Nell Richardson and Alice Burke took to the streets in 1916, driving a Saxon made that year, to advocate for women's right to vote. An exhibit, “Engines of Change: A Suffrage Centennial,” on display at the Seal Cove Auto Museum through 2021 highlights this important time featuring some of the finest vehicles made during the 20th Century. PHOTO COURTESY OF SEAL COVE AUTO MUSEUM

Suffrage movement on wheels

TREMONTIn 1916, activists Nell Richardson and Alice Burke were among many women who took to the streets to protest the right for women to vote, but they did it in a newly-manufactured Saxon.  

Two years later, an influenza pandemic swept the world, infecting 500 million and killing more than 650,000 Americans. 

It would be another two years before the efforts of Burke, Richardson and all of the others in the suffrage movement would pay off for women, who were legally allowed the right to vote in 1920.  

An exhibit called “Engines of Change: A Suffrage Centennial” is now on display at the Seal Cove Auto Museum in Tremont. It features a 1916 Saxon among other vehicles from that time period, when paramount political and social changes took place in this country. It focuses on the role automobiles played in women’s independence, as well as how improvements in technology were harnessed to mobilize social movements.

Several dresses from the early 1900s are part of the exhibit, as well as information about the suffrage movement from 100 years ago.

“Everybody has really loved the exhibit; it speaks to a lot of modern time problems, exactly 100 years later,” said the museum’s new associate director Tim Weiss, on a masked walk around the exhibit with the Islander last week.  

When Richardson and Burke headed out on their 36-state tour, they drove over 10,000 miles through more than 125 cities in just under six months. It was unusual for women to drive and impossible for them to participate in elections.  

“I just can’t imagine doing 10,000 miles around the country in that,” said Weiss about the ‘16 Saxon that doesn’t have a roof.  

There are quotes from Burke’s diary about the journey throughout the exhibit, complemented by clothing and other antiques specific to the time period.  

A 1916 Saxon, much like the one Richardson and Burke drove, is on display with the names of the cities they visited when they traveled over 10,000 miles in support of the suffrage movement painted on the car door.  ISLANDER PHOTO BY SARAH HINCKLEY

A diary excerpt: Newark, April 6 — “They say New Jersey is anti-, but we don’t believe it, for our run down here was positively buoyant, with farmers coming out to wave at us and the small towns all shouting ‘hello, suffs’ and all the autos running up alongside with a friendly toot and a grin for our little yellow youngster.” Burke wrote. “Only one anti- did we see, and that was a horse — a solemn old thing whose world had been upset enough by automobiles without putting women in ‘em, I suppose.” 

Through the vehicles, mainly from the early 1900s, including several limited-edition custom production models, history comes alive. One example is the 1915 FRP, made by Finley Robertson Porter Company, which is a sleek, fast-for-its-time machine of which less than 10 were built. This one in Seal Cove may be the only one still in existence.  

Another gem, showing the grandness of the cars built at this time, is an unrestored 1917 Simplex Crane once owned by the niece of the founder of the Kimball Piano and Organ Company. So many of the vehicles manufactured during that period were larger than life, with tires nearly three-feet tall, bodies measuring almost 20-feet long and custom features unique to the few that were made.  

A 1912 Maxwell, featured in the exhibit, is from a company that brought women to the forefront three years before it was made. In 1909, Maxwell-Briscoe Motor Company enlisted Alice Ramsey to be the first woman to drive cross-country. She took along three female friends, but she was the only driver and often addressed any mechanical work on the vehicle that came up during the trek, according to museum employee Jenna Beaulieu, who researched and wrote the material for the exhibit. Of the 3,800 miles that Ramsey drove, only 150 of them were paved.  

“Engines of Change” is at the museum through the 2021 season. Visitors to the museum are asked to follow guidelines for safety, including a limit of 35 people inside at a time.  

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Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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