Kane County History: Women’s History Month Focus -- Elgin's Alice Byrd Potter Was Driven To Make Her Mark 

Kane County History: Women’s History Month Focus — Elgin’s Alice Byrd Potter Was Driven To Make Her Mark 

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s blog was based on a 1999 article by E.C. “Mike” Alft restyled in 2022 by Museum Educator Rebecca Miller. Three photos below are the property of the White Rock Collection, presented here with permission, courtesy of the Elgin History Museum.

Alice Byrd Potter was born in Elgin in 1875, a time in history when most women never saw their name in the newspaper, except perhaps at their birth, marriage or death. If their name appeared in print, it was generally followed by the phrase “wife of” or “daughter of.”

This photo is the property of the White Rock Collection, reposted here with permission.

Indeed, if one were to try and describe Alice Byrd Potter in this manner, they might note that both of her parents had come from established Elgin dairy families.

Her father, Charles Potter, made his fortune with the Elgin Butter Company and later the Elgin Creamery Company. Her mother was of the Mann family, another established Elgin dairy and cattle family.

Later, Alice would marry (and divorce) Professor John F. Tetzner, director of the Elgin Military Band and successful piano dealer.

One might say this was enough to make Alice Byrd Potter newspaper-worthy, and there should be no more to write about. One who made that bet against Alice Potter would be sure to lose.

Alice Byrd Potter is not remembered for any of these “daughter of/wife of” tags. She is remembered for a great feat she accomplished in 1908. In that year, Alice Byrd Potter of Elgin  became the first woman to drive an automobile from Chicago to New York.

An Early Interest in Automobiles

Alice Byrd Potter made her home at 518 E. Chicago St, Elgin. In 1908 she was the first woman to drive from Chicago to New York. This photo is the property of the White Rock Collection, reposted here with permission.

Elwood Haynes built one of the first American automobiles in 1894 and established the Haynes Automobile Company, in Kokomo, IN. His design was the first auto feasible for mass production and the first to be made at a profit.

The first production models were introduced in 1904 and by 1907 he had produced 350 autos. Henry Ford would not sell his first Model T until a year later and was not mass producing them until 1913. Haynes understood the value of the unusual in publicizing his cars and women drivers were rare in the early days of the industry.

A 1916 Hayes. By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Alice Byrd Potter took early advantage of this new technology. She owned her automobile as early as 1905. She was frequently seen driving her machine around the city with great confidence.

In 1907, she drove a Haynes special racing car at Harlem, IL, competing for the title “Champion Lady Driver of the West.” Several Elgin motorists driving four Fords, two Packards, a Buick, a Maxwell and a Rambler attended the event to cheer her on.

She won by default in a three-mile exhibition because the two other women who had entered the event were unwilling to compete on the rough track.

The next year, Byrd Potter (she had resumed using her maiden name after her divorce and was usually called by her middle name) embarked on another venture encouraged by the Haynes Automobile Company. She set out to drive from Chicago to New York, a feat that had never been accomplished by a woman.

The Start of a 12-Day Adventure

Remember that automobiles at this time were finicky machines, prone to repeated breakdowns, calling on their drivers to repair blown tires, adjust oil and water levels, and repair damaged cylinders on every trip. No driver would ever consider a trip without a full tool box.

This photo is the property of the White Rock Collection, reposted here with permission.

Roads were poorly maintained, if at all. A rainy day meant a day of travel through thick mud.

Alice Byrd Potter would handle this all herself. She had about 15,000 miles of driving experience when she pulled away from the Auditorium in Chicago on July 16, 1908, bound for New York.

Accompanying her as passengers were Ida N. Dangerfield of Elgin, Elizabeth Forest of Geneva, and Elizabeth Hunt of St. Charles. None of the three passengers knew how to drive.

Prior to departure, there was a luncheon at the Haynes Automobile office to wish them well. A delegation from the Chicago Automobile Club, which took an interest in the tour, drove along with them as far as South Bend, IN.

“Although the feat is a remarkable one,” commented the Daily News, “the driver Alice Potter is well known for her ability in handling a machine, and it is not anticipated that she will meet with difficulty. She is depending entirely upon her knowledge of the mechanism of the automobile to repair such breakdowns as occur, and to care for the car until it reaches the eastern destination.”

