In Part I, we were introduced to Darlene Dorgan and her 1926 Ford Model T Touring Car, in which she and four other girls had traveled to Devils Lake and Madison, WI, and Chicago, IL before returning home, full of happy memories of their travels. Part II covered seven subsequent trips of the Silver Streak to destinations ranging from New York, Ontario, Georgia and California, with WWII putting an end to the travels of “The Gypsy Coeds,” and the Silver Streak being left to molder out behind Darlene’s folk’s garage.
During the war, Darlene would make additional trips out West with one of her friends (albeit in more modern cars), and would eventually meet and marry Ted Bjorkman in Glendale, California, where they took up residence. Ted did well in the booming post-war construction industry, but when the market went bust, Darlene began looking for ways to supplement their income. Seeing an ad for “owning your own ice cream store,” she quickly signed the papers and began running a franchise for a little company owned by Illinois native Burt Baskin and his brother-in-law, Irv Robbins. Ironically, she was now in the same business she had helped her father with as a young girl. In 1964, a couple years after her father’s passing, Darlene would return to Bradford for the first formal reunion of the dear friends with whom she had traveled so many happy miles in the Silver Streak.
Two more reunions would be held, in 1972 and 1982. For the final get-together, Darlene called her younger sister Margie ahead of time and asked her to get the Silver Streak running again so it could be driven in the annual Bradford Labor Day Parade. The car had been exposed to the elements for many years at this point, protected only by tarps and cardboard. There are records indicating it had been driven in the 1953 Bradford Parade, but by this time, the car was badly degraded, having sunk into the soft soil far enough to rot a number of the wooden wheel spokes necessitating their replacement. All of the upholstery had to be redone as well. A mechanic from Wyoming, IL was hired to put the car back to rights and Darlene piloted it during the parade with a number of her Silver Streak friends riding along.
Darlene’s husband would pass in 1995. Darlene’s daughter, Bekki, took possession of the Silver Streak in 1998, and had it shipped to Portland, OR where she was living at the time, subsequently moving it to a climate-controlled storage facility in Vancouver, Washington. At the time of Darlene’s death in 2001 (aged 91), there were twelve Gypsy Coeds still living but none were aware of her passing and thus did not attend the funeral. One of those women was Regina Fennell, who had ridden with Darlene on the 1939 trip. Regina had married Donald Butte, a local farmer, in 1941, and they would have seven children who would grow up hearing the tales of their mother’s escapades in the Silver Streak traveling to the New York World’s Fair. After nearly 70 years of marriage, Donald would pass in 2010 at age 91, followed by Regina less than six months later.
As families often do when they gather, the old stories were told, including the accounts of Regina’s trip with Darlene so long ago. Regina’s middle son John became curious to learn more about the trips, which eventually led to him finding a photo of the girls posed with Mr. Ford at The Henry Ford Museum, reproduced in the book Ford 1903 to 1984. It was at this point he realized there was perhaps a lot more to the story than he had heard. Internet searching led John to several recent photos of the Silver Streak, one titled, “2007 Portland, Oregon,” and another captioned, “Once again seeing the light of day and still running,” which confirmed that the car still existed and had not been hot rodded or restored.
Hot on the trail, John continued his web searching and slowly started to piece together the bigger picture of just how many trips had been made, as well as the extensive distances the girls had covered. The site at which he had found the Portland, OR photos listed an email address, so John decided to ask whether the car might be for sale. He was floored when he got a response that read, “I posted this for a friend. She is the daughter of Darlene Dorgan. She asked me to sell the car a couple of years ago. She called a few months ago and said it was for sale. I can contact her and see if it is still available. Regards, JR.” John, who had little knowledge of Model Ts, nor even what the value of the car might be, responded back that he was interested “if it still has the words hand painted on the body.”
A few more email exchanges led to phone calls, followed by more emails containing numerous photos of the car. John and his wife Carmen talked through all the logistics, and after doing more research, John made what he felt was a fair offer, which was accepted without negotiation. John – the descendent of one of Darlene’s travelers – now owned the Silver Streak! Since the car was still in storage in Vancouver, John’s next step was to have someone local get the car sorted before bringing it back to Illinois. The windshield frame was badly rusted, and the leather seals in the rear end were ‘dryer than King Tut’s mummy.’ Wiring was in poor shape, and the car was about 70 years past due for a number of service items. John made it clear that all work done had to match the patina of the car – the goal was to repair, not restore, so the Silver Streak would be preserved as close as possible to its condition during the girl’s trips.
