Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West [NOOK Book]


In 1924 eight young women drove across the American West in two Model T Fords. In nine weeks they traveled more than nine thousand unpaved miles on an extended car-camping trip through six national parks, “without a man or a gun along.” It was the era of the flapper, but this book tells the story of a group of farm girls who met while attending Iowa’s Teacher’s College and who shared a “yen to see some things.”
A blend of oral and ...

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Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West

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In 1924 eight young women drove across the American West in two Model T Fords. In nine weeks they traveled more than nine thousand unpaved miles on an extended car-camping trip through six national parks, “without a man or a gun along.” It was the era of the flapper, but this book tells the story of a group of farm girls who met while attending Iowa’s Teacher’s College and who shared a “yen to see some things.”
A blend of oral and written history, adventure, memoir, and just plain heartfelt living, Eight Women is a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Weaving together a granddaughter’s essays with family stories and anecdotes from the 1924 trip, the book portrays four generations of women extending from nineteenth-century Norway to present-day Iowa—and sets them loose across the western United States where the perils and practicalities of automotive travel reaffirm family connections while also celebrating individual freedom.

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Editorial Reviews

Western American Literature
Through interviews, journals, letters and pictures, Wilke reclaims a narrative that had been lost even to its participants, whose memories had slipped and faded in the sixty years since their trip. She set out to capture the expedition of a lifetime and instead captured the journey of several lifetimes, including her own. The women all found the trip to be well worth taking, and Wilke's readers will feel the same.—Amy Brumfield, Western American Literature

— Amy Brumfield

SIROW Newsletter

“Wilke’s well written and hard-to-put-down book can be described as part memoir and part oral/written history.”—SIROW Newsletter (Southwest Institute for Research on Women)

Outside Bozeman
[C]ompellingly conveys the passion and determination that led these brave young travelers to ‘see some things’ together . . . . Throughout the book, Wilke expertly interweaves her own story of personal discovery and connection to the West . . . . The result is a seamless fusion of memoir and adventure, insight and history.—Outside Bozeman

— Mike England

Entertaining and inspiring.—Booklist

— Danise Hoover


“A charming reminiscence.”

Booklist - Danise Hoover

“Entertaining and inspiring.”—Booklist
Outside Bozeman - Mike England

“[C]ompellingly conveys the passion and determination that led these brave young travelers to ‘see some things’ together . . . . Throughout the book, Wilke expertly interweaves her own story of personal discovery and connection to the West . . . . The result is a seamless fusion of memoir and adventure, insight and history.”—Outside Bozeman
Western American Literature - Amy Brumfield

"Through interviews, journals, letters and pictures, Wilke reclaims a narrative that had been lost even to its participants, whose memories had slipped and faded in the sixty years since their trip. She set out to capture the expedition of a lifetime and instead captured the journey of several lifetimes, including her own. The women all found the trip to be well worth taking, and Wilke's readers will feel the same."—Amy Brumfield, Western American Literature
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803209978
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2007
  • Series: Women in the West
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,182,461
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Joanne Wilke’s work has appeared in the Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West and Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West anthologies. She has also written pieces for the Montana Quarterly, the Pacific Review, and the Christian Science Monitor.
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Read an Excerpt

Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West

Copyright © 2007 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8032-6019-1

Chapter One

A Beginning

I first saw the bluffs when I was four. We drove from California to Iowa in a Volkswagen Bug. I could stretch out in the back seat, with my little sister in the space behind that we called the back window. It was the first of many car trips to Iowa, always in the summer. The July heat was miserable, with little fluctuation day or night. Who wanted to visit Iowa when it was ninety degrees or more with 90 percent humidity? Or drive across Nevada or Nebraska without air-conditioning? Even Mom doesn't understand it anymore; she says she wanted to show off her little family. But every year? Our record was forty-two hours straight. At least at night the sun wasn't beating on you through the windows. Once at the farm, we unstuck our thighs from the vinyl upholstery, tumbled from the car like overcooked spaghetti, and staggered bleary-eyed toward the bathroom. At least we could move.

Grandma Marie and Grandpa met us in the gravel driveway, under the towering elm tree, oblivious to our stale odor. They lived in a white frame house on top of a hill, bordered with hollyhocks. Around and behind it were arranged the corncrib, chicken house, garage(which was the original home), old outhouse, and huge red barn, with various wooden and wire fences and a concrete watering trough big enough for swimming but too filthy. In the distant fields we could hear the lowing of black-and-white cattle and the chugging of old tractors.

