Memories of Yesteryear

Part 8

Women who 'marked their time'

Having presented a gallery of beautiful females riding vintage metal steeds or indeed being the pillion on those wonderful machines, it's now time I turned my attention to the professional riders.

As I have experienced in these columns before, the dilemma I faced was in choosing the ladies who would figure in this homage. Since the beginning of the 1900s, the list of famous female motorcyclists has grown far too large to enable me to give space and credit to them all.

I would of course like to describe every one of them, if only to recount their various merits and their numerous accomplishments. This however would prove impossible and I'd have to write an entire book so as not to leave anyone out.

That said, I hope that the ones I omit here, although they are no longer with us, will not hold it against me. One thing though is certain; there is enough material here to cover several pages in order to do the stories any justice at all, and to enable me to move on with some semblance of having covered this mammoth topic.

Fernande Clouet - 'l'avant gardiste'

Although there's probably some mention of Fernande Clouet in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale of France, almost nothing is known of this French pioneer.

The little that one can glean comes from the very rare postcards published at the time that show her in action at the turn of the 1900s.

Fernande Clouet, seen here in 1903 on the track near Chateau Thierry, posing with her trusty Georgia Knap

She was undoubtedly one of the very first female motorcyclists of the beginning of the last century to have participated in track and road races in her homeland, mainly on Georgia Knap and Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Fernande Clouet riding the Georgia-Knap at an event in 1905

The little photographic evidence that still remains today shows her wearing the same hat. This looked a bit like a chauffeur's cap, and intrigued me to such an extent that I felt the need to research the headgear of the era.

As these images from the early 1900s show, Fernande seemed to have a preference for men's hats rather than the sophisticated and extravagant headgear of the women of the time

As I guessed, it turns out that this cap is probably not a woman's hat but rather a man's, as these 1900s advertisements seem to prove.

A woman wearing a man's hat and taking part in a man's sport, especially at the start of the 1900s, says a lot about the extraordinary and daring character of Fernande Clouet.

A rare drawing dating from 1903 depicts Fernande Clouet racing on her Georgia Knap during a track competition at the Parc des Princes

Clara Wagner - A woman denied a medal due

Among the long list of American pioneers, the earliest pioneer mentioned is Clara Marian Wagner, (1891-1961); the first woman to take part in motorcycle competitions there.

Her innate enthusiasm for motorcycles from an early age was hardly surprising. After all, her father was the owner of the Wagner Motorcycle Company in St Paul established in 1901 as an offshoot from a bicycle company.

Clara's father, George Wagner, a German immigrant who started to experiment with motorcycles. In 1901, 60 motorcycles were produced. The earliest ad, from 1903, states 'The Wagner Motor Cycle has no equal'.

During the spring of 1907, 15-year-old Clara Wagner joined the Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) becoming the first female member.

In the fall of 1910, she was among the participants in the first FAM endurance run competition, covering approximately 360 miles (580km) between Chicago and Indianapolis via Fort Wayne.

Federation of American Motorcyclists

Those participating in the event headed out of Chicago on their bikes on the morning of October 8 and after staying overnight in Fort Wayne, continued the next day until they reached the finish line in Indianapolis.

Clara, who was 18 years old at the time, travelled from St Paul to compete in this endurance run. Her father accompanied her on his own bike as both a chaperone and fellow participant.

This run began with at least 65 motorcyclists riding out of Chicago and, according to various press accounts, ended with just 59 making it all way to Indianapolis.

The evolution of Wagner models through advertising (1904, 1906, and 1912)

Clara more than held her own throughout the entire run, not only on those roads that were eminently navigable, but on the many that were rough, rutted and dusty, having to deal with heavy rain and adverse conditions along the way.

Clara's only documented mishap occurred when she fell from her motorcycle while trying to cross train tracks in Fort Wayne, fortunately incurring only minor injuries. She completed the run on the afternoon of 9 October, arriving at the finish in front of the Dennison Hotel in Indianapolis with a perfect score.

The young woman rider had no difficulty keeping up with the other machines on the ride from Chicago, noted the Indianapolis News. The Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal asserted, Her performance was truly remarkable and showed a display of nerve and skill which would have done credit to many a male rider.

Despite such accolades and a perfect score, Clara didn't receive a medal or any other type of official recognition from the organisers. The Indianapolis Star reported that this lack of an award was, because the rules bar women from motorcycle contests.

An example of the medals awarded to participants who finished with a perfect score.

Though she was denied a medal, about 50 of the male participants collectively, if perhaps rather informally, presented her with a gold pendant for her efforts.

Clara subsequently participated in other motorcycle competitions and performed similarly well. She also became a popular spokesperson for her father's line of motorcycles. Women Can Ride Wagner Machines as Easily as Men, proclaimed one of the company's advertisements displaying her image.

She also appeared in a series of promotional postcards, including the one above

Her pioneering role in the 1910s, considered by many to be the golden age of American motorcycling, helped pave the way for several other female motorcyclists in the US. This subsequently proved to be a rich decade for female motorcycling.

Della Crewe - Trouble came too

Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1884, Della Crewe was truly the premier female 'raider' of her country.

