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That time the Silver Streak and the Gypsy Coeds headed to California

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Photo by John Butte.

[Editor’s Note: While the Silver Streak Model T recently came off its exhibit at Peoria’s Riverfront Museum, it’ll soon move on to a somewhat bigger stage: the Model T Museum in Richmond, Indiana. To get the whole story on the Silver Streak, we went to its chronicler and current owner, John Butte, who discovered it still wearing its original paint and cross-country graffiti. Butte graciously allowed us to excerpt the following section from his book on the Silver Streak and the women known as the Gypsy Coeds, “Darlene’s Silver Streak and the Bradford Model T Girls.”]

At the 1939 World’s Fair, Darlene and her friends had their first opportunity to see and experience one of the newest technologies: television. Some of the six girls (Regina Fennell wasn’t specific about which ones) sat or stood in front of a television camera and the others watched them on a screen on a closed-circuit telecast. According to Regina, the girls found it funny, laughing and giggling about seeing their friends on a very small screen. It’s doubtful that they understood at the time how “big” television would become. Ed Mowbray, who operated the family clothing store on Main Street in Bradford, believed that television was responsible for the demise of the large Saturday night shopping crowds in Bradford, notable in the 1930s and 1940s but much diminished by the late 1950s, the point when televisions were becoming as commonplace as radios in most homes.

This media evolution may have put newspaper circulation on the decline, but the decline wasn’t precipitous. Many people liked having the printed word to carry with them and read at their leisure, as well as pictures that went along with the stories—something radio could not deliver. It was the picture of the girls in the Silver Streak taken by Eddie Chantler and the story written by Borden Spears, both of the Toronto Star, that propelled the girls to  “well-known personages,” as Regina wrote, telling of the fame that had come to them as they traveled from Toronto to Montreal and on to Quebec City in 1939—and the people who poured out to see them and the Silver Streak.

The movie industry in 1939 had completed a particularly epic year, demonstrated by the movies and stars nominated for the 12th Academy Awards, handed out on February 29, 1940. Bob Hope was the master of ceremonies for the first time and the awards were presented at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. David O. Selznick’s production, Gone with the Wind, received the most nominations of the year with 13. Other films receiving multiple nominations included “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Wuthering Heights,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Stagecoach,” “Love Affair,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Rains Came,” “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Dark Victory.” It was “Gone with the Wind” that would walk off with the Best Picture Award.

Hollywood would be an exciting vacation destination with a great deal of allure to Darlene and other young women in Bradford. Hollywood had become famous as the cradle of the American film industry and a magical place for Americans who romanticized the location and the people who lived there. The challenge of sheer distance and terrain that would need to be crossed would be formidable for a group of young women yearning to travel there by car.

The northern climates had suited Darlene just fine for summer vacations, allowing her to escape the muggy heat of Central Illinois. The 1939 trip was the first time that she and her crew did not spend a portion of their vacation camping in the Devil’s Lake area of Wisconsin. A trip to California would involve crossing the Great Plains, mountains, and intermountain arid desert. A 1934 Gulf Oil Company Road Map distance table placed the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles (Hollywood) at 2,278 miles one way. It would take a lot of fuel. There would, of course, be other things to do in California. Regina Fennell’s boyfriend, Donald Butte, had attended the Golden Gate International Exposition held at San Francisco’s Treasure Island in 1939. It was a two-year International Exposition, running through September 1940, and Darlene knew that Ford had an exhibit there. The exposition was celebrating, among other things, the city’s two newly built bridges: the Oakland Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge, which opened in 1937. Los Angeles to San Francisco would add another 400 to 500 miles to a road trip. Certainly it was not a trip for the faint of heart and not a trip that would be made in three weeks. On top of that, the Silver Streak was now almost 14 years old.


Photo courtesy The Henry Ford.

Darlene did have a newfound friend, though, who might be able to help. In the fall of 1939, she had received a letter and pictures from the office of Henry Ford, something that was not anticipated but greatly appreciated. She had sent back the seventh picture with all the girls’ signatures as requested. Henry seemed to have truly taken a genuine interest in the trips the girls were making in one of his T’s. The interest Henry had shown in the girls could perhaps be returned by expressing Darlene’s interest in going to the San Francisco Fair to see the Ford Pavilion, just as they had done in New York. And so, on May 28, 1940, Darlene sent the following longhand letter to Henry Ford, transcribed here:

Bradford, Ill.
May 28, 1940

Friend Mr. Ford:

Sometime next month, the “Silver Streak” will start another journey, this time to the San Francisco Fair.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be hard for you to remember the girls in the Model “T”, with whom you had your picture taken—also the girls at the New York Fair whom you sent autographed pictures.
Would it be possible for you to give us a letter of introduction to the Ford Branch in the West? Last year, we were told to stop at the Ford Branch in New Jersey. We did so, and they were a great help to us in giving us an escort out to the World’s Fair. We were very grateful to them.
We would greatly appreciate a word of introduction which might help us on our trip.
Hoping this finds you in the usual good health.