‘Only These,’ She Said …

The roads were gravel at best and often simply dirt paths that were mired after a rain, but there was no intention of setting a record time. Stopping whenever or wherever their fancy took them, sometimes stopping to take photographs, the party reached Cleveland by way of Sandusky.

At one place on the road to Toledo, they were obliged to ford a river because of a broken bridge. When they arrived, the Toledo Times described them as “covered with dust and as hungry as bears.”

They were banqueted by the automobile clubs along the route and were welcomed into a number of homes when they halted and asked for a drink of water. The Express of Buffalo, NY, sent a reporter to interview them upon their arrival in that city:

Four girls with sunburned noses and clothes covered with mud arrived at the Iroquois at 8 o’clock last night after motoring from Ashtabula yesterday. The party, scorning the assistance of any man, is making the run from Chicago to New York.

Mrs. Alice Potter, driver of the car, is master mechanic, tire repairer, oiler, and general expert…Mrs. Potter is a slight girl, who doesn’t weigh more than 100 pounds, but she is definitely game.

“Nothing has gone wrong yet,” she chirped gleefully. “I think this is a good stunt. I didn’t realize it was anything remarkable until newspapermen began to interview me.”

Aren’t you afraid to travel alone?

“Nothing to be afraid of,” she replied scornfully. “The only thing that has phased me yet was the mud between Cleveland and Ashtabula. But then I’ve seen so much mud in Illinois that I didn’t mind that much.”

Do you carry any weapons of defense?

“Only these,” she said, exhibiting a pair of small white arms.

Riding through the Mohawk valley from Syracuse to Amsterdam, they traveled in tandem with a Mercedes.

“I was proud of my Haynes,” Byrd reported, “and in fact could make bad muddy places better than the Mercedes.” At Albany it was “slow, second speed most of the time” because of the hills, but her Diamond tires were still holding Chicago air. “I have not been obliged to pump them up since leaving Chicago.”

Success!

The four women were met at Tarrytown by the manager of a Haynes dealership in New York and arrived at the Martha Washington Hotel on East 29th Street on July 28. While touring the city, Byrd was arrested for allowing her car to smoke in Central Park and fined $10.

The only trouble on the return trip was a puncture near South Bend. Arriving back in Chicago on Aug. 22, the odometer showing 1,745 miles, Byrd was elated:

“I think it was the greatest trip that one could ever experience. I have been abroad but the trip across the ocean isn’t to be compared with an auto trip to New York and returning without an escort.”

An impressed Elgin Daily Courier reporter predicted: “The record she has just made may never be equaled by any woman driver.”

However, Alice Potter herself remarked that the trip could have been shortened by four days if her travelling companions had not grown so fatigued in their role as passengers and required a calmer pace of travel.

Remembering Alice Byrd Potter

Alice Byrd Potter would go on to have a great impact on her community in Elgin.

She was an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution where she traced her lineage back to a lieutenant in the Massachussets militia of 1776 as well as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and an early advocate for the separation of church and state.

She supported the Elgin Road Races and taught dancing, mandolin, guitar, voice and piano. She helped organize the Elgin Humane Society and was active in the movement to protect animals from vivisection for medical research purposes.

Alice Byrd Potter died in Elgin in 1955 after a long illness. She is buried in Elgin’s Bluff City Cemetery. In honor of Women’s History Month, historians will be offering two opportunities to learn more about notable Elgin Women.

Upcoming Events!

“Elgin Women” by Linda Rock, Elgin Historian — 2 p.m. Sunday, March 13, 2022. A presentation on Zoom and in person at the Elgin History Museum. Linda Rock presents the unique stories of  remarkable Elgin women who left their mark on our community. See www.elginhistory.org for more information.

“Remarkable Women of Elgin’s Past” by Jerry Turnquist, Elgin Historian — 7 p.m. Thursday, March 10, 2022, at Gail Borden Public Library. Jerry Turnquist takes a look at women and women’s groups that have helped shape Elgin. Included will be a look at some notable women who have passed through the city, contributions of women during World War II, and some women who have set local records. See www.gailborden.info or www.elginhistory.org for more information.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus.

The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

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