Road trips are common today among young, single women -- but not so in the 1930s. At that time, camping trips and cross-country travel were exclusive to men. But in 1934 a young beautician from Bradford, Illinois wasn’t about to take no for an answer. She and her friends set out for a summer road trip in a Model-T they affectionately called “The Silver Streak.” Peoria Public Radio’s Daryl Scott visited the car that’s on display at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and shares some of the story of the so-called “Bradford Model T Girls.”
The silver Model T sits quietly in a gently-lit exhibit hall at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The car’s owner, John Butte is talking with people visiting the exhibit.
It’s almost hard to believe a group of young women ever drove cross-country in the rudimentary vehicle. But the exhibit’s pictures, storyboards and biographies of the ladies that traveled together in
the car almost bring it to life. Butte’s written a book about the girls, their journeys and the car:
“I say it’s always interesting to talk about what it doesn’t have because it didn’t have a heater, it didn’t have a fuel pump, it didn’t have an odometer, it didn’t have roll up and roll down windows…”
That’s the rough rundown of then-24-year-old Darlene Dorgan’s 1926 Ford Model T touring sedan. And the story goes like this: Dorgan was a beauty school graduate with her own business and the summer of 1934 was unusually hot. She decided to beat the sweltering heat and gathered some friends and camping gear. They spruced up the eight-year-old Model T with a coat of silver paint and lettering, and drove to Devil’s Lake Wisconsin.
91 year-old Joann Heinzmann says the women’s first summer road trip came to the alarm of many of Bradford’s residents.
“First of all, the very beginning, they thought oh...this is crazy, that’s dangerous, they shouldn’t be doing this. You know. Well when they kept going and coming back (laughter) everything was okay! No, they were impressed.”
In the next eight years of trips, the rotating group of women, 20 in total, became known as the “Gypsy Coeds.” They toured in the famous Silver Streak along two-lane highways and byways, going to Canada, Mexico, New Orleans, New York, and California...all in a car with a raggedy top and no trunk.
The man who owns the car today, John Butte is the son of one of the Gypsy Coeds, and a nephew of another. He recalled seeing a photograph taken at the 1939 World’s Fair. It was his mother Regina Fennell, and other coeds in the car with Henry Ford.
“We saw that as kids, and it wasn’t uncommon for us to ask mom to tell us about some of the stories that she remembered from her trip. And she would get a gleam in her eye...and she enjoyed telling the stories. And you could tell that it was, an event in her life that had fond memories for her.”
Newspaper accounts of the women were common for things they did, like crashing Henry Ford’s 75th birthday party in 1938. It was reported to be great point of pride for Ford, who invented the Model T, to see the young women having fun and putting the old car through its paces. Butte says the relationship between the coeds and Henry
Ford went on for many more years. And he says the summer travels in the Silver Streak were always eventful. When they weren’t meeting movie stars in California or chatting with captains of industry, the women lived frugally on the road, often tent camping. Butte says the 1937 trip to Canada included spending the night in jail. He says the women drove into Dorval, Quebec late at night...and they didn’t speak French.
“But a policeman helped them out. He tried to find lodging for them and in the last moment he said why don’t you come and stay in the jail? There are...there are no inmates in the jail tonight,and they stayed in the jail that night! ”
In total, the Gypsy Coeds logged an estimated 80,000 miles in the Silver Streak. That was before the interstate highway system, in a car could only go 35 to 40 miles per hour. Dorgan and the others decided it was time to retire the Silver Streak by 1942 when wartime rations on nylon, rubber, and gas made it difficult to take pleasure trips.
The fabled Model T survived the scrap drives of World War Two and remained in the Dorgan family. John Butte says it was largely forgotten until his mother died in 2011.
“It was probably that event more than anything that caused me to lament a little bit, and think about the stories that she told. The joy that the old car had given her and friends on that 1939 trip ,and so I started wondering where is the car today?”
John tracked down the Silver Streak, still in running condition in Oregon, and brought it back to central Illinois in 2012. When it’s not parked in a museum, the touring car resides in the Butte family
garage, where it awaits its annual summer trip down Main Street. But Butte says it’s a shorter journey than it used to make:
“We will always have it in the Labor Day parade in Bradford, that’s a tradition that we have.”
John Butte and his wife host two final gallery walks at the Peoria Riverfront Museum exhibit on Sunday January 17th at 2 and 3:30 P-M. Butte’s book “Darlene’s Silver Streak and the Bradford Model T Girls,” is also available at the museum store. ... And this summer you may even see the familiar Silver Streak rolling down the highway.