Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Behind the Wheel with Alice Ramsey: The First All-Female Road Trip

 by Susanne Dietze

Alice Huyler Ramsey drove for miles, searching for the yellow barn without success. The  barn served as a landmark in an American Automobile Association’s guidebook, which motorists relied on for navigation back in 1909, but the brightly-painted building, which indicated she should make a turn, was not where the guidebook said it should be.

Little did Ramsey know that the pro-horse farmer who owned the barn painted it green in order to foil her attempt to be the first woman to drive an automobile across country.

Assuming she'd miscalculated, Ramsey continued onward, went the wrong way, and got lost.

But not for long. As she would throughout the journey when she hit dead ends or rough terrain, Ramsey backtracked, corrected, and continued westward on an adventure of a lifetime.

Ramsey wasn’t out to prove anything. Making the 3,600 mile drive from New York City to San Francisco wasn’t even her idea. But it was one she embraced—and executed—with gusto, seizing the opportunity and letting it take her where it would.

In 1908, Ramsey’s husband John bought her an automobile.  Just 22-years old, she took driving lessons at the local Maxwell-Briscoe dealership in Hackensack, New Jersey and spent the summer putting 6,000 miles on her new car. After she participated in a 200-mile endurance drive, a Maxwell-Briscoe sales manager with the too-fabulous name of Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey saw an advertising opportunity in her, and he proposed the cross-country trip (all expenses paid, of course) to prove that a Maxwell was so safe and reliable, even a woman driver (!) could drive one across America.

Ramsey said “yes” and invited a few friends along: her sisters-in-law Nettie Powell and Margaret Atwood, and 16-year-old Hermine Jahns, none of whom could drive. On June 9, 1909, Ramsey kissed John goodbye, cranked the Maxwell’s engine, and set off from New York City.
On the road, Ramsey and her companions showed flexibility and resourcefulness. They slept under the stars some nights, and spent others in grand hotels when they paused for publicity stops (one hotel in Wyoming gave Ramsey a present to take with her: bedbugs). When restaurants or locally-offered home-cooked meals weren’t available, the ladies procured tins from general stores and picnicked alongside the road.

Ramsey changed a dozen flat tires, cleaned spark plugs, and ran out of gas—little wonder considering that checking the fuel tank required the removal of the entire front seat cushion. Another day, Powell and Atwood carried ditchwater to the radiator using their silver toiletries holders.

Needless to say, progress was slow. The car’s speed topped at 42 mph on the Cleveland Highway, but most of the roads Ramsey traveled were unpaved and landmarks weren't always reliable. Hired drivers and supporters guided Ramsey when possible, but she was often on her own regarding directions. A few protesters popped up along the way, but they were not against female drivers, as far as I can tell. Most of them, like the farmer with the yellow barn, were pro-horse.

Aside from dealing with the car, Ramsey had almost-daily meetings with the press and found herself in danger more than once. Her path crossed a manhunt searching for a killer in Nebraska, and in Nevada she and her friends were surrounded by a Native American hunting party.

Ramsey and her companions arrived in San Francisco on August 10, 1909—59 days after they set out. Both driver and sponsor seemed pleased with the result of the trip. Maxwell-Briscoe saw an increase in car sales, and Ramsey (who got to keep the car) and her friends returned home, proud of their accomplishment. Ramsey settled back into her life, bore two children, and in 1917 her husband John was elected to Congress. He never learned to drive, relying on his wife, who continued driving until her death in 1983.

In 1961 she published the story of her journey, Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, one year after she was named AAA’s “Woman Motorist of the Century.”

I like to think of her as much more than a motorist, however. Alice Ramsey was presented an opportunity for adventure doing something she enjoyed, and she embraced it. She persevered, even when others tried to make things difficult.  Her husband’s support, the fellowship of friends, and the reminder of her goal no doubt made the difficult times more tolerable. She kept on driving, sometimes off course, but she kept moving.

And she didn’t turn back.

Serious Question: The story about the farmer painting his barn green to thwart Alice made me think about her mettle. When someone disapproves of you or makes accomplishing your goals difficult, are you disheartened or energized to prove them wrong?

Fun Question: Have you taken a memorable road trip? Where did you go and what did you see?

