Memories of Yesteryear

Part 10

Women who made an impact

Adeline and Augusta van Buren

Two sisters from New York, Augusta (24) and Adeline Van Buren, (22) were eager members of the Preparedness Movement, a campaign dedicated to strengthening American military readiness at home in anticipation of joining the conflict in Europe. This you must remember was the summer of 1916 and the United States was poised to enter the First World War.

Gussie and Addie were born into privilege and the high society life, both of them possessing a pronounced adventurous streak.

They learned to fly, could handle themselves well in a boxing ring, raced horses, and rode motorcycles. The sisters decided that though the military didn't permit women in combat, they would make excellent dispatch riders, racing between outposts on the front lines to deliver urgent communications. Gussie and Addie figured this would be a way to serve the military during wartime, and they'd be able to free up men for combat duty.

World War I propaganda posters - The Army and Navy had such severe clerical shortages that the Navy approved the enlistment of women. By the end of America's first month at war, 600 female Yeomen (petty officers) were on duty. By the end of the war in 1918, more than 11,000 women had joined the Navy's ranks

These were very dangerous occupations as they'd be valuable and vulnerable targets, riding in very difficult and dismal conditions. The Van Burens though were confident their motorcycle skills and resilience gave them all the experience they'd need. First, however, they'd have to convince the military that they could serve their roles successfully.

The sisters decided to ride coast to coast, from New York City to San Francisco, as a demonstration that women could serve as dispatch riders as well as any man.

This of course took place at a time when female motorcyclists weren't exactly unheard of, but were still a rarity. Only a decade before the magazine Motorcycle Illustrated ran a headline that read simply: 'Detroit Has a Female Motorcyclist.' Yes, you read that correctly, just one in the whole of Detroit.

They'd be on their own, left to figure out how to navigate, resupply, source petrol, and defend themselves. Bandits still held up stagecoaches in the more desolate parts of the highway

This all happened long before paved highways and the infrastructure to support motorised travel existed in much of the United States. There were few places to refuel, obtain food and water, and find a mechanic, especially in the western states.

The sisters decided to follow the newly christened 'Lincoln Highway' stretching from Manhattan to the southern shores of the Golden Gate in San Francisco. However, the term 'highway' today denotes a much grander standard of road than existed back then. Much of the route was simply rough dirt tracks. They'd be on their own, left to work out how to navigate, source petrol, source supplies and defend themselves. Robbery and lawlessness was still common and stagecoaches were often held up along the more desolate parts of the route.

To prepare, Gussie and Addie went on long-distance rides in New York, growing accustomed to long days in the saddle and exposure to elements. They tested their gear and clothing, gradually increasing the distance they rode until finally they felt ready.

To prepare for their adventure, the two sisters went on long-distance rides New York to get used to long days in the saddle and test their equipment

On 4 July 1916, the sisters climbed aboard their top-of-the-line bikes, courtesy of Indian Motorcycles, lent to them in return for the PR they were generating for the brand. They each rode the 'Power Plus' model, which sold for $275, a 1,000cc machine with a top speed of 65 mph.

The engine had a three-speed, hand operated gearbox with a foot-operated clutch and an all-chain drive. The machine also had Firestone 'non-skid' tyres and a gas headlight that allowed night riding. The downside? The bike had no suspension, no shock absorbers, and a small fuel tank, leading to frequent searches for fuel stops.

These were simple but rugged motorcycles capable of mixed terrain travel. Their riders wore only leather caps, sturdy goggles, leather jackets and trousers, and calf-high boots.

The Power Plus was the top-of-the-range bike at the time. It was Indian's first flathead, v-twin engine, and was called 'Power Plus' because of its 16-horsepower output.

From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they set off, bound for San Francisco, with the daunting prospect of 3,800 miles of hard riding ahead of them.

There were no road maps west of the Mississippi, their great-nephew Robert Van Buren once said of his aunts' trip. The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails.

After an uneventful beginning of their journey, things took a turn for the absurd once they reached the Midwest, becoming distinctly awkward.

The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails.

In many towns, especially in rural America, women wearing trousers was a serious violation of the social order at the time. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more casual attire, dresses were considered the norm.

Gussie and Addie were just out of Chicago, barreling west through the ring of small townships that radiated from the city through central Illinois when they were pulled over by police for their scandalous dress and reported for wearing men's clothing.

The Van Burens' military-style jackets and leather riding trousers, covered in grime and dead bugs, got them arrested again and again by police in towns unaccustomed to women on motorcycles. This was doubly confusing to the police who were unaccustomed to women not only wearing trousers, but riding motorcycles without being accompanied by men!

At the time, especially in rural America, women wearing pants was a serious violation of the social order

Though they'd hoped to reach San Francisco by August, the sisters, delayed by weather and repeated run-ins with the law, arrived in the Rocky Mountains in August, a month after they'd set out.

