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Descendants re-create actress King's 1915 Lincoln Highway trek

| Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015, 10:09 p.m.
Anita King was the first woman to drive across the country in a car. She followed the Lincoln Highway, now known as Route 30.
Sisters Heather Pancratz and Lucianne Boardman standing in front of a Kissel Kar at the Wisconsin Auto museum in Hartford, Wis. Their great, great aunt, silent film star Anita King, spent 49 days in a Kissel Kar in 1915 when she became the first woman to drive solo from San Francisco to New York on the Lincoln Highway.
Sisters Heather Pancratz, Lucianne Boardman, and Aleta Wilke, will retrace the route of their great, great aunt, silent film star, Anita King, who in 1915 became the first woman to drive solo from San Francisco to New York on the Lincoln Highway.

When silent film star Anita King set off to traverse the country on the Lincoln Highway in 1915, she was the first woman to attempt the 3,400-mile trip alone.

Armed with little more than a six-shooter and an aviator's hat and goggles, King spent 49 days in a KisselKar on the road that came to be dubbed “the Main Street of America.”

A century later, her great-great-nieces, California residents Lucianne Boardman, Aleta Wilke and Heather Pancratz, will retrace her route from San Francisco to New York “to increase awareness of her strength as a woman who stood up in a unique time of America's history.”

On Saturday, they will travel from Valparaiso, Ind., to Latrobe, where they will spend the night before moving on to New York.

“This is something I need to do. ... Her trip is not in the history books,” said Boardman, 62, of Chippewa Falls, Wis., who has been planning their trip for about 10 years.

And like their great-great-aunt, they're not sure what the road may hold.

Will they have cellphone coverage? Will their computer connection work? Can three sisters stand being in a car together for a week?

“We have no clue what lies ahead. ... We're pretty excited,” said Boardman, a retired artist. “The tricky part is trying to decide how many hours we can be in a car together.”

With a CD playlist that will be heavy on The Beatles with some James Taylor, Carole King and a touch of country thrown in, they'll try driving 10 hours on the first day and then five hours a day after that.

Humble beginnings

Born Anna Kappen in Michigan City, Ind., in 1884, their great-great-aunt was orphaned at 16 when her parents died at an early age, leaving her and her eight siblings to fend for themselves.

She relocated to Chicago and found work on the stage as Anita King. Actress Lillian Russell encouraged King to try motion pictures, so she headed for Hollywood. She landed roles in at least 19 silent films, some directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Her cross-country road trip had its adventures.

King, who raced cars before her movie career, got lost for three days in the Nevada desert on leaving Wadsworth for Fallon, a distance of 31 miles, a newspaper account of the time said. She survived on four cans of baked beans and two boxes of soda crackers.

Constructed in the early 20th century, the Lincoln Highway extends from Lincoln Park in San Francisco to Times Square in New York. At the time of King's trip, more than 1,500 miles of the route were mere mud.

“The establishment of the Lincoln Highway and the spread of the automobile came around the time women started having more visible roles in American society,” said Kay Shelton, national president of the Lincoln Highway Association. “The automobile gave women more freedom.”

For King, getting from Point A to Point B in 1915 was not easy.

Rain often turned the hot, dusty roadway into a muddy quagmire. After a rainstorm on day, she shoveled mud from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. She would dig the car out of the mud, drive it 50 feet and get stuck again.

“She faced a lot of challenges,” said Wilke, 56, a computer analyst in Lake Mills, Wis., who has arranged for the sisters to be able to blog in real time during the trip.

Pancratz, 51, teaches English and history in grades 7 through 12 at a school in Nikolaesk, Alaska, a village of just over 300, and hopes to connect with her students via Skype. She wants them to be able to trace the route and see some of its landmarks.

“Some of them have only traveled within the state,” she said.

Breaking barriers

King started her trip on Sept. 1. Averaging about 30 mph, arrived at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City on Oct. 19. A party was thrown in her honor and many of her Hollywood friends traveled by train to be there.

Her nieces left today from San Francisco and plan to be in New York seven days later. Their arrival will be more low-key than their aunt's.

“We've reserved a table for three at the Knickerbocker,” Boardman said. “We'll sit down and have some tea.”

The three sisters will be traveling in a rental car with all the latest technology — including a dashcam — not the six-cylinder, big touring model convertible Aunt Anita drove. The Kissels were a popular automobile in their day, driven by Amelia Earhart, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Fatty Arbuckle and singer Al Jolson.

About 35,000 were made between 1906 and 1931 at the Kissel Car Co. factory in Hartford, Wis. Only about 150 complete cars survive, including 25 in the Wisconsin Auto Museum, said Dawn Bondhus Mueller, its executive director.

Boardman was the only one of the three to know her great-great-aunt.

“We went to Hollywood when I was 7,” she said. “I was in awe. ... Her closest friends were Lucille Ball and Jimmy Durante.”

In addition to racing cars, King had learned to fly an airplane.

“She found different niches and broke through,” she said.

An inspiration

The sisters hope their family's story will be an inspiration to other young women.

King used the publicity from her trip to start a shelter for runaway girls in Hollywood who found themselves friendless and victimized by the Hollywood machine, Boardman said. That cause was picked up by Constance Adams DeMille, wife of director Cecil B. DeMille.

“We seek to highlight the accomplishments of our great-great-aunt and give her the recognition we believe she deserves,” said Boardman.

The trip by King's great-great-nieces is “more meaningful because they are her relatives and the trip is personal for them,” said Shelton, of the Lincoln Highway Association. “How incredible is it to connect in a direct way to their path-breaking ancestor.”

When all is said and done, their trip likely will mean more than they first envisioned, the sisters said.

“We have girls and our girls have girls,” Boardman said. “It will mean much more than we'll ever know.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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