 Susanne Dietze has written love stories set in the nineteenth century since she was in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and spending time with family and friends. Her work has finaled in the 2010 Genesis Contest, the 2009 Gotcha! Contest, and the Touched By Love Contest, 2008 and 2009. You can visit her on her personal blog, Tea and a Good Book, http://www.susannedietze.blogspot.com/

All photos public domain.


  1. oh I LOVE LOVE LOVE this story. It touches a lot of things in me--maybe most of all the love of road trips with my friends!

    I will be looking for this book!
    thanks Susie.
    Gosh - filling the radiator using their silver, and all that work to accomplish this trip just amazes me!

  2. Weren't those ladies resourceful? And positive? After a few days cramped in that dusty car, bouncing on one of those hard bench seats, I'd have probably been whining. After the manhunt, I'd have *definitely* been whining. I love how they were cheerful and persevered.

    It does put me in the mood for a road trip, however. All of my childhood vacations were road trips to Tennessee, and I have the best memories of all the things (and people!) we saw on our various routes.

    Thanks, Deb!

  3. PS It's the second day of school here. All the enthusiasm and excitement of yesterday is GONE. I'm dragging! Need more coffee!

    Anybody else start school yesterday?

  4. I love this, Susie. What a fun story. I'd like to get my hands on Alice's journal. Thanks for sharing this. It reminds me of Margaret Brownley's Ribbons in the Wind where the heroine is in a cross country race.

  5. School starts here the day after Labor Day.

    Alice's tenacity amazes me. I want to be like that. Wish I could say I didn't let adversity dishearten me, but I can say that often after an initial pity party, I trudge back into striving for my goal because I want to prove to X that I can do it.

    My husband says I'm more competive than him. Yes, I scoff at that. Most of the time if I win, I win. If I lose, I lose. No biggie. But if someone starts gloating, then I try harder to win or at least to twart that person from winning.

    My problem is that I'm not a busy bee. I'm a butterfly.

    Okay, Susie, I had to think a bit more about Alice's story. She took friends on her journey. She didn't go it alone because she knew she couldn't go it alone.

    Seems that one of the key componants into goal-achievement is having a support team.

    What's that scripture verse about a three-stringed cord not being easily broken?

  6. Sneaking in here... love the post, Susie. I love driving, and I love navigating more. Nels and I even entered a day-long car rally here in Saskatchewan once. Fun, fun, fun. Well, except when the driver doesn't listen to the navigator. Then it's pure horror.

    Okay, back to work...

  7. I haven't heard of that book, Suzie. Sounds fun. I'll have to jot down the title. It really is a great premise for a story.

  8. I envy you still being on summer vacation, Gina. Last night I signed my name a few dozen times on various forms. (Yes, I read and understood the discipline code. Yes, I read and understood the absence policy.) I would appreciate getting these forms in the spring and having all summer to fill them out!

    I am a lot like you when it comes to adversity. It disheartens me, too, but then I get inspired. I am not one of those people who thrives on being told I can't and is inspired to prove people wrong. I wish I were a bit more like that, rather than taking it to heart.

    I like Alice's fellowship, too. I do so much better when I'm on a team, encouraging others and being encouraged.

  9. Anita, you are a great driver! I love hearing about your travels. That's wonderful that you and Nelson like to drive together. :-)

    Hope your work is coming along. You're inspiring me!

  10. Alice must be an honorary Inkie.
    We're driving along together, just like she did. It's all about support and friendship!

  11. Blogger finally let me comment!

    I enjoy road trips. Unfortunately I'm the kind who wants to stop at sites along the way, and hubby is the kind who just wants to get there.

    But what an inspiring story. The thing that struck me about her story is her ability to get back on the road after things go wrong. I'm too easily deterred from my course. Or is that detoured from my course...

    Nice post!

  12. Barb, on my first road trip with my husband, I'd point out tourist/historical sites and he'd want to just keep on driving. Granted, we had to be across country in a certain amount of time... But I know what you're talking about!

    Alice's gumption is inspiring to me, too.

    Hope everyone is having a good evening!

  13. Very interesting story. Driving was quite an adventure back in those days. You actually had to know what you were doing. ;)

    I'm so stubborn, if someone tells me I won't be able to do something, I usually just get more determined to do it anyway. :D

  14. You're right DeAnna--driving involved a few different elements back then. I was amazed that one had to remove the seats to check the fuel tank. And the tires had no treads!

    I'm glad nothing gets in the way of your determination! :D


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