Yours sincerely,
“Girls in the Model T”
Darlene Dorgan

Darlene started the letter by referencing the car, the “Silver Streak,” perhaps fearful he wouldn’t remember the girls but hopeful he would remember that 1926 Model T they drove, painted silver and adorned with those Lizzie Labels, looking like “all the colors of the rainbow streaming and flying down the hill,” as the policeman at Niagara Falls had described it. She had learned that there was no harm in asking, just like knocking on Dr. Dafoe’s door in 1937 or pulling right up to the Ford Motor Company Gate No.14 in 1938, asking to meet Henry.

By the middle of June, the Dorgan mailbox included a letter for Darlene, postmarked from Dearborn, Michigan, from Frank Campsall. It was an exciting response. It signaled that indeed there was a bond, a friendship of sorts, that had developed between Henry Ford, Darlene, and the Bradford “Girls in the Model T.” It was a friendship that Darlene wouldn’t abuse, but would seek to use to her advantage. The letter showed a CC to a Mr. C.R. Mullan of the Ford office in Richmond, California. Darlene realized Mr. Mullan would be seeing the words that came from Frank Campsall, just as Darlene was seeing them. Mr. Mullan was being asked to “be on the lookout for [them],” and “we know he will be pleased to assist you in any way possible,” and “Mr. Ford extends his best wishes to you for a pleasant trip, in which the writer joins him.”

Unbeknownst to Darlene, Frank Campsall had also sent the following separate internal Ford communication to C.R. Mullan.

June 12, 1940

Mr C R Mullan
Ford Motor Company
Richmond Calif

Dear Mr Mullan:

We are enclosing copy of a letter of May 28, received from Miss Darlene Dorgan, Bradford, Illinois, together with copy of our reply.
We should appreciate your rendering the usual courtesy to this party of girls who plan to visit the West Coast in their Model T car.

Very truly yours
Frank Campsall

On the 17th of June, C.R. Mullan sent a response back to Frank Campsall, reassuring him that the girls would be in good hands. C.R. Mullan was no fool! Henry Ford’s office was asking him to show the visitors “every courtesy,” and “do everything possible” to make sure that Darlene and her party had a pleasant visit on the West Coast and at the Golden Gate Exposition. It seems Darlene had been successful in “wiring” her trip to the West Coast, and a very important document for her to take with her would be that letter from Frank Campsall.

Darlene’s letter of May 28 had been longhand, but on July 4, 1940, with trip planning progressing and the departure date only four days away, she sent Henry Ford a typed letter. The letter was received in Henry’s office on July 8, the day the girls actually left on their trip. Darlene laid out their planned itinerary. Either separately or as a result of her communications with Frank Campsall, she referenced that they had received a map with a proposed trip route sent by “our friend Mr. R.C. Dahlinger,” Henry’s lieutenant who had assisted them in gaining entrance at the Ford Gate in 1938 when they came to Dearborn to personally wish Henry a happy birthday. Ray had also arranged the luncheon with Henry. In the letter, she also mentioned that through R.L. Breen she had secured a letter of introduction from the head of the Illinois State Police, which might be handy in a pinch, as well as passes into the fair and the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. She referenced that she had a letter from Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Film Co. with passes to their studios. She would also be carrying a letter from the Bradford Postmaster to the San Francisco Postmaster. The Bradford community was clearly working in support of Darlene and the Bradford Model T Girls.

Putting together the group that would accompany her on this trip was not easy. She would have to tell potential travelers to anticipate being gone for six weeks! This could have caused some to decline out of hand, particularly if they were working and could only get limited time off. The estimate of expense would be high because of the distance to be traveled, well over 6,000 miles.

Margie would join her for the fourth consecutive trip. Rosemary Moran would also go, this being her third consecutive trip. She would be off again for the summer after her second year of teaching. Ruth Gustafson, who had gone on the 1936 trip, would eagerly go on this long journey. In 1935-36 she was a teacher in Bradford. Halfway through the 1936-37 school year, she moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, to teach at the high school there, and by the 1939-40 school year she was teaching at Litchfield High School in Illinois. Darlene and Ruth had become fast friends and had stayed in contact.

Margie invited two friends, girls that she had met at Our Lady of Angels boarding school in Clinton, Iowa. Patricia Moffett would be the fifth traveler. She was from Knoxville, Illinois, the youngest of two children of Dr. Reuben and Marie Moffett, her older sibling being her brother. According to Patricia’s son, Joel, “Mom must have gone [to Our Lady of Angels] three years because I’m sure she spent her freshman year at Knoxville High.” He confided, “I think she was probably a handful as a teenager,” which may have prompted her parents to send her to a boarding school! She flourished there, particularly in the performing arts. Joel continued, “She was quite an actress. At the academy, she played Lady John Scott in Annie Laurie. She also was in speech tournaments.”  Patricia was a year behind Margie at Our Lady of Angels and would have just graduated in the Class of 1940. She would be heading off to Monmouth College in the fall but would have the summer free.

