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The Great Cross Country Ride of 1916

Happy Sunday and fall just might be whispering this morning! Can you feel it? Breezy, cool and an absolutely perfect 74 degrees. Bliss! I think when something this good comes along, you just have to take a minute and savor it! My heart is happy and I am doing just that.

I wish you the same kind of morning and may it continue through your week.

I knew a little about this fantastic duo of women motorcyclists. but decided I wanted to know more. I began hunting for information and I found some. When I was younger, I loved my motorcycle and enjoyed riding immensely. I learned on a Harley Low Rider, but my bike was a smaller Honda Rebel. Being very short, they were the only two bikes I felt full control and comfort on. My husband had a Kawasaki, and we let those good times roll together. It was great. Sometimes I miss those days. But I digress.

Let me introduce you to Augusta and Adeline Van Buren. Gussie and Addie to friends. Gussie was born on March 26, 1884 and Addie was born on July 26, 1889, decendants of former president Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States. The sisters were raised in New York City as “society girls.” They had an active childhood with canoeing, skating, diving, wrestling, sprinting, and later motorcycling. Addie and Gussie were full of life and refused to be shaped by the limitations that society so generously heaped on women of that era. They were unique and lived to the beat of their own drummers.

In 1916, as the United States prepared to enter WWI, the Addie and Gussie were active in the National Preparedness Movement. The sisters aimed to prove that women can ride motorcycles and work as dispatchers just as well as men, allowing men to do other jobs. Addie and Gussie wanted to prove that women could be a productive part of the war effort! They also wanted to remove arguments that stood in the way of women gaining their right to vote.

The year was 1916 and there were strict and stringent dress codes for women and they could be arrested for wearing men’s clothing. Adie and Gussie were on a mission! They wore leather riding gear that included trousers, jackets, military style leggings and leather riding breeches, and no helmets, only leather caps and goggles. This was a ghastly breech of etiquette, not to mention against the law.

Addie and Gussie began their journey at Sheepshead Bay Race Track in Brooklyn, New York on July 4th. They were riding 1,000cc Indian Power Plus motorcycles with gas headlights. Indians were the premier motorcycle with a “webbed vanadium steel Cradle Spring frame.” The sticker price was $275 ($7,924 in 2023). They ran on Firestone “non skid” tires. The manufacturer boasted about its revolutionary suspension system in its catalogue: “Riding on the Indian is like riding on air, so smooth is it's running. There’s no strain on the nervous system and no unnecessary jarring of the machine and fittings.”

Addie and Gussie navigated poor or non existent road, deluges of rain and thick mud, natural barriers in the Rocky Mountain range and western deserts. There were also social barriers that they contended with, local police who took offense at their choice of clothing and arrested them. This happened numerous times during their journey, not for speeding or other vehicular transgressions, but for their attire! The sisters rode 5,500 miles in 60 days, crossing the continental United States.

The pair faced technical difficulties while biking in the Rockies but persevered despite falling many times due to fatigue, ruts, and mud. They received occasional aid from kind locals who helped to extricate their bikes when they were mired in mud.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi,” the women’s great-nephew Robert Van Buren said of his aunts’ trip. “The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” In Colorado, the bikes became hopelessly stuck in the mud, and they had to walk to the mining town of Gilman to ask for help in getting them out.Addie and Gussie accomplished a stunning feat while in Colorado, however. They were the first women to ride motorized vehicles to the top of the 14,109 foot summit of Pike’s Peak.

A newspaper columnist reported: “Impossible roads, unseasonable weather and difficulties in untold number and magnitude were encountered at every turn. Washouts, mountain slides, desert wastes and wrecked bridges delayed them, but did not deter them. In Utah, Addie and Gussie got lost and ran out of water, 100 miles west of Salt Lake City. However, a prospector came to their aid after they had to cross the Great American Desert in Western Utah, following a week of arduous travel because of incessant rains in Colorado that made riding conditions the worst imaginable.

Exhausted but joyful, the sisters arrived in San Francisco on September 2, and completed their journey on September 8, arriving in Los Angeles.

Despite accomplishing an extraordinary feat, the military rejected their application to become dispatch riders.. Media of the day offered high praise for the motorcycle but little praise for the sisters. Their trip, a historical achievement, was described as a “vacation,” rather than the journey that it was. Coverage lacked the recognition that they had certainly earned and rightfully deserved. Paul Derkum, “Daredevil Derkum” one of the great motorcyclists of their age and employee of the Indian Motorcycle Company said: “Beyond question the Van Burens have made one of the most noteworthy trips ever accomplished, chiefly because they have proven that the motorcycle is a universal vehicle.” Praise for the machine, not the women riders.

Both Addie and Gussie married and went on with their lives. There isn’t much data to document whether they continued to ride, but they continued to be pioneers. Addie was an English teacher, but went on to earn her law degree from New York University. Gussie became a woman's rights activist and a pilot flying with the Women’s flying group that was founded by Amelia Earhart, the 99s.

The sisters broke stereotypes of their times at no small cost, but they proved women can do anything men do. In Gussie’s words: “Woman can if she will.”

Addie and Gussie were inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.


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