On August 19, 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression, three girlfriends started out on a road trip to California – Elsie Kenseth (my mom), Clarice Jarlsberg, and Eleanor Gilberts – three single young women in their mid-twenties who had grown up together in Cambridge. Within a couple years they would all be married and ready to begin having families. Their new identities would become Mrs. Carl Korth, Mrs. Joe Vasby, and Mrs. Lester Jarlsberg. But the summer of 1934 was their time for a big adventure – a road trip to California.
In the early 1930s, Elsie had an office job at Madison General Hospital. Clarice also had a job in Madison, and the two of them shared an apartment, somewhere on the east side of Madison. They got together with their gang of friends from church in Cambridge often, and they all took many short trips together to visit other church friends who had scattered to Milwaukee and Chicago, as well as to neighboring towns.
By 1934, Elsie had saved up enough money to buy her own car, a 1930 Model A Ford, I think. (I vaguely remember hearing that she bought it used from her Uncle Dahl.) That’s the car they took on this adventure to California.
Since 1934 was before the time of cellphones, we have a glimpse into what this road trip was like through letters, postcards, and a few photos. The three women had planned the trip well, plotting out their route to be able to visit friends and relatives as well as see beautiful scenery. The earliest letter I could find regarding the details of the trip was dated July 30, 1934. It was from Art (I can’t read his last name) from Davey, Nebraska. The letter was in response to a letter Elsie must have written him about the possibility of seeing him during their trip. Here’s part of his letter:
… Has it been hot out here? Well, we had fifteen straight days with the mercury above 105. How’s that? It’s the worst heat wave we have had for years…
I am at home at present and intend to be for a while as father needs me with his work so he says. Maybe he doesn’t want me to crawl away some place and starve, I don’t know. We have been working rather steady lately and have a few jobs bidded and lay awake nights praying for things to happen soon. But what I mean to say is that I will be home when you intend to come and not wishing for you to fool me and not show up for I really would like to see you again and actually talk to you face to face. Maybe I will be too shy so you may have to help me along. You must spend a day or so with us or I’ll feel bad. Our home is no mansion as the depression caused our taking a smaller place but you will have the typical western hospitality and if you will permit we can show you what there is to see…
A couple weeks later, on August 14, Art wrote another letter to Elsie, firming up the plans for their visit.
I hope to have your pardon for doing this in pencil but I wish to make a hasty reply so naturally this is it. Received your letter just five minutes past and was glad to hear that you really plan to come out to see us but really must it be only an afternoon visit? Why can’t you stay over and let us show you around Lincoln and our Capital of which we are so proud? We would try to make your brief visit entertaining as I have asked my dearest friend Ernest Johnson to help me. Now I just won’t take no for an answer even if your vacation is limited. Maybe the chance may never be so ripe again.
You say you plan to be in Omaha Sunday morning? Now here’s what you do… [a page and a half of driving directions followed]
[P.S.] Tell Clarice not to expect too much of the person in question.
The big day for the three women to pack up Elsie’s car and drive west finally arrived – August 18, 1934. Elsie’s mother, Hilda Kenseth (the only grandma I ever knew), wrote Elsie a letter the very next day. She mailed it to “Miss Elsie Kenseth, Denver, Colorado, General Delivery.” Apparently, Elsie found her way to the Denver Post Office to pick up the letter since I still have it.
Altho you just left yesterday I will at least start a letter today. Maybe it will be in Denver before you.… Was to church this morning.… Molly [Elsie’s dog] is O.K…. Will have to get something to eat now, as it will soon be chores time.
Haven’t any news but lots of love to send you. Quite a few asked for you today… Papa and Ham [her brother Helmer] are reading and Fletcher [younger brother] and Molly are busy at kitchen cabinet.
Lots of love,
The best correspondence of all was the postcards Elsie sent to Carl, her future husband. Those cards gave a glimpse into the adventures of the trip for these three young ladies. On August 21, four days into the trip, Elsie wrote this:
Postmarked BRIGHTON, COLO., AUG 22, 1934, 2 – PM
We reached the 1,000 mile mark today – and only have had to buy 1 new tire (the first day). Drove thru sand hills all day today, but expect to hit the mountains tomorrow. It’s a lot of fun – but I’m awfully tired. If you feel very ambitious you could write to me at Long Beach, California, General Delivery. We expect to get there eventually. Only 4 more cards to write – and then to bed.
A couple days later Elsie sent Carl another postcard.
Postmarked ROCK SPRINGS, WYO. AUG 24, 1934, 6:30 PM
We’re way up in the air, and it’s awfully cold and windy. Have had so much trouble with the car I’m almost ready to go home. Had it in a garage 3 times yesterday and 3 times today. Twice today we were stalled in the mountains – once we had to get help from 9 miles away, and the second time a man towed us 5 miles. The country is beautiful, but the roads are terrible. Guess I’d rather live in Wisconsin after all. Outside of that we’re having a good time.
Keep in mind, this was also before the days of credit cards. Elsie, Clarice, and Eleanor must have had enough cash with them to cover the cost of all these car repairs – plus gas, meals, lodging, and any other costs of this big adventure.
On Saturday afternoon, August 25, Elsie’s mother wrote her another letter.
Just a week since you left and I wonder where you are now. Have been receiving your cards and am very glad to get them. Watch for the mail every day. Hope you are thru with car trouble now and will be able to make your destination all right…. Molly is as usual. She went out in the bedroom a few mornings after you left. She must have been looking for you. Papa took her upstairs with him when Helmer went with the horses. As she is so wild to go for a ride…
Where do you want us to write after this? Are you going on to N. Mex. Or not? You didn’t leave any more places you were going but figured on letting us know. Hope you make it all right and have no more trouble.
Love from us all,
[P.S.] Don’t forget to bring greetings to Fletcher & family [Hilda’s brother living in Long Beach, California]. How I wish I could see them all.
The threesome did make it to California. On September 1, Elsie wrote this card to Carl:
Postmarked SOUTH GATE, CALIF, SEP 2, 1934, 4 PM
We’re at the last point of our trip now & hiking back tomorrow. Went swimming in the ocean today & the waves made me dizzy (more so than I usually am). It was lots of fun though. I’d like to come again sometime, only on a train or in someone else’s car. We’re going to church in Los Angeles tomorrow & Clarice is to sing. Will be home next Saturday or Sunday. My car won’t stand another trip so I’ll borrow one next time.
That’s all the correspondence I can share in this blog post. I know there’s a box with more postcards from this trip somewhere, but I haven’t found it yet. I remember reading about some of their meals en route and meeting up with other friends and making new friends (usually in churches) when I was packing up boxes to move from the farmhouse to the condo eight years ago. As I re-read the postcards and letters that I did find, I was quite impressed by my mom’s sense of adventure, her self-confidence in driving a Model A Ford over thousands of miles of only partially paved roads, her friendships, and her sense of humor.
The Elsie I knew as Mom was a Sunday School teacher of pre-schoolers, a secretary who drove to Madison every day to work, a gardener who raised enough vegetables to freeze to keep her family eating vegetables with every dinner for a whole year – year after year, and a mom who kept the cookie tins filled with fresh-baked cookies – often from brand-new recipes she’d discovered somewhere.
Reading about the Elsie who went on a big adventure with a couple girlfriends in the middle of the Great Depression adds a new dimension to her character for me. I wish I had asked her more about that trip. Thank goodness cellphones hadn’t been invented yet – or I wouldn’t know anything about this adventurous side of Mom at all!