Motoring across the United States a century ago was no easy task, given the lack of paved roads, signage and service stations, among other hardships. For a woman to attempt such a feat without a male escort was particularly bold. In 1909, one enterprising car company tapped Alice Huyler Ramsey to become the first female to drive across the country. The point being, of course, that the Maxwell motorcar was so reliable that even a woman could drive it successfully (fortunately for all concerned, she also happened to be an excellent mechanic).
So when 26-year-old Effie Hotchkiss set off from her home in Brooklyn, New York, on May 2, 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, straddling her 3-speed Harley-Davidson, she was bound to raise a few eyebrows—even if she hadn’t stuffed her rotund 52-year-old mother in a sidecar.
This odyssey, however, was no publicity stunt driven by commercial interests (though Harley-Davidson, upon discovering the story, happily touted the pair). Nor was there any real cause attached to the journey, though Effie told one reporter that she hoped it would demonstrate that “motorcycling is perfectly good as a girl’s sport.” Indeed, Effie’s effort was soon followed by many other intrepid women who took the cross-country challenge, such as the Van Buren sisters and Bessie Stringfield.
As Effie would recount in an unpublished memoir written some 25 years later, she was first and foremost a motorcycle fanatic tired of her clerical job on Wall Street and eager to see the world.
“Just as soon as I made up my mind to go to California,” Effie related, “I asked mother if she would come along. She said it was a good thing I did, for the next moment she would have invited herself.”
In the case of Avis, however, it was neither a love of motorcycles nor of travel that compelled her to accompany her daughter. Her main goal, it seems, was to keep Effie’s speed in check by inflating the weight of the ensemble to nearly half a ton (she herself contributed almost a quarter of that total). Avis would also implore her daughter to work in a few touristy destinations along the way, such as Niagara Falls, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Avis’s concerns were not unfounded, given that Effie had earned a reputation as a speed demon. The year before, she got her first citation when she was caught cruising at 35 mph on Brooklyn’s Ocean Parkway (“My machine really doesn’t run well unless it makes over 30,” she sheepishly explained to the cop, to no avail). She once clocked herself going over 70 mph in her neighborhood.
Of course, Avis also wanted to keep tabs on her rambunctious daughter, a self-professed tomboy with little interest in school and a knack for getting into trouble, on and off her motorcycle.
Although Effie hailed from prominent New England families, she was no child of privilege. Her parents divorced when she was not yet a teen, compelling Avis to take in boarders to support the family, which included Effie’s older sister, Avis, and her younger brother, Everett.
Effie spent one youthful summer at her Dad’s farm in the Catskills shortly after he passed away. Following a series of misdeeds, her mother had to fetch her daughter prematurely, but the rural experience infused the young girl with a love of the outdoors, a lifelong passion that would eventually lead her to take up motorcycling (and, later, farming).
One day, while still in her early teens, Effie was out walking the dogs near her home in Brooklyn. Suddenly a group of motorcycles roared past, fanning an immediate desire to get one for herself.
Finally, after years of scrimping, she purchased a Marsh Metz. Though little more than a motorized bicycle, it was enough to get her going. Everett, who owned a similar machine, was her first riding companion.
After a number of bloody bust-ups, Effie upgraded to a single-cylinder Harley-Davidson. Ted, the handsome young Irish lad who sold her that machine, became her next riding partner. Effie, however, struggled to keep up with Ted and his mates, who all rode two-cylinder machines.
That is, until Effie got one of her own. Although she was slender and weighed only 110 pounds, she quickly proved that she could handle her machine just like the big boys. And repair it, too.
In the summer of 1914 Everett turned 21, and he and his siblings acquired equal shares of their father’s estate. Effie knew exactly what to do with hers: buy a new Harley-Davidson and head for California.
Shopping for a sidecar proved especially trying, given that it needed to accommodate Avis’s ample frame along with all of the camping gear, tools, the Savage pistol, etc. “The one I finally bought,” Effie recalled, “fit her well and also looked well on her.” They affectionately dubbed the appendage “The Bathtub.”