By the next day we kids were clean and rested and into it all. The old frame house and farm were novelties for us, raised in single-level California homes. Instead of playing on manicured squares of lawn, we raced barefoot across a yard of mowed weeds, treacherous with thistles, and screamed across endless wild pastures.

Grandma Marie always arranged a family gathering, but not at her home. We drove a mile into the sweltering, breathless lowlands to the family home, the Brick House by the bluffs. In California we had only two cousins, and most of our socializing was with friends we chose. In Iowa it was a multigenerational swarm of relatives. Perhaps Mom had an inkling of the texture available there, and that was what fueled our journeys, or maybe she craved the familiarity of these gatherings.

Once the meal was over, the youngsters weren't expected to sit still and be polite. The heat and mosquitoes at the Brick House were the worst, but the lightning bugs in the evening and the frogs, fish, and coolness along the trout spring drew us away from chatting adults. We ran as a pack, hunting arrowheads above the spring, searching out half-wild kittens in the barn, and shouting as we swung and leaped from ropes in the hayloft. We roamed the hills and climbed the bluffs, white limestone cliffs rising straight from the yard. Hiking to the tip of the Big Bluff was a rite of passage, both the first time you were taken up and the first time you climbed it alone.

My great-grandfather, Grandma Marie's father, bought the bluffs instead of bottomland because they reminded him of Norway, his homeland. It was an impractically romantic choice in the northeastern corner of Iowa, where farms are judged by the amount of tillable ground among the rolling hills and limestone outcroppings. His children grew up there. In spring when the oak buds reached the size of a mouse's ear, they discarded their shoes and ran through the lush green up, up into the woods, and the hillsides embraced them. More than the house, these cliffs defined their home.

On that first trip to Iowa when I was four, Uncle Bill and Aunt Darlene and their five kids were already at the Brick House when we arrived. My cousin Renee was five. "We climbed the bluffs yesterday," she said. I remember looking up at the mottled white cliffs. With no perception of distance, I thought they were farther away and taller, and I imagined my cousins as small as ants climbing straight up the craggy face. "My brother jumped from one to the other," she continued. I couldn't picture that at all.

The next morning Renee whispered, "I'll take you up the bluffs, but don't tell anyone." We hovered at the back screen door, looking out for the rooster and his flashing spurs. It took only a moment to learn to fear him, longer to learn to carry sticks to defend ourselves. We made a dash for the woodshed and crept through the nettles along the back until we could peer around and run for the corncrib, then duck under the electric fence and slip down a short bank into the dry creek bed and safety.

The creek bed was white with limestone, the rocks dry and light as old bones and covered with fossils. Back then this creek still flooded every spring, washing away last year's growth and debris and uncovering new rock faces. We were supposed to follow the creek up a ways and then turn onto a steep cow path up the back end of the bluffs, but Renee was losing her nerve. She couldn't remember the right trail. Finally we turned around. We were chased by the rooster and stung by wasps on the way back.

That afternoon Uncle Bill took a bunch of us up. How he knew the right cow trail we couldn't figure. It led to the wooded portion of the ridge. From there we hiked on level ground, glimpsing space through the trees. The trail ended abruptly with a crack in the earth. The rocky point split away from the lush underbrush, and we peered from the safety of the trees as if from a cave. Though the chasm separating us from the limestone tip was only a foot wide, it was twenty feet deep. My head spun and I felt as if it could suck me right down, but I held Uncle Bill's hand and leaped across. Renee crawled around.

You can see a long way from the tip of the Big Bluff, but there isn't much to see-cornfields, farmhouses, and rolling, tree-covered hills vanish into the humid haze. The bluffs themselves are the most beautiful things around. A flock of pigeons flew by, wheeling together, the sound of wind on feathers changing with every turn. I wondered what it would be like to jump off. We waved at our moms and the babies down below and hiked back. I told my sister I had jumped from one bluff to the other. She squinted up in disbelief as I tried to point out where.

Three years later my mom took my sister and me up. I was surprised by her sudden competence and confidence in these woods. Though she'd lived in Albuquerque, Seattle, and Los Angeles, my mother's first response to something new was always the startled resistance of the fourteen-year-old country kid named Gertrude.

