At noon on May 26, 1923, four Brainerd women set out together in an old Starr automobile they nicknamed, "Whizbang," on a seven-week adventure to California and back.
"The Whizbang Journey" is an exhibit now featured through May in the Crow Wing County Historical Museum, which documents this trip taken by four women from Brainerd.
It was a road trip of a lifetime, one that most women in the 1920s, particularly farmerd' wives, wouldn't dare to even dream about. The women were Hildegard Erstad, Dagny Ingebritson, Thora Ingebritson and Lydia McKay.
"I think it was fairly unusual," explained Mary Lou Moudry, executive director of the Crow Wing County Historical Society. "There couldn't have been many men who would ever let their wives go. It was the '20s, and a women's place was in the home. It really was daring."
Thora and Dagny Ingebritson were sisters and Thora was believed to have been a Crow Wing County nurse. Dagny was a nurse-in-training, said Moudry. Thora and Hildegard Erstad, who at the time was a business teacher in Brainerd, were childhood friends.
The trip was planned so that Thora and Dagny could be there for their sister-in-law in California when she had her baby. Their brother, Reuben, had tuberculosis and was in a California sanitarium.
Lydia McKay, also a friend, was older than the other three women. At 43, she was a farmer's wife, married to George McKay and had four children at home: Mabel, 15; Hortense, 13; Peter, 10; and George, 7. She left the two older daughters in charge of running the family farm and taking care of the family in her absence.
Lydia kept a tiny log book, documenting how much money was spent on the trip. She also took several photographs, all of which, including the log book, were donated to the Crow Wing County Historical Society by the George and Lydia McKay family. By cross-referencing a map to the log book, which listed the cities where the women made purchases or repairs to the "Whizbang," Moudry was able to map out which route the women took to California and back.
Moudry said Lydia's son, Wallace McKay, who was born after the trip, came in and donated the log book and photos.
"He said, "I don't know if you want these. It was a trip my mom made in the 20s,'" recalled Moudry. "I'm looking at this and thinking, 'This is so cool.' I could envision an exhibit."
Visitors to the historical museum, located at 320 Laurel St., can take the same journey themselves. The exhibit maps out where the women went and what they did together along the way. They visited the southern U.S. on the way to California and took a northern route home, arriving back in Brainerd on July 16, 1923.
The Starr, or "Whizbang," broke down quite a bit along the way, so Lydia wrote down the various stops they had to make for auto repairs. The automobile had a tarp that was supposed to retract like a tent for camping, but the women couldn't figure out how to use it. Instead, they spread out the tent, laid half of it on the ground and used the other half to cover themselves as they slept on the ground, said Moudry.
The women stayed with relatives and friends as much as they could; it was a low-budget vacation. They went to the top of Pike's Peak on June 1, 1923, according to Lydia's log book.
They visited a church in Isletta, N.M., an Indian village. The sign on the church said women with "male attire" weren't allowed inside, so the women, dressed in pants, snapped a photograph from outside.
One night in Kingman, Ariz., they awoke to the sounds of gunfire. Men were walking up and down the sidewalks, shooting off their guns and rifles. It was the most frightening experience of their trip.
They took a detour in Wyoming so Hildegard could visit an old boyfriend and pick up a trunk of her things.
And by sheer accident, the women met two Brainerd women, Eula Michael and Marie Adair, on the side of a dirt road in Montana.
"What a fun little history," said Moudry. "We have an idea of expenses and their clothing. So often you don't have something that documents it so well."
The women paid 40 cents for their Hershey's candy bars on one stop. Seven gallons of gasoline in Holbrook, Ariz., cost $1.89, but that same seven gallons of gasoline for the "Whizbang" cost only $1.75 a few more miles down the road in Flagstaff, Ariz.
The "Whizbang" broke a tie rod in Yellowstone National Park and the women were stuck in a field. A local man helped the four-some, charging them only $3.50 for repairs.
If you have a collection of photographs and information about a similar journey by residents who once lived in Crow Wing Country or items that have direct ties to Crow Wing County, the historical society is always accepting donations. They can be reached at 829-3268.
This is the 75th anniversary of the Crow Wing County Historical Society. A new exhibit about the historical society itself will open in May.
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