The adventurous ‘Gypsy Co-eds’ were road-tripping pioneers
Blame it on the sun.
For eight summers, as many as six female passengers – along with their luggage, camping gear and supplies – shoe-horned themselves into a 1926 Ford Model T Touring car that had a fast-sounding nickname (“The Silver Streak”) but a top speed of only 45 mph. The women traveled 71,500 miles between 1934-42 without the benefit of air conditioning, radio, cruise control or elbow room, and they did it at a time when “unaccompanied” travel by a group of co-eds was extremely rare.
Forty-four states, two foreign countries, sunburn, breakdowns, flat tires, wrong turns and exhaustion. All in the name of fun.
This is the story of “Darlene’s Silver Streak and the Bradford Model T Girls.”
“They were fiercely independent, an adventurous group of women who were really ahead of their time,” said John G. Butte (pronounced booty), author of a book that chronicles the women’s adventures during the 1930s and ’40s. “It was a sisterhood, and the road trips bound them together forever.”
Butte, 66, heard plenty of stories about the “Gypsy Co-eds” growing up. Most of the 20 women who participated over the years lived in Bradford, Ill., or nearby. Beginning in 1934, trips were organized by a spirited young hairdresser named Darlene Dorgan, who continually scratched an itch to experience life beyond the streets of her small town. Butte’s mother, Regina (Fennell) Butte, was one of six women who traveled to the New York World’s Fair in the summer of 1939. His aunt, Eleanor Butte, was on the 1936 and ’37 trips. So the author had a natural interest in the Silver Streak, its passengers and their tales of adventure.
“I didn’t find the story as much as the story found me,” he said. “I’m one of seven kids, and we heard a lot about the Silver Streak growing up. Something would remind my mother of her trip to New York, and she would start telling stories – quite often ones we’d heard many times before. But we didn’t care. We loved those stories.”
Following the death of Butte’s father, Donald, in September 2010, and with his mother also in failing health, he began researching the Silver Streak and the Gypsy Co-eds. His initial internet search turned up spotty information and few photos, but one of those photos was a major score – it showed Henry Ford posing with the Silver Streak and the Gypsy Co-eds in 1938. The photo was published in the book “Ford 1903 to 1984,” along with a story about “Lizzie Labels,” an old-school tradition of painting signs and sayings on cars. One of the labels on the Silver Streak read, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”
“Seeing that photo with Henry Ford, that’s when it really hit me,” Butte said. “I started wondering, ‘Just how famous was this car back in its day?’”
When Regina Butte passed away on March 18, 2011, her son included the story of the 1939 trip in her obituary, along with the names of her five travelling companions. To his surprise, one of the online condolences came from the daughter of one of the women. Inspired by this new connection to the Silver Streak, Butte intensified his search for information. He also hoped to locate the car, but that’s another story.
Butte located three surviving members of Bradford Model T Girls: Winnie (Swearingen) Hays, Helen (Fuertges) Hickey and Jean (Turnbull) Campbell, who provided a wealth of information and encouragement. He also received photos, diaries and newspaper clippings from the families of other travelers, and a more complete story began to unfold.
The Bradford Girls’ first trip, a 1934 camping excursion to Devil’s Lake, Wis., was Darlene Dorgan’s answer to the scorching summer heat in central Illinois. There was also a trip to a nearby state campground in 1935, but details are so sketchy that it seems none of the Gypsy Co-eds counted it among their adventures in the Silver Streak. Starting in 1936 and continuing through 1942, however, an extended trip in the old Model T became an annual event for an ever-changing ensemble of women, generally ranging in age from their late teens to mid-20s. Darlene was clearly the boss. She planned every trip and also laid down the rules: no drinking, no smoking, no solo dates. She was always accompanied by one of her younger sisters; Verna took part in the first two trips, Margie the last six.
The 1936 event – through northern Indiana into Michigan, across Lake Michigan on a ferry to Wisconsin, a return to Devil’s Lake and home again – was short compared to those that followed. In 1937, the Silver Streak headed northeast to Callander, Ont., so the co-eds could get a first-hand look at the world-famous Dionne quintuplets and meet the sisters’ personal physician, Dr. Allan Dafoe. The Dionnes were the first quintuplets known to have survived infancy, and they so captured the public’s fascination that the Canadian government took over guardianship and constructed a facility that allowed the swelling crowds to view the children – then 3 years old – while they played within the fenced-in grounds.
