Have you ever felt the itch to get out and explore the world? Della Crewe, a manicurist living in Waco Texas, did. She considered taking a train or a steamship. But the 29 year old Della reckoned that was just a little too tame not to mention beyond the limits of her budget. She had adventure in her blood. At 29, she had escaped the state of her birth, Wisconsin, and traveled to Panama already.
The independent and confident young woman decided to travel by motorcycle. She chose a 1914 Harley-Davidson V-twin with a sidecar attached for cargo. Her friends in Waco, after several attempts to dissuade her, realized the headstrong Crewe would not be stopped. So they bought her a Boston Bull Terrier pup as a going away present. She named her little dog “Trouble” and quipped: “Trouble is the only trouble I will have with me on this trip.” Justifiable optimism? Or ironic foreshadowing? You be the judge.
Della Crew – From Waco to the Races
Della wanted to set off from Waco, but heavy rains washed out all the roads in the fall of 1913 when she had initially planned to leave. So she waited out the weather, traded for a newer model Harley, the aforementioned 1914 V Twin with the sidecar, and set out in the summer of ’14. She set her sights on a goal: the July 3rd race in Dodge City, Kansas.
The journey on winding “roads” that thoroughly deserved those quotations marks was a true test of her resolve. She rose to the occasion, plowing on through mud and mire and rig rattling ruts. When tire chains proved insufficient and she simply sank into the Kansas mud, she opted to travel through wheat fields that offered easier passage than the primitive and poorly maintained roads of the day. Motorcycle fans at the races in Dodge City greeted our pioneering female motorcycle heroine enthusiastically. They were appropriately impressed with her pluck and moxie.
From Dodge City to New York – at One Mph or Faster & Trouble for Trouble
After Dodge City, she set out for New York, visiting the Harley factory in Milwaukee on the way. Passing through Indiana, Della Crewe encountered trouble for Trouble. Indiana authorities were enforcing a quarantine for hoof and mouth disease, and Trouble was suspected as a potential carrier. Crewe was persuasive, and convinced them to let her continue with a promise that Trouble would not leave her sidecar. Our heroes pressed on and even got to ride in a parade in Goshen, Indiana.
As the fall turned to winter, Crewe rode on through all kinds of weather, mud, and snow. Although she cheerfully reported that her Harley engine hummed along nicely undaunted by the weather, her motorcycle slid into a snowy ditch more than once. One day the deep snow slowed her to a crawl. Undaunted, she crawled along for two hours progressing just a little over 3 kilometers towards her destination. Nearing Buffalo, she encountered mud so sticky and heavy that she augmented her Harley’s horsepower with the power of a horse, enlisting a local farmer to help pull her along.
Wind, sleet, rain and snow and bitter cold could not stop the indomitable Della. Pressing on through frigid weather she arrived in New York City, her goal, after 6 months and over 8,000 kilometers through 10 states. She was wearing every piece of clothing she owned to stave off the bone chilling 20 below Celsius temperatures. Trouble, for her part, had a custom sweater Della wrangled on the way.
Della Crewe Rides Onward and Southward
On arrival in New York, Crewe asserted “I had a glorious trip. I am in perfect health and my desiere is stronger than ever to keep going.” Crewe had originally planned to tour Europe after her trip to New York, but war broke out shortly after she left Texas. So after a few days rest, she set sail for Florida, aiming to ride down the end of the Florida keys and sail to Havana Cuba and then on to South America via Panama.
As near as we can figure from records of the day, she never made it South America per se, despite what other articles suggest. She did make it to Cuba where she met up with other motorcyclists and toured the island. From Cuba, she sailed to Panama where she toured the newly built Panama Canal. She then sailed to Jamaica and after riding around the island for a spell moved on to Puerto Rico, where she motored around and saw all the sights and scaled all the mountains. She returned to Tampa, Florida and rode back to New York City. In total, her odometer registered over 18,000 kilometers.
Along the way she sent dispatches back to the Texaco oil company, praising their service stations around the world. In this sense, you might say that she was one of the first travel bloggers, along with Carl Clancy Stearns, who financed his trip around the world by writing of his adventures for magazine articles.
More Pioneering Women Motorcyclists
We’ve got more stories of heroic deeds from the early days of motorcycling and the bold women adventurers who set out when few dared to ride. Check out the Van Buren sisters, who rode across the USA for women’s rights, or Bessie Stringfield, a fearless black woman who toured the country on her motorcycle back in the days of Jim Crow. What motorcycle heroine should we cover next? Please let us know your favorite in the comments.