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Book highlights a radical trip in 1939

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 7 September 2013 at 12:00 am

4 women, all 23, drove an Oldsmobile to San Fran and back

Photo by Tom Rivers – Lisa Neilans Blair returned to her hometown of Albion today with her daughter Karah Blair, 13, to sign copies of a new book, “The Trail of the Gypsy Wagon.” The book is based on a trek Blair’s grandmother, Alberta Neilans, took in 1939 with three of her friends.

ALBION – Lisa Neilans Blair remembers hearing snippets about a trip her grandmother took in 1939, a cross country trek from Buffalo to San Francisco and back, 4,500 miles total before there was an interstate highway, motels or McDonalds.

But it wasn’t until 2009 that Blair learned the extent of the adventure. She asked her grandmother, Alberta Neilans, if she had any photographs of the trip she took with three of her female friends.

They were all 23 when they embarked on a long drive in a 1938 Oldsmobile. Each woman was responsible for buying a new tire for the car.

Alberta Neilans kept a journal packed with notes, photos and mementos of the trip. She shared it with her granddaughter, who was amazed the four women were so radical and determined.

“It’s an amazing story,” said Blair, who works as an attorney in Auburn. “It shows you can do what you want without being held back. It’s a great story, particularly for women.”

Blair, a 1990 Albion graduate, compiled the journal into a book, “The Trail of the Gypsy Wagon.” She returned to Albion today for a book-signing at Bindings Bookstore.

Her grandmother was 94 when she died on Dec. 3, 2010. The journal showed Blair a new side of her grandmother.

“I read about how she danced with a cowboy named Texas at the Grand Canyon,” Blair said.

The four women in 1939 wanted to get to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which was hosting the World’s Fair. They kept a journal about the highlights along the way.

Neilans, the former Alberta Kleinfelder, married John Neilans in 1946. She worked as a home economics teacher in Fillmore before moving to Albion and raising four children.

Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the cross country journey. Blair is talking about retracing the path of the four women. She may drive out to San Francisco with her aunt Marilyn Neilans and other family.