A true pioneer in every sense, the woman in this photo determined to manifest her own idea of freedom, setting off onto a solo motorcycle journey across the country at a time when such an idea was the polar opposite of normal. The deceptively lovely Miss Della Crewe may have had the appearance of a gentle wife who had hopped out of her husband's sidecar for a quick photo, but the truth of the matter is that this young woman from Waco was in fact as tough as they had ever come. Though she appears well-kempt, Della was a true adventurer and in the midst of an epic 11,000-mile solo adventure at the time that this photograph was taken on the streets of Atlanta in September of 1915. Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1884, the story goes that Miss Della Crewe had moved to Waco, TX by 1910 and provided for herself as a local manicurist. While visiting family back home in Wisconsin in 1913, it is said that Della was inspired to try her hand at motorcycling by a younger cousin. The spirit of adventure consumed her and an infatuation with the true freedom that only a motorcycle could provide led the 29-year-old to imagine an adventure that would take everything that she was made of to complete, but would allow her a chance to truly experience unfiltered freedom.
After trading in her first motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson single that she had purchased upon arriving back home to Waco, she picked up a 1914 two-speed Harley-Davidson twin complete with a sidecar rig, the cutting edge setup offered by the Milwaukee company at that time. Friends and neighbors helped her equip and prepare for the daunting journey, presenting her with traveling companion, a Boston Bull Terrier puppy which she named Trouble, and on June 24, 1914, Della and Trouble with a sidecar full of supplies set off into the wind, bound for New York City and whatever they could find along the way. Right from the start, the weather seemed against her, and though the difficult road ahead was full of dangers and discomforts, Crewe insisted on pressing forward under her own terms. She dredged through dreadful roads and weather conditions, often times using snow chains to make it through the thick mud, only finding brief respites on the rare, luxurious lengths of pavement of America’s larger cities. By the 4th of July Della and Trouble had made it Dodge City, Kansas for the 2nd annual FAM road race. The affair was dominated by the brand new Harley-Davidson factory racing team, a fact that I’m sure instilled excitement and confidence in the young woman from Texas who was just getting acquainted with her machine and the ambitious journey ahead. The event also garnered tremendous press, photographs, and attention for the young Crewe, quickly establishing her as a darling of local and national journalists who were eager to keep track of the pioneer female enthusiast. I believe it was also at the Dodge City race that Miss Crewe made the acquaintance of some very important men in the motorcycling world at that time, the founders of Harley-Davidson, who invited her to the new headquarters in Milwaukee and were assuredly great friends to have on such an arduous journey.
However, Crewe didn’t blast through the countryside focused on only the achievement of completing the trip or seeking out acclaim. She made it a point to wander freely wherever she wished, stopping along the way to meet new people, share stories with locals, and even join in on a small town parade when the occasion presented itself. The trip was always about her, always for her. She was an ambassador of two-wheeled freedom not because of her ambition to be a celebrity, but because of her passion for being free. From Kansas, she meandered through improving conditions in Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Eventually, she making her way to a warm reception at the newly completed Harley-Davidson HQ, the mega-plant at Juneau Avenue. Somewhere along the way, most likely at the Dodge City race where she first met the Harley-Davidson founders, Crewe seems to have made even more friends from the Texaco Gas & Oil Company. For the majority of her trip following the race at Dodge City, the Texaco company made significant efforts to provide support and lodging for Crewe at all of her major stops. As she left Milwaukee she turned East just in time for Winter to catch up to her. She spent several hard months traversing a sub-zero and snowy Midwest, sometimes taking hours to travel just a mile or two, often times having to hold up for days until conditions improved. Eventually, she made it across Ohio, up through Pennsylvania, and into New York, ultimately reaching her destination of New York City on December 12, 1914. Della, Trouble, and her trusty Harley-Davidson had covered 5,378 miles across 10 states in a span of 6 months, but her journey was far from over.
Initially, her plan was to sail to Europe once reaching New York to continue her adventure, but as the Great War began to tear the continent apart, Crewe revised her itinerary. Instead, she headed south, loading up on a boat bound for Jacksonville, FL. From Jacksonville Ms. Crewe headed further south, battling shin deep sand for hundreds of miles until she ultimately had to load up on a train to Key West. There she recalled that the beautiful blue Key seemed to team with sponges and cigars and that, “Oh! If I were a man, I’d have bought some cigars, sat down in a cozy hotel chair and reviewed in the puffs of curling smoke my glorious motorcycle trip which I had so happily ended in Key West.” However, her journey didn't end there, from Key West she headed to the Caribbean and throughout the summer of 1915 Crewe and Trouble motored their way all around the Caribbean islands and into parts of South America. Her adventure took her through the beautiful interiors of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the West Indies. When she arrived in Panama following the recent completion of the Panama Canal she was arrested by authorities for driving without a license. However, the judge, being so impressed with her spirit and her adventures, he permitted her to continue her trip through the then US territory without proper documents.
Having been on the road for over a year at that point, Miss Crewe returned to the States by way of the port of Tampa in the Fall of 1915. She turned North and set her sights again on New York City, but Crewe, as always, resolved to wander her way there. It was at that point when this photograph was taken on the streets of downtown Atlanta in early September 1915. Written across her sidecar are the names of towns and states that she had already visited, as well as the badges, plaques, and plates from her treks abroad. A Texaco Star Emblem with Safety First rests just under her acetylene headlamp, a gift from her benefactors no doubt. She is accompanied by an Atlanta Police Officer sporting a lovely new 1915 Harley and a man named Gus Castle, the owner of Harley-Davidson’s Southern branch and the godfather of two-wheeled culture in Atlanta. A point of potential concern, her pup Trouble is absent in this image, though he may have just been out of frame living up to his name. After a brief stay in Atlanta Crewe and Trouble were soon was back on the road, traveling through the hills of Appalachia, the Carolinas, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and finally returning to New York. At this point, the slight framed woman full of grit had traversed nearly 11,000 since leaving her home in Waco over a year ago, but still, she was not finished.
The final leg of her journey took her from New York to California in 1916 with an apparent detour into Alaska. Unfortunately though, her story begins to fade over these final miles until our understanding of her later life ultimately becomes a mystery. It is believed that she eventually settled down in Compton, California and returned to her life as a manicurist, but records of Della Crewe are extremely sparse and drop off completely by the mid 1920’s, taking with them details of the final years of her truly remarkable and unique life. It is mentioned in numerous secondhand articles that she was working on a memoire detailing her travels, but to this day there has been no sign of it. It is odd that such an accomplished and unique young woman would have fallen into obscurity so quickly, though as in anything related to the life of Della Crewe she most certainly was the one calling the shots and may have found it best to not be so caught up in the spotlight of the culture. Hopefully the future will turn up a bit more information and this story will be just part one of the incredible journey of Miss Della Crewe, but until then she will remain one of the most cherished pioneers of American motorcycle culture.