Over the course of one day, the first woman documented to have driven solo across the contiguous United States spent 11 hours digging her car out of mud and then shot a charging coyote.
The year was 1915, and the woman was silent-movie star Anita King. She was undertaking the journey along the brand new Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental highway for automobiles across the United States, as a publicity stunt for Paramount Pictures.
Maneuvering her Kissel Kar convertible along the unpaved road and stopping to greet fans in cities across the country, it took her 49 days.
Exactly 100 years later, King’s three great-great-nieces have recently completed the same trip. Heather Pancratz, 51, is a teacher at Nikolaevsk School. She and her sisters Lucianne Boardman, 62, and Aleta Wilke, 55, of Wisconsin, left San Francisco in a rented Chevrolet 200 on Sept. 7 — the same day Anita embarked on her journey in 1915 — and arrived in New York City seven days later.
Boardman says they had hoped to make the trip in 49 hours of driving to symbolically mimic Anita’s trip, but traffic in Chicago and New Jersey stretched the voyage to 53 hours of car time.
Beyond being a vacation and opportunity for sibling bonding, this was a trip with a mission. Boardman, Pancratz, and Wilke wanted to tell their great-great-aunt’s story — to recognize her role in women’s, film and American history. Not just a movie star, King demonstrated with her cross-country voyage that women were capable of much more than the patriarchal society of the early 20th century expected of them.
During King’s day, a woman embarking on such a journey was unheard of. The Los Angeles Times previewed the trip by writing, “There will be nobody with her at any time on the trip. She will have no mechanician, no chauffeur, no maid. Her only companions will be a rifle and a six-shooter.”
King’s courage extended beyond the road trip. She starred in at least 19 silent movies and did all her own stunts. For “The Race,” a movie that depicted her transcontinental journey, that meant driving her car off a burning bridge.
Upon her return to California in 1915, she also set up a shelter for young women attempting to make it big in Hollywood. Boardman says she discovered in her research that both Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield stayed there while getting on their feet.
Because of King, Pancratz says, “I grew up recognizing that women had this ability to create their own destiny.”
King died a few months before Pancratz was born, but Boardman remembers meeting her at King’s home in Hollywood when Boardman was 8. She was neighbors with Lucille Ball, and had a butler and lots of glamorous clothes.
“She was quite a gal, very confident, very elegant, eloquent. But she was very respectful. I mean, she loved the family and would make a point of coming back to Indiana at least once a year to be with family,” says Boardman.
On their trip, the sisters wore custom T-shirts with photos from Anita’s journey and shared her tale with everyone they met.
The road trip also had a second purpose: The sisters wanted to learn more about the Lincoln Highway and raise awareness about its historical significance. In Galion, Ohio, they met with the original curator of the Lincoln Highway Museum. In Franklin Grove, Ill., they visited the highway’s national headquarters. All along the trip, they photographed commemorative signs and stopped at as many information centers as they could, bearing photos and information about King.
The women also created a Change.org petition to get the highway recognized as a national monument. At the time of this writing, the petition has 394 signatures. A friend of Boardman’s wrote a letter to the White House describing their project, and Boardman reported on Facebook that President Barack Obama’s office had responded.
Not everything during the trip went the sisters’ way.
Several of the Lincoln Highway museums and information stations were closed when the sisters stopped by. The climax of the voyage was supposed to be in Laramie, Wyo.: seeing a 25-foot bust of Abraham Lincoln that celebrates the highway. When they got to town, the women were told that the bust had just been taken down for cleaning for the first time in 25 years.
But Boardman says those mishaps brought their focus back to the trip’s real mission.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s putting into perspective what this trip is really about. We’re not tourists, we’re sharing Anita’s story and we’re doing it together.”
The togetherness was Pancratz’s favorite part of the trip. Living thousands of miles away from her sisters, getting “seven days of undivided attention” was a real treat, she says. In the car, the three women blasted music from each of their high school days and sang along at the top of their lungs.
Though they would have liked a little more time in each place they stopped, Pancratz says the trip was everything she had hoped it would be.
“When my mom was living, she said, ‘I would one day love to share a story about Anita because she was an amazing woman and touched so many incredible things,’” says Boardman.
In recreating King’s voyage, she and her sisters got to fulfill that family dream.
Their favorite souvenir of the trip is a scarf signed by all the people on the road who heard King’s story. A cafe owner they met in Illinois plans to post a sign about Anita’s journey in her shop.
The sisters did more than a dozen interviews with local publications along the road, and the story printed in Boardman’s town of Eau Claire, Wis., was picked up by The Associated Press.
Back in Nikolaevsk, Pancratz showed her students photos from her trip. Boardman says she plans to write a children’s book about King, to spread her story even further.
When King arrived in New York City in 1915 after more than a month on the road, a throng of fans and members of the press were waiting to greet her outside the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square.
On Sept. 14, 2015, when Pancratz, Boardman and Wilke arrived, their own welcoming committee was ready for them: the New York and New Jersey directors of the Lincoln Highway and the manager of the Knickerbocker escorted them to a complimentary luncheon at the hotel.
The manager also had hired a photographer and insisted on a photo shoot: the movie star treatment for adventurous women, 100 years later.