After Cy's Woodman attempt to make a solo ride from New York City to New Mexico, someone else enrolled in an adventure.
The time was beginning of the 20th century, at a time when even the hardest men would think twice about making a cross-country trip through nearly inexistent road infrastructure, a young woman was about to show them how it’s done.
Miss Della L. Crewe, born in 1884 in Racine, Wisconsin, was 29 years old and making her living in Waco as a manicurist and was an experienced traveler. Crewe showed a bent for adventure at an early age, according to materials assembled by the Harley-Davidson Co. from its archives. She learned Spanish by immersion, living for several weeks in Panama, and traveled extensively through Alaska and much of North America. Her decision to try motorcycle travel came from a suggestion made by her nephew during a visit to her hometown. After Della had noticed the number of motorcycles out there, her nephew suggested that a motorcycle would be a great way for her to travel and see more than she could imagine. That fall, she had bought a new 1913 Harley-Davidson single-cylinder bike and took up riding around town. The next spring, she traded it in for a Harley-Davidson two-speed twin-engine and had a sidecar bolted to it and named it “The Gray Fellow”, in preparation for the adventure that she will start.
Despite warnings from friends that she would get held up by hobos or kill herself in an accident, she wanted the freedom and mobility offered only by a motorcycle.
On the summer of 1914, Della Crewe, with 125 pounds of supplies loaded in her sidecar, set out for what would be a 5,378 mile trip from Waco, Texas to New York City with side trips interwoven in her itinerary. As a farewell gift, the people of Waco presented Della with a Boston bull pup. Della named her new companion Trouble and stated, “Trouble is the only trouble I will have with me on this trip.”
From Kansas, she continued to St Louis, Missouri to attend the annual convention of the Federation of American Motorcyclists, the predecessor of the American Motorcycle Association.
Della's next stop was Milwaukee, where she visited Harley-Davidson headquarters and was treated to a picnic by the female employees.
After leaving Milwaukee, she headed south through Chicago and into Indiana where authorities stopped her twice because of the dog. There was a quarantine in Indiana because of hoof and mouth disease and Della had to promise that her dog wouldn't leave the sidecar before they could proceed. Nevertheless, upon arriving in Goshen, Indiana, they were invited to participate in a local parade giving them the opportunity to see the city.
On Thanksgiving day, Della and her canine partner were back on the road. Early autumn snows made travel extremely difficult. It is documented that when she arrived in New York she was wearing 4 jackets, 4 pairs of stockings and sheepskin shoes. The weather was so cold that even the dog was wearing a sweater. The snow made the roads so bad it took them two hours to travel 2 1/2 miles to the nearest town. Della was thankful that the stability of a sidecar allowed her to continue.
When she got to New York City it was 12 December and the temperature was sub-zero. She took good care of Trouble, he had a specially made sweater to keep him warm, curled up on the floor of the sidecar.
From Waco to Milwaukee to New York City with numerous side trips, Della and Trouble logged 6 months riding, 5,378 miles and their motorcycle performed flawlessly. As Della stated after completing the journey, "I had a glorious trip. I am in perfect health and my desire is stronger than ever to keep going."
Crewe had originally envisioned setting sail for Europe but, was already late. Europe engaged in World War I which meant her plans to travel around the world no longer seemed possible. Later Della Crewe, Trouble and their 1914 Harley-Davidson twin with sidecar sailed for Jacksonville, Florida, with plans to tour the South, Cuba and South America.From Florida, her next port of call was Havana, then she took another boat and visited Panama and "America's master work," the recently opened Panama Canal.
Della next landed on the island of Jamaica, part of the British Empire at the time and still very much an unspoiled tropical paradise, where she motored to the top of the highest peak. Della's last stop on her Caribbean tour was an extended stay in Puerto Rico, or as she spelled it Porto Rico, where she again motored to all the big sites.
She was happy to reach civilization again in Atlanta and proceeded to visit the Carolinas, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia before reaching New York City once again – racking up 10,778 miles.
What started out as a 5,000 mile trip from Texas to New York, became an 11,000 mile trip by the time she finished.
According to the Texaco Star story, Della departed New York for Los Angeles in 1916, but history says Effie and Avis were the first women to make that trip, so, she missed setting a record by months. By the 1920 U.S. Census, she shows up in Compton, a Los Angeles suburb, as a manicurist. She progressed, through the California voter rolls, as a department store clerk and a registrar. Her name disappears from accounts after the 1926 voter registration records. Perhaps she left on another trip in 1926 and begin a new life in another country.
She opened the roads for the female riders 'Why Not Give the Girls a Chance? Thousands of Them Would Enjoy and Be a Credit to the Sport of Motorcycling If Someone Would Set the Fashion' — an article featured in the motorcycle trade magazine Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated in October 1921 prompted dealers to take a look in their own backyards to find potential women riders among their spouses and daughters. It stated that dealers should encourage the women in their families to ride to set an example for the women of the men that purchased their machines to do the same.
All photographs courtesy of Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives. Copyright Harley-Davidson.