Little is know of Margie’s other friend. It was the Galva News from July 11, 1940, that referenced Mary Catherine Sullivan of Chicago, Illinois, going on the trip.  As much as Darlene would have liked to have a sixth traveler to defray expenses, Mary Catherine Sullivan did not go and no one replaced her. Apparently, early in the planning she had “raised her hand,” but in the last days before the girls took off, Mary Catherine cancelled. And so, on Monday, July 8, five girls would hop into the Silver Streak to begin this most adventurous trip yet: Darlene Dorgan, 29; Margie Dorgan, 19; Rosemary Moran, 22; Ruth Gustafson, 26; and Patricia Moffett, who would have just turned 18 on July 1.


Photo courtesy Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman estate.

It is with a great debt of gratitude to the Ruth Gustafson Johnson family, and particularly her daughter-in-law, Linda, that we are able to tell the wonderful story of the 1940 trip. They have shared over 128 photos Ruth took along the way, a map she used to trace the route they took, and a marvelous 19 pages from her diary recounting the trip from Sunday, July 7, through Saturday, August 19. Additionally, a debt of gratitude is owed to the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate and her daughter, Kathie Blakkan, for the use of photos from her collection.


Stitching awning remnants together to mend the top of the Silver Streak. Photo courtesy the Ruth Gustafson Johnson family.

Ruth’s diary begins by telling of preparations taking place Sunday, the day before departure. “Dar put us to work mending the top which consisted of about 20 odds and ends of awning remnants sewed together by an awning company in Henry. Gradually the gang began to assemble, along with crowds of spectators. Everyone wondered how all the baggage, cans of food, jugs, stove etc. would all go on the car—as it’s on and not in with this. Eventually got practically everything on and with the help of some onlookers got all the signs painted: ‘Don’t Laugh, You’ll be Old Yourself Someday,’ ‘Stop and Reconsider,’ etc., etc. In the late evening between answering questions about the trip we made a brilliant red tire cover with silver sign, ‘Under Construction, Pass at Your Own Risk,’ ‘Late to Bed.’”

The picture above shows that Darlene had repainted the car silver, covering up all of the previous painted red signs (labels) from other trips. All of the labels would be newly painted for 1940. On the driver’s side firewall area, just to the back of the hood, they painted the list of previous trips: “1935 – WISC,”  then “1936 – MICH,” then “1937 – Canada Quints,” followed by “1938 – Henry Ford,” “1939 – N.Y. World’s Fair,” “1940 – San Francisco Expos, CALIF.” and “1941 – ?” (The top date, 1935, is now believed to be a misnomer, either erroneously stated or done so purposely.)  On the passenger side, in the same area, from top to bottom: “Eventually, Why Not Now,” “OPPORTUNITY—Always Knocking,” and “Born – ’26, Died – ?” The front driver’s side fender featured “POST NO BILLS—THAT MEANS YOU.” On the driver’s side hood, below the large “Stop and Reconsider,” was a smaller sign, “Pray as you enter.” Wrapping around the passenger side rear fender was “One More Payment and She’s Ours!” The left rear fender, just above the tire, said “Danger;” the right rear fender in the same location said, “Air Brakes;” and across the front, under the radiator frame, it read, “The Silver Streak.” Never had the world seen a paint job like this, or a Model T bedecked the way the Silver Streak was!

SilverStreak_02_4000 SilverStreak_03_4000

Photos by John Butte.

“Up at 7:00,” Ruth wrote of Monday the 8th. “Keen day. People already here to see the car. Until 11:30 to get packed. Just as we were leaving we got gas and had a flat in the filling station (What did the girls tell the Toronto Star reporter in 1939, ‘We never have flat tires except in front of a garages’?)   Ruth’s comment here is priceless: “Dar set a lady’s hair while we were waiting. Greg Owens fixed the tire for free.”  It was estimated that a crowd of approximately 50 well-wishers had come to see the girls off, but it was a tough crowd! This was the sixth trip, after all. Because of the delay, the crowd had dwindled to no more than a handful, mostly moms and siblings waving as the Silver Streak disappeared one more time over the railroad viaduct at the west end of Bradford’s Main Street.


On the road with Patty, Ruth, Margie, Rosie, and Dar. Photo courtesy the Ruth Gustafson Johnson family.

For more on the rest of the Silver Streak and the Gypsy Coeds’ adventures, check out Darlene’s Silver Streak and the Bradford Model T Girls.”