“I got a lot of non-family discouragement,” Effie recalled in her memoir. “Decent roads would be non-existent for most of the way; there would be deserts to cross, high mountains to climb, lack of water, no repair shop, no this and no that. Some things there would be, such as wild animals, wilder Indians, probably floods, maybe cyclones and other offhand acts of God; until it began to sound so interesting I would not have missed it for the world.”
So off they went, over abysmal roads whose surfaces were at best hard-packed dirt, and, at worst, foot-deep mud. They headed up the Hudson valley to Albany, turning west toward Buffalo, then on to Chicago, averaging 150 miles a day. They drew large crowds of curious onlookers wherever they stopped. They would typically rent rooms from the managers of the garages where they bought gas or sought mechanical assistance.
At one such place in Indiana, the woman of the house introduced Avis to the art of tatting. From then on, Avis spent much of her time in the Bathtub obliviously tatting away, until her handiwork had reached what Effie called “monstrous proportions.” Avis often kept at it even after they had stopped for repairs, forcing Effie to gently request that her mother remove her behind from the toolbox.
From Chicago they headed down to St. Louis, then across Missouri and Kansas into Colorado. Then they rode southwest to New Mexico. Suffering a flat, Effie created a makeshift inner tube by twisting their blankets together. At one point she had to leave her mother alone overnight at a campsite while she caught a train to Santa Fe to pick up a shipment of inner tubes.
A few nights later, on the Fourth of July, sleeping outdoors again near Albuquerque, the same blankets and two sweaters apiece barely kept them from freezing. In Arizona, while they paused to see the Grand Canyon, a thief broke into the sidecar and made off with Effie’s pistol. Then came the Mojave Desert, which they crossed in three days, traveling mostly at night. They covered their faces with handkerchiefs to keep them from blistering under the onslaught of blowing sand.
One man who saw Effie navigate the treacherous San Marcos Pass just north of Santa Barbara in 120-degree heat pronounced her “the bravest and most skillful girl driver he had ever met.”
In San Francisco, they toured the exhibition, whose list of distinctions included the first transcontinental phone call. Visiting the local Harley-Davidson dealership, the pair and their vehicle attracted an enormous crowd. Effie recounted to a reporter how one day, just after leaving Chicago, they endured five punctures and one blowout. “What did you do?” gasped one incredulous eavesdropper. “Fixed ’em,” Effie replied nonchalantly.
Heading home in late August along the newly christened Lincoln Highway, the pair paused for a few days in Reno, where Effie showed off her newfound hunting skills. But by far the highlight of their return trip was the stop in Milwaukee, where mother and daughter received a royal welcome and a private tour of the Harley-Davidson plant.
That fall, Effie settled back into her dreary clerical job, unable to suppress vivid memories of the Far West and dreams of new adventures. She had grown so weary of city life that she was seriously considering moving to her father’s old farm, where Everett was now raising chickens.
And then a mysterious letter arrived from Oregon. It was from Guy Johnston, a man she had run into (literally) some months earlier while riding in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He had seen an article in a local newspaper giving Effie’s address and announcing the successful conclusion of her ride.
A torrid correspondence ensued until, much to Effie’s surprise, she received a telegram from Guy, asking her to meet him that afternoon at Grand Central Station. Two weeks later they were married, and Effie headed out to Oregon to start her new life—with Avis, naturally. It was a fair arrangement, considering that Effie was about to become a stepmother to a widower’s three grown children.
The couple had one child of their own, Jean, whose daughter, Barbara Dove, got to know both her great-grandmother Avis (she died in 1958) and grandmother Effie (she died in 1966) growing up in Cow Creek, Oregon. Barbara fondly recalls how Avis, who was a homebody at heart, effortlessly whipped up sumptuous meals to feed the extended family and the farmhands. Effie, meanwhile, worked tirelessly on the farm when not helping to run the family’s general store.
Though her daily chores gave Effie little opportunity to travel, let alone motorcycle, she relished a simple, productive life spent largely in the open air. “There was nothing she couldn’t do, and do well,” Barbara affirms with obvious pride and admiration.
The author wishes to thank Barbara Dove and her son, Craig, for providing access to Effie’s memoir as well as the photos printed here.