The story goes that by 1910 Miss Della Crewe had moved to Waco, Texas and found herself a job as a manicurist. While visiting her family back home in Wisconsin in 1913, it is said that Della was inspired to try her hand at motorcycling by a younger cousin.

A spirit of adventure subsequently consumed her together with an infatuation with the total freedom that only a motorcycle could bring. This led the 29-year-old to aspire to an adventure that would take all her resolve and determination to complete, but which would allow her a chance to truly experience unfettered freedom.

After trading in her first motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson single that she'd purchased upon arriving back home to Waco, she picked up a 1914 two-speed Harley-Davidson twin. This bike was complete with a sidecar rig, the cutting-edge setup offered by the Milwaukee company at the time.

Friends and neighbours helped her equip and prepare for the daunting journey. They presented her with a unique travelling companion; a Boston Bull Terrier puppy which she named Trouble. On 24 June 1914, Della and Trouble, with a sidecar full of supplies set off bound for New York City and whatever they could find along the way.

Miss Della Crewe and her travelling companion Trouble in 1914

Right from the start, the weather seemed against her, and though the difficult road ahead was full of dangers and discomforts, Della insisted on pressing forward on her own terms. She pressed on despite dreadful roads and adverse weather conditions, often having to use snow chains to get through thick mud, only finding respite whilst riding the rare lengths of paved roads in America's larger cities.

By the 4th of July Della and Trouble had made it to Dodge City, Kansas for the second annual FAM road race. The event garnered tremendous press coverage for young Della, quickly establishing her as the darling of both the local and national journalists who were eager to keep track of this pioneer female rider.

From Kansas she continued on to St Louis, Missouri to attend the annual convention of the Federation of American Motorcyclists, the predecessor of the American Motorcycle Association

From Kansas, she meandered through Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin; the conditions steadily improving, until eventually she reached the newly completed Harley-Davidson HQ, and was greeted with a warm reception.

After she left Milwaukee she headed into Indiana where authorities stopped her twice because of her dog. There was a quarantine in Indiana because of foot and mouth disease and Della had to promise that her dog wouldn't leave the sidecar before they were allowed to proceed.

Della visiting the headquarters of Harley-Davidson

She then spent several difficult months traversing a sub-zero and snowy Midwest, sometimes taking hours to travel just a mile or two, and often having to delay her journey for days until conditions improved. Eventually, she made it across Ohio, up through Pennsylvania, and into New York, ultimately reaching her destination in New York City on 12 December 1914.

Della, Trouble, and her trusty Harley-Davidson had covered 5,378 miles across 10 states in 6 months, but her journey was far from over. As Della stated afterwards, I had a glorious trip. I am in perfect health and my desire is stronger than ever to keep going.

She didn't stop there. Since the Great War had begun in Europe, she couldn't take her Harley-Davidson and her beloved dog Trouble across the Atlantic so she headed south on a boat bound for Jacksonville, Florida.

From Jacksonville Della headed further south, battling shin deep sand for hundreds of miles until she ultimately had to board a train to Key West. There she recalled that the beautiful blue Key seemed to team with sponges and cigars and that, Oh! If I were a man, I'd have bought some cigars, sat down in a cosy hotel chair and reviewed in the puffs of curling smoke my glorious motorcycle trip which I had so happily ended in Key West.

Della loved wandering freely wherever she wished, stopping along the way to meet new people, and sharing stories with the locals

However, her journey didn't end there. From Key West she headed to the Caribbean and throughout the summer of 1915 Della and Trouble continued their journey, booking a passage back to Florida.

Then she booked passage to Havana, Cuba where she toured the island, still on her Harley-Davidson.

Her adventures on three wheels appear regularly in the American press

She sailed further south, over the Caribbean Sea to Panama where she visited the newly open Panama Canal.

Then she visited the island of Jamaica, back then still part of the British Empire.

An excerpt from the cover page of Motor Cycle Illustrated magazine for December 9, 1915 in which there is a report of Della's journey

Here she rode to the top of the highest peak.

Della's outfit snapped on Jamaica's highest mountain road; a 35,000 foot climb

From Jamaica she then hopped to the island of Puerto Rico.

She then sailed back home to Florida, rode to Tampa, then onto Atlanta, Carolinas, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, before arriving in New York City for the second time.

She didn't stop for long though, motoring across the US to Los Angeles where she settled for awhile in 1916, working as a manicurist and shop clerk.

Miss Della Crewe (left) in Atlanta in September, 1915 after having just returned to the US from her motorcycling adventures in South American and the Caribbean. After beginning her journey in June the year before, Della had travelled through numerous countries, countless states, and had covered nearly 11,000 miles with only the company of her trusty companion Trouble, a feisty little terrier

Della didn't achieve this amazing feat simply by focusing on completing the trip or seeking fame; she made a point of wandering freely wherever she wished, stopping along the way to meet new people, share stories with the locals, and even join in small town parades when the occasions presented themselves.

She was an ambassador for two-wheeled freedom, not because of ambition to be a celebrity, but because of her overriding passion for freedom and her undeniable spirit of adventure.

- Jean-Francois Helias

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