Maxwell. Sadly, no one knows what happened to the car Alice and her friends drove across country.

Years After the Epic Journey

In 1960, the 43rd National Automobile Show awarded Alice  “Woman Motorist of the Century.”
[quote] Your feat… helped unleash those forces which have put America and the rest of the civilized world on rubber-shod wheels. That trip through an all but trackless land helped mightily to convince the skeptics that automobiles were here to stay–rugged and dependable enough to command any man’s respect, gentle enough for the daintiest lady.[/quote]

Alice released her autobiography in 1961. Searching for what she did in the years after the historic run, I found a Reno newspaper article from 1974, when she visited the Harrah’s automobile collection. What I particularly liked about the article was how she shot down the notion of being a women’s libber. She wasn’t trying to prove anything, she did what she did because she wanted to. Nothing more. THAT’s my kinda attitude!


Alice Huyler Ramsey passed away at age 94 in Covina, California after living a long and amazing life, during which, she continued to drive cross-country, doing it more than 30 times, even crossed five of the six Alp crossings until her doctor put a stop to it. Finally, in 2000, they inducted Alice into the Automotive Hall of Fame, the first woman. About damned time!

Alice Ramsey’s journey made a huge impact on me.  There’s a scene in Alice’s book, somewhere in Iowa, when a lone woman in a sunbonnet sits in her horse-drawn wagon along their path. When the women in the Maxwell approached, she asked if they were the women driving from New York to San Francisco. When they affirmed her assumption, she said:

[quote]I’m sure glad. I read about you in the paper and I’ve come six miles to see you and I’ve been waiting a long time. Yes, I’m sure glad I saw you.[/quote]


This particular passage struck a deep cord. What an inspiration these women were! I can see myself back in 1909, wanting to make the same kind of effort to witness women making history, as did this woman in Iowa.

I wanted to reflect that pioneering, have-no-fear spirit into a novel, and so, Alice’s story became the driving force for my character Emily in the current novel my agent is shopping. Be sure to sign up for the newsletter to get updates on the progress.

And by ALL MEANS… read Alice Ramsey’s book, VEIL, DUSTER, AND TIRE IRON. You won’t regret it.  It’s not easy to find the original printing, but the novel’s reprint,  Alice’s Drive, and is readily available on Amazon.

Yes. I am wearing an Alice Ramsey T-Shirt. I’m a little obsessed.

One more interesting thing I found in my research. In 2009, in honor of Alice’s historic journey, Emily Anderson recreated the drive in a Maxwell. Pretty darned cool! Check out this video.

Oh hey!! Check this out! After my feller read the article, he remembered he had a Maxwell Hot Wheel from when he was a kid! How cool is this??Maxwell Hot WheelUntil next time…Later gators!

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Fiction for people who love things that go VROOM!



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