A Story Comes Knocking

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).

Back row from left: Jimmy, Dorothy, CP, Ruth, Irma. Front row from left: Alice, Edith, Helen

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. 20170827_122418

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!”

windmilldrawingThey 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?


50 Thoughts

  1. What a great thing to have, Edith! I would look forward to reading a book you wrote about their times and travels. I wonder how the war might have affected them and if anyone mentioned it in their journal, or did they focus more on the journey. Really impressive that they did this!

  2. You KNOW when a story comes knocking you GOTTA answer the door. Sorry, Edith, but you can’t get out of writing it when you already have a primary source. First dibs on an ARC.

  3. Brilliant! Just brilliant! What a wonderful window into another time. Thanks for sharing!

  4. What a wonderful treasure! Somewhere are my grandfather’s photos and albums – he was a great photographer for his entire life. I wonder what my father did with them. I should ask when I see him this weekend.

  5. This is great, Edith. And yes, it is hard to resist. I put my grandfather’s memoirs into book form for the family and later put Life of a Plodder (his title) online and so far I’ve used incidents from his life in one children’s book, one historical mystery, and one short story. Yup, that’s the 1887-8 material. Grampa made it too vivid to resist. Someday I hope to make use of some of my mother’s stories about growing up in the 1920s but you’re right–writing three books a year doesn’t leave much spare time.

  6. What a wonderful thing to have, and how nice that people treasured it and kept it! I wish my newlywed grandmother had kept a diary when she and her husband ended up on an orange plantation in Cuba in the 1920s (a gift from her mother-in-law, who thought her son needed something to keep him busy), but I’m guessing they were kind of busy. She did tell stories about it, though.

  7. What a fabulous treasure to have! And what a great way to learn history! My sister did a genealogical book of our paternal side and gave me all the research pieces she had. Yes, it is great material for a book and I have started the historical research. Go for it Edith! Yours sounds wonderful!

  8. What a wonderful find, Edith–and with the priceless drawings Don’t resist such great material–go for it!

  9. What a fabulous thing to have. And interesting, and historical. I have a series of letters my great-great grandfather wrote to a niece from various battlefields and postings during the Civil War, as well as a photo of him in uniform. My brother has his dress sword.

      1. It drives me mad that my family (the Massachusetts side) saved one letter per person. It makes me wonder how they chose that single one, because there certainly must have been more. One I treasure is a letter written by my great-great-grandfather to his mother, shortly after he’d joined the army in the Civil War, at the age of 16. He didn’t write much about what he was doing or seeing, but he promised his mother he was working hard to be a better person.

  10. What a treasure! I don’t have anything like this any longer. My husband’s mother was a great documentor and we had all of her travel journals but lost everything when our house burned down. I’d hoped to write her story one day. This is really wonderful, Edith~

    1. How terrible to have a fire at atll. I guess I’d better get the whole diary scanned and transcribed while I can! Thanks for the warning, Marni.

  11. I keep wanting to make a cross country road trip. Something about it sounds like such fun, so I can see why this has captured your brain.

    Of course, the reality is I get tired of driving and being in the car after a few hours when I’m just driving to the Bay Area to visit family. But part of me still thinks it sounds like fun.

    1. I’ve done several cross-country drives, Mark – but I never took almost two months to do it, LOL. (My latest cross-half-country drive was solo from here to southern Indiana when I was writing Country Store #1. Now I’m more than halfway through #5!)

  12. My grandmother, actually she was my grandfather’s 2nd wife but was a relative; wrote and self published two books about our family and a third from her side of the family. They were really quite interesting. I still have mine as well as a book of short stories about individual family members that she published. These books are cherished.

  13. I have my great grandmother (Mary Ann Forbes’) journal. She was a writer–mostly for the local newspaper and I have clippings of some of her published poems and a super description of the toys she played with as a child. Also the journal of a friend’s great great who traveled by train from New York to California late 1800s. Great stuff!

  14. I recently attended a talk at the local Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum. It was about the trip to LA of three young men in an Auburn. The time period was pretty close. They had to help rescue many cars along the way. They stayed in one town for a week or more to get a new part on the car. It was really interesting and I’m not related to any of them!! They started in Fort Wayne and went to Indy for the 500 then went on from there. One of them kept a diary and took photos. As I said it was interesting. I said at the time it would make a great book. But yours would be even better. Your grandmother seems to be a better writer than he was. 😉

  15. Very cool that your grandmother did this and even cooler you still have it! I can definitely see why this is inspiring.

  16. Hi Edith,

    Your blog post piqued my interest. I am working on a family historical fiction novel based on a trunk of family heirlooms left to me. I have letters and artifacts spanning from 1880s through the 1950s, and right now I’m writing in the 1910s in the Midwest. Good luck! Look forward to following your new story.

    Rebecca Jones

    1. Lucky you, Rebecca! I do write a historical mystery series set in my town in the late 1880s, but I don’t have any family history here.

  17. Completely fascinating diary! I love the fact that it is illustrated, accompanying the wonderful writing. Your family history is engrossing. Have you considered non-fiction as a method to share the stories?

    1. In my spare time, Patti? ;^) Not really, but I would like to at least transcribe and photograph Momma Dot’s journal, as well as that of my grandfather. Such treasures.

  18. Oh the possibilities! I can imagine the series you’d make about this, maybe venture into YA.
    My father wrote his stories down for us, and I typed them up as soon as I was able to take typing class, but no journals.

  19. In the 1930s, my father, a friend Greg, and the friend’s mother drove from Fort Wayne, IN to Los Angeles in a Model A. The mother must have been in her 50s, but she was game! Pictures show her in her calf-length dress, hat, and good solid shoes sitting on a rock eating lunch somewhere along the way, and other such revealing incidents. Most of the roads were not paved. They had multiple flat tires. I heard a few wonderful stories growing up. I finally got to meet Greg at my father’s funeral. I didn’t know he lived in the area or was still alive. Unfortunately, there is no written record of the journey. I do have a box of letters from my father to his mother from a few years earlier when he was living in LA and Tucson. They were a real revelation and a joy.

    The Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum is in Auburn, IN.

  20. Wow! And I thought I had an adventure driving from the Washington, DC area to Idaho in 1981! (My sister drove her two kids, my mother and four cats in a station wagon. I drove my new brother-in-law, a cockatiel, two guinea pigs and a gardenia in a second car.)
    My grandmother crossed the ocean with four children, a niece by marriage and assorted cousins. It was a two-week adventure in storms.I wish I had heard the stories first hand.
    What a fantastic treasure you have in the journal!

    1. Sounds like quite a drive, Tonette. I drove all my belongs, including some big plants, from southern Indiana to Boston, also in 1981, arriving on New Year’s Day, 1982. And never moved away!

      1. I’ve driven cross country several times, and half way across even more often. Sometimes I have someone along, i.e., my husband, but I’ve done it alone, too, once pulling a U-Haul trailer. I’m impressed with all the folks here who have done similar things, including YOU.

  21. Edith,a few years ago, someone wrote a book about the first cross-country trip by automobile ever made, I think it was by a father and son, and it was fascinating. I wish I could remember the name of it for you! Your grandmother’s diary sounds just as fascinating, especially to me, as my grandfather’s family traveled from Washington State to Casey, Illinois sometime in the 1920’s, and I remember a few of his stories about that.

    Nancy Eady

  22. If you ever decide to go forward with this project, and you need information about what driving was like in those days, I have a wonderful original copy of Scarborough’s Official Tour Book from 1917. It doesn’t cover your geographic area, but the descriptions for getting anywhere in a car in those days are wonderful.

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