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The Fort Armstrong Centennial Auto Races

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I wonder whatever possessed several young Rock Island ladies to demand equal rights back in 1916.

That summer, Rock Island planned a month of celebrations to commemorate the centennial of Fort Armstrong and the coming of settlers to the area. There were historical pageants and parades, patriotic speeches, bands, choirs, and a brand-new replica of one of Fort Armstrong's block houses.

And, of course, there was the Fort Armstrong Centennial Auto Derby Race, by now a requisite for any respectable modern pageant in this 20th century United States.

The race was scheduled for June 23rd: a hundred-mile race around a one-mile dirt track in Davenport, for a purse of $3,000. Local car enthusiasts were invited to participate and race against some of the best drivers in the United States. Male enthusiasts, that is. Young lady enthusiasts were assigned to selling buttons to promote the race.

On June 3rd, the newspapers were astonished to report that the button ladies had petitioned the race committee to be allowed to compete. They weren't about to sit around and wait for the right to vote. One of the ladies was the daughter of John Dee, Rock Island's first automobile dealer. He supported his daughter and announced that she would race against any other lady in the city.

In the end, the button ladies were refused, but race officials did bring in Elfrieda Mais, billed as "the foremost woman driver of the world."

Of course, out of consideration of her weaker sex, which one dared not risk in a heated and dangerous race, she was not allowed to participate with the men. Instead, after the main race, Elfrieda gave a solo exhibition, racing around the track in an amazing sixty-seven seconds.

You can see why the men were concerned. It wouldn't do to put a lady in harm's way. And there was an even greater concern. At 53.7 miles per hour, Elflrieda Mais would have won the race.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.