By early 2012, the car was ready to be shipped back to Illinois. John then purchased an enclosed trailer to haul the Silver Streak to various shows and parades. It was around this time that his wife noticed an article in the Peoria paper that William Clay Ford, Jr. (great-grandson of Henry Ford) would be speaking at the Bradley University commencement ceremony in Peoria less than two months from then.
Asking himself, “What would Darlene do?,” John jumped into action and used his connections with former coworkers at Caterpillar to make contact with Mr. Ford, Jr., Joanne Glasser (President of Bradley University) and Gerry Shaheen (Retired Group President at Caterpillar and on the Board of Directors at Ford) to request an opportunity for Mr. Ford to see the car. At the same time, John also made contact with two of the living “Model T Girls,” Winnie Swearingen Hays (who had been on the 1938 trip when the girls met Henry Ford) and Helen Fuertges Hickey – both confirmed they could be present to meet Mr. Ford at the event. The historic meeting went off without a hitch, and Winnie got to met her second “Friend Mr. Ford.”
In 2013, John and Carmen brought the Silver Streak (back) to Greenfield Village, where they were able to get photographs of the car in the same spot where it was photographed with Henry Ford in 1938.
Since then, the Buttes have participated annually in the Bradford Labor Day Parade, and have displayed the car at various events including the 2017 Old Car Festival held at The Henry Ford, where they were granted a participation waiver because the car is “not original!” After retiring from Caterpillar in 2013, John would write a book about Darlene and her car, entitled Darlene’s Silver Streak and the Bradford Model T Girls – his first effort, which was declared a “must read” by the PBS Motorweek show in 2016.
I had personally been aware of the Silver Streak since around 2012 when our local newspaper published an article about the car’s return to Illinois. Living only a half-hour from Bradford, I’d always wanted to see it, but it wasn’t until this past summer that I caught up with the car and its owners at a local event. I was only able to chat with John and Carmen for a few minutes before we had to leave, but I purchased a copy of his book and eagerly read it through within a couple days. I also scoured John’s website, where I saw they would be trailering the car to Callander, Ontario for the 80th anniversary of Darlene’s trip to see the Dionne Quintuplets. I quickly shot an email to our own DougD who lives not far away, and he and his family were able to see the car and talk with John as well. It was Doug that then encouraged me to reach out to John and do a proper Curbside Classic on the car.
John graciously responded by offering to have me come to his house to get more photos, and to take a spin around the block. As we sat in the 91-year-old car after our brief drive, we chatted about the girls and their trips, as well the ‘rites of passage’ each of us had gone through as we matured into adulthood. We take our automobiles largely for granted these days, but thinking back, my own first flutterings away from the family nest – like Darlene’s – were inextricably tied to my first car.
John has tried to keep the car as close to its condition during the trips as possible, only making changes to better suit its use in parades or for travel in the trailer. The patchwork awning top was long-gone, so a patchwork quilt serves as a stand-in these days.
The Silver Streak powerplant. The air filter is a recent addition. The bell (belle?) likely dates back to the days of Darlene’s trips.
Some details of the Model T. Note the grease cups, under-floor 6V battery and very simple, straightforward design. Some of the forgings are actually quite beautiful compared to their modern equivalents.
The cowl-mounted fuel tank, and spare tire carrier. Flats were a common occurrence, and Darlene once quipped they never had one except in front of a service station (photo evidence proves otherwise!).
Model T controls. The steering wheel is probably the only component that works exactly the same as on a modern car.
John and Carmen Butte with The Silver Streak.
“Every car has a story,” and Darlene and her Silver Streak combined a strong sense of adventure and spontaneity along with numerous friends (and a few celebrities!) to create a delightful legacy that John and Carmen continue to extend to this day.
My thanks to John and Carmen Butte for their time and the opportunity to experience the Silver Streak in person.