The co-eds’ drive home that summer was an arduous one, however, over rough and often desolate roads through Canada and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Hoping to make the 1938 excursion a little less stressful, Darlene planned a simple camping trip to Wisconsin, just as she had in 1934. But it quickly turned into another adventure.
After spending a week at Devil’s Lake, the group moved on to the Wisconsin Dells. Winnie (Swearingen) Hays told Butte that the co-eds had just finished setting up camp when a group of boys noticed the Model T and mentioned that Henry Ford would be celebrating his 75th birthday “in a day or so.” Sensing opportunity was knocking, Darlene decided that she and her companions should immediately drive the Model T to Dearborn, Mich., to see Ford. The following morning they packed up and headed east. The co-eds arrived on July 31 (the day after Ford’s birthday) and found the gate to the grounds locked. As luck would have it, Ray Dahlinger, one of Ford’s most trusted employees, drove up and asked what the women wanted. He was obviously moved by their story; not only did he let the Bradford Girls inside, they were treated to lunch with Mr. Ford, and a friendship was born.
“They exchanged letters and telegrams, and the girls always remembered to send Ford birthday wishes after that,” Butte said. “They weren’t kidding when they said they were friends with Henry Ford.”
Ford maintained communication with the Dorgan sisters for years. On the 1939 trip to the New York World’s Fair, the co-eds visited Dearborn again and were given tours of the Rouge Plant and Greenfield Village. Once in New York, Ford officials treated them like royalty, but not before they had a couple of humorous brushes with the law. First, on a rainy day that forced the travelers to put the roof up and the side curtains down, a nervous gas station attendant in Brantford, Ont., mistook them for bandits and asked the police to investigate. Later, an officer stopped the Silver Streak in Dorval, eight miles from Montreal, after he recognized the car and its passengers from a newspaper article. Dorval’s mayor offered to pay the co-eds’ lodging for the night, but instead they agreed to a more modest option and slept on cots in the jail.
In 1940, the Bradford Model T Girls took an even more adventurous journey to California for the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition. Venturing south into Mexico, they drove through Hollywood and met several movie stars who autographed the Silver Streak, and they must have felt like celebrities themselves when Mr. Ford arranged for them to attend shows and eat at fancy restaurants. Ford also directed the company’s assembly plant in Richmond, Calif., to inspect the Silver Streak and take any measure to ensure safe travel. That included an engine rebuild.
The Gypsy Co-eds traveled to New Orleans in 1941, then circled counterclockwise through the South to the Atlantic coast, north to Washington, D.C. and New York, and west to Dearborn again for another meeting with Henry Ford.
Everything changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. As summer approached in 1942, the then-32-year-old Darlene planned a modest trip to Wisconsin, Michigan and Chicago. It would be the co-eds’ final trip in the Silver Streak.
Although Butte never set out to write a book, he felt more and more compelled to assemble the story and get it published. A trip to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., proved to be instrumental. “There was so much information in the archives. I had no idea just how much was there.” Butte came across a letter and photo that his mother sent to his father (not yet her husband at the time) shortly after her ’39 trip in the Silver Streak. “I teared up seeing her handwriting and reading her words,” Butte admitted.
The Gypsy Co-eds reunited three times in the years that followed their final trip in 1942. The last get-together was in 1982, a reunion that culminated with Darlene (Dorgan) Bjorkman driving the Silver Streak in Bradford’s Labor Day Parade. Butte never met the instigator of those adventurous trips in the 1926 Ford Model T Touring car – Darlene died on July 16, 2001, at the age of 91. But he certainly felt he got to know her while researching “Darlene’s Silver Streak and the Bradford Model T Girls.”
“She was independent and fun and courageous, and her adventurous spirit had a lasting impact on a lot of people, including my mother,” Butte said. “I can’t help but look at the Silver Streak and imagine what it was like for those women. The heat, the cramped conditions, the breakdowns … just the lack of luxuries that we take for granted now. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have traded anything for the memories they made on those trips. I know my mom wouldn’t have.”
The “Silver Streak,” Darlene Dorgan’s 1926 Ford Model T Touring car, is on display at the Model T Museum in Richmond, Ind., through Aug. 7. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Copies of John Butte’s book, “Darlene’s Silver Streak and The Bradford Model T Girls,” are available for purchase in the gift shop. For more information, call the Model T Museum at (765) 488-0026 or visit www.mtfca.com. The car will also be on display Sept. 7-30 at the Wheel O’Time Museum in Dunlap, Ill.