The Model T chugged off down the dirt road from the Trafalgar farm with one goal — California or bust.
Iliff and Oma Mitchell, joined by Iliff’s father and sister, set off on Oct. 13, 1922, determined to drive from Indiana to winter in the temperate climate of the San Bernadino Valley.
They’d cross the Mississippi River on a ferry, endure the endless horizon of the Great Plains, brave the peaks of the Rocky Mountains before reaching Southern California. The trip was long, slow and hard. But they made it, documenting each step of the 19-day excursion with photographs and descriptions.
Their perseverance is legendary in the Mitchell family, and fascinated their grandson, Craig Mitchell.
“That was 19 days of hard, hard driving to get out there, and nobody in their right mind would get in a Model T and drive out on dirt roads for 19 days, unless they really, really wanted to get there,” he said. “I’m learning so much more about my grandparents through this.”
One hundred years to the day, Mitchell and his wife, Kathy, are following in his grandparents’ footsteps across the United States. The couple plans to leave on Oct. 13 from the same Trafalgar farm that served as the starting point Iliff and Oma Mitchell took in 1922, then trace a route towards Redlands, California — staying as close to the same path as possible.
The Mitchells are able to do so due to the information passed down by Oma Mitchell from the original trip. In that same vein, they plan to use social media to record their own travels, with the hope that future generations of the family can relive it as well.
“I want my great-grandchildren to be able to do this trip again if they want to, and already have a lot of the history,” Craig Mitchell said.
Iliff and Oma had only been married for weeks in 1922 when they embarked on their journey. They would spend their honeymoon traveling to stay with Iliff Mitchell’s aunt, who lived in California, and stay for the winter to work on a farm.
They intended to make it in 19 days, to beat the snow in the mountains, Craig Mitchell said.
On their return trip in the summer of 1923, they took a more relaxed approach, sightseeing and meandering through the country with stops at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks.
Their starting point was the family farm just off the present-day State Road 252 in Trafalgar, though it looked much different in those days, said Nolan Mitchell, Iliff and Oma’s son and Craig Mitchell’s father.
“There was barely a road,” he said.
For most of the trip, they would follow the Pike’s Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway — a roadway that stretched from New York to Los Angeles through the heart of the country. At each stop, they would camp out.
They could only travel about 125 miles a day, in a car that had no heat, no air conditioning, no windows or windshield wipers.
“They were tough old birds,” Craig Mitchell said.
Oma Mitchell had received a camera as a graduation present in 1916, and used it to snap shots along the way. She captured the sparse canvas tent used to camp in Rockville, Illinois, on the first night of their trip. Another photograph showed an adobe building that served as a schoolhouse in Arizona.
The group posed next to a mass of petrified trees in Arizona — the only sightseeing stop they made on the trip to California.
Oma Mitchell also jotted down a sentence or two each day, documenting mileage or any unique happenings that occurred. Because of her, the family knows they had to stay in a hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, when they were caught in 14 inches of snow. And they know that the group was pulled over for speeding in Kansas — impressive, since the Model T didn’t have an odometer and could only reach speeds of about 35 miles per hour.
“That cost them $10, which was about 8% of the total amount of money it cost them to go those 19 days,” Craig Mitchell said.
The photographs and the notes from the trip had been passed down to their son, Nolan Mitchell — Craig’s father. About six years ago, Nolan Mitchell and the family put together a small book about the voyage.
The collection stirred something in Craig Mitchell.
“I thought about, well, it’ll be 100 years in 2022, and that’s about when I was retiring. So let’s do the trip,” he said. “I thought I’d like to do this, to be where they were 100 years to the day.”
Other family members had traveled to the places that Iliff and Oma Mitchell stopped during their trip, but no one had done it all in a straight line following their route.
Committed to the plan, Craig Mitchell needed to work out the details. He started by convincing his wife, who had to arrange to work remotely during the trip.
Their plan was to go from town to town as Iliff and Oma Mitchell took, staying in the same stops along the way.
To get them to California, the Mitchells decided on a 29-foot trailer pulled by an SUV — there would be no Model T for them.
“It does not say fool on my forehead,” Craig Mitchell said.
The Mitchells have also reached out to the newspapers, museums and libraries in the communities that they’ll stop in along the way. Many have expressed interest in meeting with them, and one library in Scandia, Kansas, asked if they’d be willing to do a program.
Meeting all of the different people will be meaningful, Kathy Mitchell said.
“I don’t know if I’m looking to as much as the ‘what’ as I am to the ‘who,’” she said. “That sense of community is really enticing me.”
Though original thoughts had been to have their grandchildren travel with them, the logistics of pulling them out of school would be too difficult. So instead the grandkids will join for parts of the trip.
“So between my great-grandfather on the original trip, and our grandchildren on this one, there will be six generations of family who have done this,” Craig Mitchell said.
They are also recording their activities on social media — Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and website. They named it “Follow the Papaw,” a nod to the Mitchell grandchildren’s nickname to their grandfathers over the years.
They’ve started posting on Facebook, and will start posting on YouTube when they leave.
“It’s not so much to become active in that arena. It’s not that I want to get famous. But I wanted to document this trip the same way my grandmother documented it,” Craig Mitchell said. “Pictures are nice, but if I can video it, we can capture so much more of the meaning.”