Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Woman Warrior: Alice Ramsey

Today, was like any other day: my alarm went off, I got ready for work, I got in my truck... and then nothing. My truck didn't start. The same thing happened the other day, but I was kind of just hoping that the battery just got run down. I took out the battery charger (again), but this time it didn't hold a charge. Despite the fact that I was just sitting in my driveway, I called AAA. The technician was there in less than an hour and... get this... it was a woman!! You know that I was thrilled to see a woman working in a field that is dominated by men.

That got me to thinking about my woman warrior series and women who have made strides in the automobile industry. A little bit of looking around led me to Alice Ramsey. In a time when women still didn't have the right to vote and were far from independent, Alice Ramsey was the first woman to drive across the United States. It was 1909 and she was 22 years old. She drove a dark-green, four-cylinder, 30-horsepower 1909 Maxwell DA, a touring car with two bench seats and a removable pantasote roof. The highest speed it reached: 42 miles per hour. At this time, it was typical to see women travel short distances, but a cross-country trip had been tried only a handful of times and never accomplished. Only six years had passed since Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson’s 1903 drive marked the first male cross-country success.

We take some things for granted with our cars today: at that time, the sheer physical triumph of survival of a cross country trip was impressive. Though the Maxwell-Briscoe Company published an ad stating that the group (Ramsey traveled with her two sisters-in law and a friend) traveled “without a particle of car trouble,” this was far from the truth. Ramsey had fixed at least one tire blowout and had called for a mechanic to repair a coil in Syracuse, waiting near their car as someone in the crowd cried “Get a horse!” as Ramsey would recall. In the Midwest, the car ran out of gas. The women had forgotten to check the tank, a process that required the driver and her seatmate to leave the car, remove the front seat cushion, and stick a ruler into the Maxwell’s specially fitted 20-gallon fuel tank. The next day, moving through mud in low gear overworked the car, and the transmission needed water. There was no extra on board, so her two sisters-in-law proved their mettle by using their toothbrush and toiletries holders—made of cut-glass and sterling silver—to transport water ounce by ounce from road-side ditches to the radiator. Some potholed, muddy roads proved practically impassable for the tread-less tires. It was slow-moving and, in one case, no-moving: the women slept beside an overflowed creek until the water receded enough that they could ford it.

Because the automobile industry was yet in its infancy, America’s roads were not yet designed for long-distance driving. For navigation, Ramsey relied on the Blue Book series of automotive guides, which gave directions using landmarks. But sometimes the route changed faster than the books. The women struggled to find a “yellow house and barn” at which they were supposed to turn left; a horse-loyal farmer had deliberately foiled drivers by repainting in green. Worse, there were no books for regions west of the Mississippi River. The Maxwell took worn routes, at crossroads following the telegraph poles “with the greatest number of wires,” according to Ramsey. On certain days, the Maxwell-Briscoe Company hired pilot cars familiar with the area to lead them. Even so, the party sometimes hit a dead end at a mine or sandpit and had to backtrack for miles.

Finally, on August 7, 1909, and they had made it. In total, the trip had taken 59 days and covered 3,800 miles from New York to California.

After her brief bout with fame, Ramsey returned to New Jersey by train, where she resumed a relatively low-key profile raising two children. She continued her cross-country drives, losing count after her thirtieth. In 1960, the Automobile Manufacturers Association named her their “First Lady of Automotive Travel” for her trek across a “trackless land.” The next year Ramsey published Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, a chronicle of the 1909 trip. She later drove five of the six passes of the Swiss Alps, giving up the last under doctor’s orders regarding her pacemaker. Ramsey died in 1983.

It's crazy for me to think that even today, in our forward thinking society, there are some women that don't even know how to fill up their gas tank, that simply look at their engine and get intimidated. And then you look back at a brave, pioneer like Alice Ramsey... I don't know about you, but it makes me want to get greasy and learn about the inside of my truck.


mermaiden said...

you have to put her book on your "must reads" list, you know.
mad maxine we shall nickname her.

AdobeSol said...

Great blog! This article inspires me to create a piece of jewelry and name it "Alice Ramsey"... Thank you for sharring!