Looking back I realize it was a new experience for me, not her. I'd never put my foot on a strand of barbed wire and lifted the higher strand to let someone through. I didn't know where the gates were and couldn't tell one manure-stained cow trail from another. That winding mesh of pathways was to me what the Los Angeles freeways must have been to her. She grew up running over these hills, learning the lay of the land the same way she taught herself to read. She grew up on a nearby farm, on the edge of the prairie, but whenever the extended family gathered at the Brick House on Sundays and holidays, she came here and explored it all.

On the way back she took us on a different trail. It curved from the middle of the ridge out to the lip of the cliff and through a small clearing. My mother said that Great-Uncle Ben had killed a wolf there with an ax while the family watched from below. Then the trail cut sharply down a rocky cleft and ended when our feet sank into leaves. The light changed from glaring to cool beneath the canopy of trees, and the hillside below us was still nearly vertical with little underbrush, only tree trunks. As if through a curved tunnel, we could see the Brick House below.

Mom said, "What you do is pick a close tree and run for it." We watched in horror as she demonstrated. This was not our mother. But we found it was truly more dangerous to try going slow than to simply fling ourselves forward through the ankle-deep leaves. So we hurled ourselves from tree to tree, screaming toward the bottom.

* * *

One day many years earlier my grandmother, a young Marie, stood on the tip of the Big Bluff and watched ash pour into the sky on a high wind, dimming the sun. Soot and the smell of smoke carried from the 1910 forest fires on the western boundary of Montana all the way to eastern Iowa. Marie, at age twelve, imagined her brother Sig in a spray of sparks, skin smeared black, as he fought a wall of flame with a shovel. She could practically smell his singed hair as she watched the sunset over her pastoral view turn to blood.

Marie's six older brothers all went west; it was practically expected of them. They built roads, bridges, and railroads and worked on timber crews, in mining camps, and in oil fields. Herman, who graduated from grade school with her, never went to high school. Instead he springboarded across the West from brother to older brother, traveling from North Dakota to Montana, Canada, and ultimately Washington, working as a laborer. Marie saw her brothers come home changed, as if by looking out across the grand vistas of the West they realized they could see beyond their noses. She wanted that for herself.

Over time, with years of leaning on the neighbors' fence and gazing toward the horizon, Marie developed a plan. First she needed money. "Back in those days," she remembered, "there were only two professions for women, to be a teacher or a nurse. I had no desire to be a nurse, and so I had to be a teacher." After high-school graduation and a few years of rural teaching, she attended "teachers college" (now the University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to earn her teaching certificate and be eligible for better-paying jobs.

"[It was] not a university," she remembered; "I guess the university was fancier. The teachers college was ... kind of looked down upon. But [it was important]; they only had one in the state."

"We had to live on a shoestring," she continued, "I remember that one house where Laura and I stayed to start with. We had our rooms upstairs, and we cooked and ate down in the basement. That wasn't a very nice place down there, and Laura never gets tired of telling [how] when she came downstairs to cook ... there was a rat sitting in the frying pan. That rat, her college, that's what she remembers. That's the kind of style we had."

Later, after graduation, Marie accepted a job at the teachers college, where she taught young girls how to teach, helping them earn their valued certificates. She earned the required master's degree from Columbia University in New York during summer breaks. "It was expensive to be in New York," Marie remembered, "awful expensive." But she couldn't teach at Cedar Falls without her master's degree.

Still, her original goal never wavered. "I wanted to see Yosemite," Marie said simply. "And back then driving and camping was the cheapest way to travel." She was sure she could find three others to fill the car, and from Iowa, Estes Park was on the way to Yosemite, as were Pikes Peak and the Great Salt Lake. A Model T cost just over $500, including license, and she could pay over time at thirty-two dollars a month. Fifty dollars worth of gear and two months of car payments split between four travelers wouldn't be much, and she'd heard they could sell the car for a profit in California to pay for the train ride home.

Or-and her hands tingled at the thought-they could make a big loop and see Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and Yellowstone on the way home. Her brother Herman was in Montana then, and brothers Ole, Ben, and Carl were in North Dakota. She traced the maps with her fingers, adding up mileage in her head: nine thousand miles.

