Grace and Grit

Wm. M. Murphy 200 pages 2012

This is a fun, short (200 pages) little book and so, even though there is a little about Donner Summit included, it’s worth a review.

At first look the story is about the Grace and Grit of a number of women motorcyclists in the early 20th Century.   There are only three main stories though.  Preceding those and within those there are lots of little facts and smaller stories about other women pioneers.  The smaller stories and details are all interesting such as how to drive a motorcycle in the old days.  Pedals were used to get the things going.  There were no cranks.  Gear levers were up by the gas tank, which meant that to change gears, one had to take a hand off the handlebars.  There were people in the Midwest who would dig ditches across the roads or dig ponds and fill the resulting depressions with water.  When autos came along and got stuck the farmers would charge to extract the automobiles.   There is some history of roads, autos, personalities, and use of motorcycles during World War I

There are few pictures but the many stories and quotes do a good job of illustrating.

The main part of the book is about four women motorcycle pioneers and one’s mother.  There is a lot of detail about the trips, two across the country and one around the country and the Caribbean. 

Effie Hotchkiss took her mother and her motorcycle across the country in 1915  missing out on publicity because she was maybe overshadowed by WWI and the Lusitania sinking.  They arrived in San Francisco for the Panama Pacific Exposition.  Effie’s trip was the first round-trip of the continent by motorcycle.  Effie and her mother did cross the Sierra on the way back across the continent but whether the route was over Donner Summit or not is unknown.  We can pretend it was and so, enjoy the story.

Effie must have been a pistol and the author, Wm. Murphy, does a great job of communicating Effie’s unique personality and sense of humor through descriptions of her life and quotes Effie made in her own writing and in newspaper accounts.  There were stories of her early life, baking weekly cakes for the neighboring fire department personnel who were supposed to be helping her become a lady, her purchase of one motorcycle after another, and her attempted elopement.  Of course her decision to travel across country on a motorcycle and sidecar, taking along her 215 pound mother, says a lot about her too.

She decided she needed a pistol for the trip.  New York’s purchase laws were a bit strict but the salesperson noted that it would be easier in New Jersey.  So Effie reflected that New Jersey did not seem to care who got shot as long as it was done in “good clean fun.”  Effie’s humor is also evident in her description of her mother’s continual “tatting,”  “I loved my mother very much but was often tempted to commit mayhem with that tatting shuttle.”   A rain storm occasioned, “A resurrected Noah dashing by  in his ark would not have been too surprising. The motorcycle had learned to swim…”  Effie did not apparently swim well but her mother did and Effie thought her mother might save her in the deluge if the tatting did not get in the way.

Effie showed her inventiveness.  A ruined tube prevented a normal flat tire fix so Effie sliced up a blanket and stuffed it between the tire and the rim.  Effie and Mom were able to get to the next town where Effie was able to buy a tube with five patches on it for the price of a new tube.  Effie said she’d gotten the better deal because she’d have paid double what she had.

In San Francisco Effie ran over a man’s foot.  Eventually he came to New York to visit her and sealed the deal to marriage her by giving her a shotgun.  She was impressed he did not try to give her some “frilly feminine” thing.  “I wanted him for keeps,” she said.  She went off to Oregon to live the life of a rancher without a motorcycle.  She took her mother along.

The Van Buren sisters are the last story and they did go over Donner Summit but apparently found nothing remarkable about the crossing and did not mention it.  August and Adeline Van Buren must have been a pair of pistols; they were certainly not what we’d think of as traditional Victorian ladies.  They boxed, canoed, swam, dove, ice skated, etc. and won prizes and medals for their endeavors.

In 1913, when Augusta was 29 and Adeline was 23, they became motorcyclists and that meant becoming motorcycle mechanics as well.  In 1916 they decided on a transcontinental trip.  They wanted adventure, wanted to use the publicity to get America ready to join the war raging in Europe, and wanted to prove women could play a part.  Augusta and Adeline wanted to be dispatch riders.  Here it’s convenient to talk about one of the strengths of the book.  There are plenty of asides that explain or elaborate on issues.  In this case there is a good summary about dispatch riding with quotes from contemporary dispatch riders.  There was even on female dispatch rider from Ireland.   It was dangerous work; it was not just riding a motorcycle around as my grandfather described his experiences (parenthetically it turned out my grandfather was not a dispatch rider as he’d said.  In reality he was part of a machine gun crew but thought motorcycle riding would better allay a youngster’s questions about the war.)

There area lots of details about the cross country trip including how tiring it must have been.  They were “so tired from struggling through the muddy conditions that they sometimes fell asleep while riding, falling over in the mud.”  There was a side trip up Pike’s Peak.  There was heat, storms, rain, and desert.  Arriving in Nevada there was a sign said lost travelers should light large bonfires of sage brush to hope for rescue.  The sisters did get lost and were saved by a lone prospector who had water and directional knowledge.  Getting to Donner Pass was anti-climactic because the roads improved so much in California. They were “among the best.”  One newspaper article gave some idea of the general ride, “Impossible roads, unseasonable weather and difficulties in untold numbers were encountered at every turn.  Washouts, mountains slides, desert wastes and wrecked bridges delayed but did not deter them.”

Adeline’s daughter also noted, although the sisters did not, that Augusta and Adeline were arrested a couple of times for wearing men’s clothes.  The author thinks “arrest” was used loosely is not convinced it happened since dozens of newspaper accounts never mention it.  It makes a good story though and given that a family member reports it, some credence can be given.

The sisters finished their ride.  The Army refused to use women or enlist the sisters.  They continued to ride motorcycles; got married, had children, and one took up flying.