Edith here, hanging onto every last scrap of summer weather and sun-kissed vegetables.
I pulled out my paternal grandmother’s travel journal recently. I’m not sure why I did, but I sat, mesmerized, turning the pages.
Dorothy Henderson, the eldest of six, at 18 and with her younger and only brother James, drove one of two Cole touring cars from Indiana to Portland, Oregon, and then down to Berkeley, California. She was the first woman to drive halfway across the country (or so the family lore goes). Her father, CP Henderson (my great-grandfather), drove the other car along with his wife, Irma, and the four younger sisters (my great aunts, all of whom I knew).
I knew of this journey, but I’m not sure I knew of it before a series of strokes stole my grandmother from us when I was in ninth grade. I don’t remember her speaking of the trip at any time. But after reading the journal, a new character, a new era, and an entirely new scope of research came knocking at my brain – and I’m resisting as hard as I can! Here are the reasons:
A. I already write one historical mystery series. B. I already write three books a year. C. I know next to nothing about the period.
But consider these delightful bits that Momma Dot (as her grandchildren called Dorothy) so generously scribed – and illustrated – in a clear hand about the trip that started on June 16, 1918 – ninety-nine years ago! Each of the other children kept a diary, too. Her father was to be the new western regional manager for the Cole car company, so the trip was in part a publicity tour, and the family and the two Cole Eights were written about in the newspapers several times.
On their first day, it took eight hours to drive 200 miles west from Indianapolis to Cedar Lake, where they camped.
In certain places after it rained they had to stay in a hotel for a few nights waiting for the mud to dry. She writes, “The roads were almost impassible. Deep, black, sticky mud hub high was everywhere! All of us wish for some good old Indiana roads!”
They continued through Illinois and Nebraska, sometimes camping, sometimes in hotels, making about 200 miles each day. She barely complains about anything, instead describing the scenery in vivid language. “A lovely full moon is rising above the fields of wheat that stretch for miles about us. An old windmill looms up threateningly against the black-blue sky. A cross-continental train just shot past across the prairies looking pretty against the sky with the sparks flying.” She drew the windmill and moon on top of her words, too.
The family made it to Denver in nine days and took a day trip to Pike’s Peak, where “a charge of two dollars was made for each one going up to the top by the new auto road,” and she reports that several of the family felt ill and dizzy at the summit. Having gotten word of poor roads in Wyoming, they decided to continue via Salt Lake City, instead. “The roads were not very good for the most part, being narrow and along ledges, down which you can look for hundreds and thousands of feet.”
They traveled through what Dorothy calls the Great Utah Desert, and helped other travelers along the way, pushing one car up a steep incline, pumping up a tire for another, and sharing water with a third.
My grandmother celebrated her nineteenth birthday in style in Salt Lake City, with dinner on Hotel Utah’s rooftop garden. “Our wonderful dinner was well seasoned with dancing and music so everything was ideal.”
And on they went, including a stop at Yellowstone.
From there they made it to Portland, Oregon, finally landing at their new home in Berkeley, California, on August 10.
My grandmother includes many more rich details about the trip in the diary. Can you see why I have a new story brewing? Or maybe I’ll just let Dorothy tell her own. I also have the diary of Allan Maxwell, Sr. (my grandfather, and Dorothy’s husband) from his 1912 European “tour” with his older sister Ruth when he was sixteen. Every entry includes the weather (a Maxwell family inherited interest) and what he ate that day – which might sound familiar to those who have been or known teenage boys!
Readers: Have you been blessed with an ancestor’s journal or diary? Or read historical fiction based on a real account?