When I began my “career” as a docent at the Berks History Center, I learned about a young woman named Rhea Duryea. She was pictured in the museum’s Transportation Room. If you’ve been there, you know there is a Conestoga Wagon, a Horse Car, and a Duryea Phaeton car. When I was searching for a woman from Reading to portray in the DAR’s Famous Ladies’ Tea, I decided to find out more about Rhea. She was born in 1885 in Peoria, Illinois, but moved to Reading when she was 14 years old because her father, Charles, brought his Duryea Power Company to Reading. From 1900-1911, automobiles were manufactured here. Rhea was the oldest of the four children who lived first on Spruce Street and later moved to Douglass Street. Charles encouraged Rhea and her sister, Grace, to be involved in whatever interested them, not in just what was expected of a woman of the 1900s. Rhea grew up learning all about motors and bicycles and cars and how they ran!
She is probably best known for being her father’s test car driver–at age 15! In 1901, when she had mastered the skill of successfully cranking the drive shaft, she was often seen driving her dad’s three or four wheeled vehicles toward Mt. Penn. At Mt. Penn she would then drive the car up Mt. Penn Boulevard (now known as Duryea Drive) and back down again. Her dad would not agree to sell a car unless the car could be successfully driven up and down the hilly and winding road now known as Duryea Drive. Not many women drove cars (or were thought of as being physically able to) because of several reasons: it was difficult to crank the drive shaft, which could take two minutes or more of strenuous cranking; there was no steering wheel, you had to steer by using a perpendicular tiller located between the two front seats; with one hand, you had to steer, set the clutch, and throttle the motor! Make sure you check out the Duryea vehicle in the BHC Museum Transportation Room. You could sit on either side of the tiller in the front and of course there were no speed limits or rules. Her biggest problem on the road were the horses, that would balk and refuse to move when she was near them in a car!
Rhea was unafraid to try things that were not the “norm” for a woman of that time. She graduated from Ursinus College in 1908, where she sang, acted in plays and was the manager of the women’s basketball team. She became a teacher and author of several books about genealogy. Rhea was a woman of many firsts: the first baby to be carried to the top of the Washington Monument; the first teenaged girl to drive a car; the first woman named to the Ursinus Board of Directors. She served in that capacity from 1926-1969! I could not find out much information about Rhea after she left Reading and got her degree. I know she married, rather late in life, to a man from Philadelphia, whose last name was Johnson. As far as I could find out, she had no children. I even had to ask an Ursinus alumnus to help me find out anything about her later life. I do think that Rhea was a woman of many interests and dreams. She helped pave the way for women to step out of their comfort zones and experience new opportunities that previously had been unheard of for a woman.
Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County.
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