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Women's firsts rarely recorded

There’s always a lot of looking back and remembering which man did what first, but discovering which woman did the very same thing and when is rare.

We’re pretty confident that Elmer Elwood bought the first automobile in this part of Southern Oregon in 1903, and just about as confident that in 1904 A.C. Allen bought the next one. A year later, A.C. followed up his 1904 car with the purchase of a 1905 Oldsmobile, the third auto owned in the valley.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Sometime before buying that second car, Albert’s sister-in-law, Margaret Keith, came to visit. According to A.C.’s wife, Margaret became the first woman to actually drive in the area. Some say Margaret owned the car she drove, but it seems more likely that A.C. let her drive his.

Within a couple of months of buying that 1905 Oldsmobile, A.C. sold his 1904 version to the first woman to own an automobile in the valley, Medford’s telegraph operator, Carrie George. We don’t know if she ever drove it, but if she did, it wasn’t for long. She quickly traded the 1904 horse-buster for a quarter block of residential property in west Medford.

By spring 1909, there were 150 automobiles in the valley, and by fall there were over 200, although, how many of those cars were actually driven or owned by women wasn’t reported. There were, however, a couple of local women who were setting records behind the wheel.

In 1908, Mrs. Ina Olwell, wife of a prominent real estate salesman, was the leader of a five-car caravan to Crater Lake. “We’ll make it to Crater Camp tonight,” she vowed, “or we’ll bust every tire on this machine.”

It took her 10-1/2 hours of constant driving, but she made it.

No sooner had Edgar Hafer, head of a Butte Falls lumber company, taken delivery of his 1909 Packard, than Annie, his wife, motored off on a record-setting drive. She was the first woman to reach the rim of Crater Lake in an automobile, and she did it in just 8 hours, 52 minutes.

The last five miles up the rim had been the toughest.

“You steer the car with one hand,” she said, “and with the other you throw rocks under the rear wheels as the car advances inch by inch. The right foot is engaged, forcing gas into the tired motor. The left foot is kept free for the oft-anticipated leap to safety should the car slide overboard.”

A few months later, surprised to find Annie wearing a greasy duster over her dress in her garage and working on the Packard’s engine, a Portland newspaper reporter dubbed her “the best woman auto driver in Oregon.”

By the summer of 1910, a Mail Tribune reporter couldn’t say how many women drivers were behind the wheel, but he believed it was 20 to 40 ... or more.

“At any moment of the day,” he said, “huge machines of many different makes are seen darting hither and thither with some member of the fair sex at the steering wheel.”

It seems the ladies had just made a significant turn, and now they were driving in a completely new direction.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com or WilliamMMiller.com.

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