Gussie and Addie, in a 'to hell with it' moment decided to take a detour and ride to the summit of Pikes Peak, at 14,109 feet. This was by no means an easy ride using the vehicles of the day, and in doing so they became the first women to reach the summit of Pikes Peak by any kind of motorised transport, earning them their first record.

By August they reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and became the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pikes Peak by motorised vehicle, earning them their first record

From there, they drove west as the crow flies over the Rockies, trudging up isolated trails often softened and sticky with thick mud from torrential rain. Their motorcycles became stuck fast in the treacly mud and the sisters were eventually forced to abandon their bikes and walk to Gilman. This was small mining town filled with men shocked to see two young women emerge on foot from the hills, freezing and wearing mud-splattered leathers.

The miners helped the Van Burens free their motorcycles, but once again they found themselves repeatedly having to follow impossibly wet trails, as they headed further west.

The high arid desert near Salt Lake City nearly proved their undoing after they lost theirway in a dust storm and became completely disoriented, stalling their progress. A passing prospector, his horse-drawn cart loaded with water and food, quenched their thirst and pointed them in the right direction.

Finally, on 2 September, the pair rolled into San Francisco. They'd covered 5,500 miles and taken twice as long as they'd planned. However, having braved horrendous conditions and the wrath of confused policeman along the way, the Van Buren sisters had earned their second record and became the first women to ride solo cross-country on motorcycles. Still, with a bit more fuel in their tanks, they decided to extend the trip even further, travelling across the Mexican border to Tijuana.

They continued south and completed their journey on 8 September arriving in Los Angeles. Still, they pressed on, travelling across the Mexican border to Tijuana

With so many remarkable trials and tribulations along the way, the news outlets had endless inspiring stories to share with the outside world. Sadly, much of the media coverage they received was negative and the leading motorcycle magazines focused more on the bikes then the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical significance of the Van Burens' journey, criticising the women for giving up their roles as dutiful housewives.

Worse still, the Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home and display their feminine contours in nifty khaki and leather uniforms.

The Denver newspaper reproached them for "displaying their feminine contours in nifty khaki and leather uniforms"

Despite the negativity in the papers, the sisters received nothing but support from the people they met along the way. Everyone they ran into helped them in some form or another and Augusta and Adeline were never bothered or accosted by anyone. It was this support and motivation that gave them the extra push to achieve their ambition.

Having succeeded in their record-breaking attempt, both sisters were even more keen to pursue their goal of joining the military. They'd proven their abilities and courage, but despite this, their applications to become dispatch riders were rejected by the U.S. Army.

In the words of Augusta, "Woman can, if she will."

But that didn't hinder the Van Burens' spirits nor diminish the magnitude of their accomplishments. Instead, the two persevered in a male dominated world and succeeded in even greater feats.

Adeline studied hard and earned her Juris Doctor degree at New York University during a time when it was unheard of for a woman to be practising law. Augusta learned how to fly a plane and went on to join the Ninety-Nines, an international organisation of female pilots established in 1929 by 99 women, with Amelia Earhart as their first president.

With one goal in mind, these women didn't take no for an answer. They were bright, enthusiastic, and broke the stereotypes of their time, proving that a woman could do anything a man could do. In the words of Augusta, Woman can, if she will.

Their feat was accomplished at a time when post Victorian society continued to impose limitations on women

Whilst their trip across the country didn't deliver the impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike.

Because of the historical significance of the Van Burens' efforts, they were inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.

Yvonne Degraine - Mermaid and sidecar racer

From 1911 to 1922, French Yvonne Degraine was a formidable swimming champion with an impressive record.

Several times she won 'La Traversee de Paris', an open water swimming race on the Seine covering 11.6km and run for the first time in 1905. Her swimming prowess was considerable and she was one of only three French swimmers to have represented her country for the first time at the 1920 Olympic Games. 

Yvonne Degraine seen here in 1919 on her Indian combo

Aside from her aquatic prowess, she was passionate about motorcycling competitions, taking part on a regular basis either riding an Indian or Sunbeam combination.

Degraine, here on Sunbeam, was as comfortable in the water as she was racing a combo

Like for her predecessor Fernande Clouet fifteen years earlier, information about her motorcycling career is scarce.

Advertising postcard produced circa 1919s by Hutchinson showing the Degraine and Blauseur crew during a competition

The exception being the existence of some images showing her in action in a cinematographic document of the Gaumont collection. This was filmed in September 1919 during 'La Grande Ceinture' a motorcycle race of 207 kilometers around Paris, organised by the M.T.C.F. and open to amateur motorcyclists and 'cyclecaristes'.

- Jean-Francois Helias

There will be more from Fanfan for this series!