Bradford: Home to the 'Gypsy Coeds' Who Traveled Across America
Bradford is that central Illinois community often defined as the third-largest town in Stark County, behind Wyoming and Toulon. But the town, located some 35 miles north of Peoria, has another claim to fame.
It was the base of operations for the Gypsy Coeds, a group of young women from the Bradford area who piled into a 1926 Model T and toured the country in the 1930s and early 1940s.
John Butte, a retired Caterpillar executive now living in Dunlap with wife Carmen, owns that car now.
“It’s still drivable. The car is in the same condition it was in when it came off the road after the last trip in 1942. But we don’t take it out very often other than parades. My wife and I view it as a piece of Americana,” said Butte, noting that the car has been displayed at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Wheels O’ Time Museum where he’s a board member.
To understand why the car is so important to Butte, you have to know where he’s coming from.
“I grew up on a farm seven miles outside Bradford and went to schools in Bradford. I consider myself a son of Bradford,” said Butte, 71.
Growing up there in the 1950s, Butte said he remembered Bradford on a Saturday night, a time when the small town would come alive, continuing a tradition of earlier years.
In small-town America of the 20s and 30s, farmers and their families would come to town on Saturday night to buy groceries, get a haircut and meet their neighbors. The street would be packed, said Butte, recalling one of his favorite Bradford memories, Dorgan’s soda shop, owned by Bill and Daisy Dorgan.
It was Darlene Dorgan, their daughter, who owned the Model T, and organized the road trips that spanned eight summers between 1934 and 1942. That’s when as many as six female passengers – along with luggage, camping gear and supplies – shoe-horned themselves into a car called “The Silver Streak” with a top speed of only 45 mph.
“The women traveled 71,500 miles between 1934-42 without the benefit of air conditioning, radio, cruise control or elbow room, and they did it at a time when ‘unaccompanied’ travel by a group of co-eds was extremely rare,” noted Butte, who wrote a book about the Bradford adventurers in 2015.
Aside from coming from Bradford, Butte has a direct connection to the Silver Streak. His mother, Regina (Fennell) Butte, was one of six women who traveled aboard the Model T to the New York World’s Fair in the summer of 1939. His aunt, Eleanor Butte, took part in the 1936 and 1937 trips.
The Bradford Girls’ first trip was a 1934 camping excursion to Devil’s Lake, Wis. It was Darlene Dorgan’s answer to the scorching summer heat in central Illinois, said Butte.
In 1937, the Silver Streak headed northeast to Ontario, Canada so the co-eds could get a first-hand look at the world-famous Dionne quintuplets. In 1938, they visited the Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. That's where they had lunch with Henry Ford. Ford maintained communication with the Dorgan sisters for years, said Butte.
In 1940, the Bradford Model T Girls headed west to California for the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition (the Golden Gate Bridge having been completed in 1937). That trip also included a visit to Hollywood where several movie stars autographed the Silver Streak.
On that trip, Ford directed the company’s assembly plant in Richmond, Calif., to check out the Silver Streak, an inspection that even included an engine rebuild, he said.
After Pearl Harbor, it was a time of national rationing—both tires and gas. The girls took their last trip in the summer of 1942, a modest excursion to Wisconsin, Michigan and Chicago, said Butte, who considers the Model T girls part of another era, as are his memories of Bradford.
“I remember there were four or five grocery stores, three or four taverns along with barbers and a variety of stores and gas stations. There was even a small theater in Bradford,” he said.
In his book, Butte said that Ed Mowbray, who operated the family clothing store on Main Street in Bradford, told him that television was responsible for the demise of the large Saturday night shopping crowds in town that were much diminished by the late 1950s, when televisions had become commonplace in most homes.
“Bradford today is a quieter place,” said Butte. The town’s population, close to 1,000 in 1930, has now dipped below 700. “I love the little town but it’s slowly getting smaller, perhaps dying. There aren’t too many businesses left in Bradford,” he said.
One business that still carries on in Bradford is the Highlands Fine Food and Whiskey House owned by Patty and Dana McGurdy.
One of the many pictures on the wall of the establishment depicts a shot of downtown Bradford in the 1920s. Parallel parking was the order of the day as two rows of cars are shown lining up along the curb.
If your car was in the inside row and you wanted to leave? No worries, said Dana McGurdy. “People just left their keys in the car,” he said.
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