When Marie mentioned a trip to Yosemite, her friends Agnes and Grace at once agreed to go. It was the 1920s: things were booming, the world was changing, and life was full of excitement. Almost overnight the bobbed-haired flapper, drinking liquor and dancing to wild music, replaced the image of the old-fashioned, useful maiden aunt, a bastion of American family life. Although for some it was a time of excess, Marie remembered that they were country kids, taught to be decent and hardworking. Perhaps her personal life did not encompass the extravagance of new morality, bootlegging, and all the stereotypes, but the essence of the Roaring Twenties trickled down everywhere, even to Iowa. People took to the new sense of freedom and took to their cars. The Model T, part durable wagon and part modern technology, was a breakthrough allowing hordes to venture out, to venture west, whether roads were available or not.

Agnes and Grace both grew up near Marie, and like her were recent graduates from teachers college. "Agnes was good at a lot of things," Marie noted, "and was used to driving." Grace was quiet and bright, had a farm girl's good sense, and was already working at a better-paying job with her graduation certificate. Marie asked her sister Emma to come, but she didn't have any money. She had not yet finished college, and though teaching at a distant country school, Marie noted, "she was having a good time and spending [all] her money." But their youngest sister, Laura, was ready to go. Only nineteen years old, she had taught two seasons at their own rural school and had saved her money. Laura remembered that she was happy teaching at the country school and driving the team in the fields for her brother Walter-until Marie brought up this trip.

Marie was pleased with the group; she believed they were all competent and could get along well for two months in tight quarters. Still, everyone agreed that bringing a second car would be safer, because then one could always rescue the other. "We just rattled our brains to find four other girls who would take this trip," Marie remembered, "The other car was kind of a conglomeration of people from here and there."

Christy was from Marie's high-school class. The other three were generally referred to together, like a gaggle of poultry. Bess was a friend of Agnes, but no one was really sure how the other two were invited-friends of friends or classroom acquaintances from teachers college. Marie described Zelma as not very confident and said, "Martha came from people who couldn't think fast."

In an interview Marie remembered what a "hard time we had to get permission from our folks to take the trip. They thought we would all be killed."

Well, the two of us wanted to go. My mother and father thought ... we'd never come back. I remember I argued with them and told them there was no danger ... but it didn't do any good. Finally I said to them, "Now," and then I named a couple of people in my high-school class that were pretty wild, they were running around and doing things that were kind of shady. So I said, "We live decent lives; you never hear anybody saying those things about us, and then when we want to do something decent and learn something, then you won't let us do it." That was the argument I had, and they finally gave in to that.

Marie was twenty-six years old at the time. She found out later that Grace just announced to her parents that she was going. Then Marie bought one car and Zelma bought the other, and they made plans to meet in Marshalltown, Iowa.

"June 12, 1924; Left home at 6:00," Laura wrote in her journal. "I bawled." How else could she describe it? The Model T sat by the woodshed, with a narrow cupboard bolted to the passenger side, canvas side tent and cots lashed to the running board, her drawing pad on the passenger seat. She'd never left home before.

I imagine a flurry of jokes with the family and quick hugs, soft, wet, and whiskered cheeks. Laura cranks the motor to gassy life, her sister Marie behind the wheel. Their stout mother waves from the steps until they are out of sight, connected to them by the reddened tips of her fingers. Laura remembers her recent buggy ride to Conniver, in the next county. Ten miles each way, and it was a long trip. Now they planned to drive hundreds of miles and be gone for weeks. They bump over the narrow homemade bridge and down the maple-lined lane and turn west. Laura watches the bluffs recede and clutches her drawing pad to quiet her shaking hands.


Excerpted from Eight Women, Two Model Ts, and the American West by Joanne Wilke Copyright © 2007 by Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................vi
1. A Beginning....................7
2. From Iowa....................17
3. We on the Pigmy Road....................52
4. Echoes on My Ribs....................77
5. From the Cliffs....................97
6. Mountain Vistas....................112
7. Galloping Bare-Breasted....................135
8. A Heap of Living....................165

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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  • Posted February 9, 2013

    Can you say "Road Trip"?  This is a fascinating story

    Can you say "Road Trip"?  This is a fascinating story of 8 very young women (most of them teachers off for the summer) who buy two model T's, learn to drive them then head out for California from Iowa.  It is so much fun to read their letters back home, their journals, and meet the travelers they visit with.  The author (granddaughter of one of the 8 women) tells of her memories of Iowa and her grandparents.  I recommend this book for all who want to know what the Western half of the US was like in the early days of car camping.    

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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