Addie and Gussie Van Buren conquered every stubborn, small-minded convention in their way. What they accomplished would be brave and courageous now; in 1916, their daring was amazingly heroic, and in defiance of almost every standard that kept women in subservient positions to their husbands and homes.
Remember, 1916 was the year before the U.S. entered “The Great War.” Women couldn’t vote, weren’t considered the legal equals of men, and the roads outside big cities were dusty unpaved dirt. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, two sisters from New York, set out to cross the face of America on motorcycles – even though no women had ever done that before.
The two dimpled sisters set out from Sheepshead Bay in New York on the Fourth of July, 1916. Gussie was 32, and Addie was about to turn 27. Gussie and Addie pulled into Los Angeles, California on September 8th – but that makes their trip sound simple and easy, and it was neither. The sisters rode their Indian Model F Power-Plus cycles through Buffalo, Akron, Chicago, on to Omaha and then Denver, and up the narrow dirt switchbacks of a new road climbing Pike’s Peak.
The Rocky Mountains were the most difficult part of the trip: the rugged ride was over narrow dusty trails full of ruts, or washed out completely. The sisters were often thrown off their bikes, though luckily neither was ever badly injured. They sometimes needed help from locals to get back on their bikes – and once, to get their bikes back, after they had to leave them on the nearly impassable roads outside Gilman, Colorado. Several times, they were handcuffed and arrested — for wearing men’s clothing!
Addie and Gussie spent more than eight weeks riding across the topography of America: 5,500 miles of hazardous roads, dry weather, crashes, breakdowns, dehydration, heavy rains, washouts and mud. In 1916, there were no paved superhighways, no motels, no Triple-A maps. The sisters became lost in the desert west of Salt Lake, and a friendly prospector saved them by sharing his water when theirs ran out. He also put them back on the trail to Reno, Nevada. From Reno, they trekked through Sacramento, then south to Los Angeles and San Diego. The sisters even rode down to Tijuana, before making their way back to the East Coast.
The Van Buren sisters’ story has an intermediate sad chapter, but ultimately ends well. The sisters had dreamed of serving their country by becoming motorcycle dispatch riders, freeing up men for combat support in the impending war effort; their cross-country ride proved that women could do whatever their nation needed, under any harsh conditions. But when Adeline applied to the military to become a dispatch rider, her application was rejected. And the media coverage of the day praised the bike, but not the daring women who rode them. Their record-setting achievement was described as a “vacation” instead of an historic triumph.
After their cross-country ride, Gussie and Addie each married — and kept breaking barriers. Addie moved from teaching English to earning a law degree from NYU. Gussie became a pilot, flying with the 99s, a women’s group founded by Amelia Earhart. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren transcended the stereotypes and restrictions of their time, proving that a woman could do anything a man could do. In Augusta‘s words, “Woman can — if she will.”
The sisters’ legacy is extraordinary, and it continues. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren were inducted into the American Motorcyclist Association Hall of Fame in 2002 and into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2006, riders retraced the route the sisters took in 1916, as a tribute 90th Anniversary Ride and Fundraiser for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. And every woman on wheels today should climb on and whisper, “Thank you, Gussie, thank you, Addie,” for the trails they blazed for us all.
The Sturgis Buffalo Chip’s Biker Belle’s Ride celebrates Women in Motorcycling – women like Gussie and Addi
Wednesday August 8 2012, the Biker Belle’s Ride will kick off from The Lodge in the historic town of Deadwood after the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame Induction Breakfast . The ride will be lead by Ride Captain, and famed Motor Maids member, Meg McDonough. Meg will take this group of incredible ladies on a scenic ride through the the beautiful Black Hills to the Legendary Buffalo Chip for a special Biker Belle celebration.
Join us for this historic Sturgis Buffalo Chip event and be part of the Legend!
Motorcycle Lawyer Russ Brown with partners Chuck Koro and Jim Romag are proud to be part of the Biker Belles Ride and the Sturgis Buffalo Chip. Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys® have been fighting for injured bikers for over thirty years, on the road and in the courtroom!
See you in Sturgis!