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The Story- Told by the Peoria Journal Star June 3, 2012

PEORIA — June 3, 2012 Article by Scott Hilyard, reporter for the Peoria Journal Star

Winnie (Swearingen) Hays stepped gingerly off the running board of the 1926 Ford Model T last week and then down onto the thoroughly modern concrete driveway outside John and Carmen Butte’s Dunlap home.

“Never did use the door of that old thing,” said Hays, who is 94, and now lives in East Peoria. “We always just jumped over the side to get in and out of it.”

Hays was recently reunited with the car, known as the Silver Streak, that carried an adventurous band of Bradford-area young women around the country in the 1930s. It was a decade that started in a depression and ended in war, but one that provided a lifetime of memories for the women who called themselves the Gypsy Coeds.

And now, for the first time in decades, the car is back in central Illinois. It was tracked down in Portland, Ore., and purchased by Butte, the son of Gypsy Coed Regina (Fennell) Butte, who died last year but invigorated the interest in the unique group of women and the crazy car they rode in.

“I know we had a lot of fun,” said Helen (Fuertges) Hickey, who is 95 and lives in Bradford. Hickey and Hays are the last known surviving Gypsy Coeds. “Always up for an adventure.”

That could serve as their official motto. Up for adventure? How’s this for adventure:

They met Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich., Don Ameche in Hollywood, Calif., and watched the Dionne quintuplets play outside through a one-way screen in Ontario, Canada. They visited worlds fairs in New York and San Francisco, received an escort through the Holland Tunnel because the police didn’t think the Silver Streak would make it through and ran out of gas on the Golden Gate Bridge three years after it opened. They slept in parks, schoolyards, jail cells and police stations (showers! cots!) and by the side of the road.

“When I first saw it, my first thought was ‘It’s so little. How in the world did six girls get from here to Canada, to New York to San Francisco and back with no trunk and their stuff hanging on the sides of the car,’” said John Butte. “Not to mention it was the 1930s and the car didn’t go much more than 45 miles an hour.”

The Gypsy Coeds totaled 17 young women, all from the Bradford area, who traveled five and six at a time on summer trips from 1935 to 1941. The trips totaled 71,575 miles. The car was owned by Darlene Dorgan, who along with sister Marjorie were the only ones to take all seven Gypsy Coed trips. Darlene drove every mile; no one else knew how to drive the car that was legendarily purchased by Darlene Dorgan’s father, Bill Dorgan, for $10. Or maybe $20.

The first trip in 1935 was to Devil’s Lake, Wis. The second trip the next summer was again to Wisconsin and then on to Michigan. Helen Hickey joined the first big adventure in 1937 to Canada to see that country’s biggest tourist attraction and global sensation, the 3-year-old Dionne quintuplets.

“It was sort of sad,” Hickey remembered. “They would bring the children outside to play at the same time every day and you could stand and watch them like they were on display. The government took them from their families.”

The women also knocked on the door of the home of the doctor who delivered the quintuplets, a major international celebrity in his own right.

“He answered the door, but wanted no part of the notoriety he was getting,” Hickey said. “He went back into the house and came back with a handful of autographed pictures of himself. He treated us with hospitality but there was nothing about the quints. He bid us ‘good day’ in French and closed the door.”

That trip started roughly.

“We got to the (Illinois) river in Lacon and didn’t know how to get across. We got the car on a ferry and when we got to the other side it wouldn’t start. The very first time we shut it off we couldn’t get it started, and we were 25 miles from home, but somebody helped fix it, and we were on our way.”

Winnie joined the entourage in the summer of 1938.

“We drove to Detroit and pulled into the Ford parking lot, we must have been quite a sight all of us girls in that old Model T,” Hays said. “A man came up to us and said ‘Can I help you girls?’ And we said ‘We want to meet Henry Ford.’ And he went in and brought him out. He wanted his people to overhaul the car but we were so packed up they couldn’t do it. Mr. Ford was very friendly and very interested in what we were doing.”

The Gypsy Coeds returned to Detroit in the summer of 1939 and met with Ford a second time. This group included Butte’s mother, Regina (Fennell) Butte. The group was given a place to camp and shown through the Ford plant in Dearborn. They moved on to the World’s Fair and Ford’s hospitality and generosity extended to New York City.

 “All expenses were taken care of by the Ford Motor Company,” wrote the Bradford Republican in its 75th anniversary issue in August 1964. “They also visited Niagra Falls on this trip.”

In 1940 they drove west.

“The girls had a letter from Henry Ford to his representatives in California and another letter from Darryl Zanuck, director of 20th Century-Fox Film Colony inviting them to be his guests while in California. Again they had passes to all shows and entertainment at the (San Francisco World’s Fair),” wrote the Bradford Republican.

The last summer trip in 1941 took the Gypsy Coeds to New Orleans, Memphis, Tenn., Virginia, Alabama, Niagara Falls, New York City and a final visit with Henry Ford.

“Who was pleased to see that the Model T was still running,” wrote the Republican.

They garnered the attention of newspapers along the way.

“Coeds Reach Capital After 3,000-Mile Summer Jaunt in a Jallopy,” reads one headline. “‘Model T Gypsies’ Chug Into Town,” reads another.

John Butte remembers hearing stories about the Gypsy Coeds throughout his life. When his mother died in 2011, her trip with the Gypsy Coeds in 1939 was referenced in her obituary.

“It got me thinking about the group and what an interesting piece of history it was,” Butte said. “I mean, my mother rode in that car, and I got interested in trying to find out where it was.”

Some Internet-based sleuthing traced the car to a broker in Portland. Although both Dorgan sisters had passed away, the car was still owned by the Dorgan family.

“We asked if they’d be willing to sell and were told to make an offer. We made an offer, and we just waited on pins and needles to hear back,” Butte said. “We were thrilled when they accepted our offer.”

The car returned to central Illinois on April 12. It’s not exactly a work of art. Through the years it had been scribbled on and painted. Unknown hands wrote “Don’t Laugh You’ll Be Old Someday” on the front hood and “Watch the Ford Go By” on the passenger side door. The spokes of the wheels are made of wood. By some miracle, the Silver Streak still runs.

“We have no intention to restore it to new,” Butte said. “We’re not going to change a thing, just keep the engine running.”

He also has few plans for the car at the moment. They do want to drive it in the Bradford Labor Day parade in September with Hays and Hickey riding in the back seat.

“I would have thought that was sent to the junk heap years ago,” Hays said. “I had no idea it was still alive.”

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or Follow him on Twitter @scotthilyard.

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