Cristine Sommer Simmons

Olive Hager, the 'Mile a Minute Girl'

The remarkable book 'The American Motorcycle Girls: 1900 to 1950' is Cristine Sommer Simmons' magnum opus. Published by Parker House in 2009, it's a photographic history of early women motorcyclists, exploring the legacy of pioneering women riders, racers, overland travelers, and even stunters.  One of her biographical articles particularly caught our eye, about Olive Hager, who was among the first women to ride a Wall of Death.  Cris Simmons has Olive's personal scrapbooks that include a full documentation of her life and riding career, which she hopes to develop in the future as its own story in another medium.  Cris' most recent work is a display of Early Women Motorcyclists at SFO International Airport, a series of photo placards and early motorcycles entertaining travelers at the International Terminal.  While our publisher Paul d'Orléans has ridden four Motorcycle Cannonballs with Cris, we're pleased to collaborate with her for the first time on The Vintagent: here's her story on Olive Hager:

Olive Hager was born in Nashville, TN, in 1889.  Olive and her older brother Oliver had an ordinary life on the family farm.  But Olive's life would be anything but ordinary.  Olive's fascination with wheels started started at an early age, and as a young girl she became the first female to drive an automobile in Nashville. She would become one of the first and most famous Wall of Death riders of all time.  Others used the name after her, but Olive was truly the first 'Mile a Minute' girl.

Olive Hager with her 1914 Indian Wall of Death motorcycle, a typical board track racer with dropped handlebars and a single-speed drive with clutch.  The Indian is pretty banged up, and she is too: note the bandage on her right arm, the result of one of her many crashes no doubt. [Cristine Sommer Simmons]
As the story is told, Olive began riding motorcycles with her brother Oliver K. Hager in about 1911. By 1914 the pair would be riding the dangerous Wall of Death [the year the Wall was invented - Ed.]. Oliver, nicknamed OK, was three years older than Olive, and quite an accomplished trick rider himself.  Olive was an adventurous girl and a fast learner, eventually becoming one of the only women to headline her own Wall of Death show.  Olive and Oliver would ride their Indian motorcycles up and down the 16' perpendicular walls with reckless abandon, crisscrossing at hight speeds to the very top of the hight banks only to shot suddenly to the bottom of the 38' in diameter enclosure.  These daring feats caused chills up and down the spines of the astonished spectators who lined the top of the rails of the motordrome to watch.  When asked how she did it, Olive said, "It's easy when you know how.  Anybody who understands the laws of gravitation knows how it's done.  Unless a tire bursts, or there is a flaw in the machines, all one has to do is to steer straight ahead."

Olive Hager with a few of her pioneering lady rider friends on their motorcycles, a mix of Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Thor (on the left). [Cristine Sommer Simmons]
The brother and sister toured extensively throughout the 'Teens, Twenties, and through the late 1930s. Olive had other male riding partners that came and went.  Bobby Fold was one that stayed for more than a season.  Another well-known rider to join the act was Dudley 'Daredevil' Lewis, whom Olive fell in love with an eventually married.  They all rode together for several years, adding a second women rider, Mrs. Bobby Gold, rounding out the foursome.  Together they toured as part of the Sheesley Shows circuit from 1916 through the early 1920s and later with the Jonny Jones exposition show in the late 1920s, and with other traveling shows. In 1929, Fay Radcliff was another rider who would appear with Olive. The two worked beautifully together, riding at speeds from sixty to 100 mph.  Often, they would speed in opposite directions, barely missing each other, which was extremely dangerous.

By the late 1920s, the show had become Olive Hager's Wall of Death, with 'Lady and Men Trick Riders' on the motordrome. Both her original Indian and Harley-Davidson J are present, but on the side of the bally (stage to attract customers). The bikes being ridden are the Wall of Death ride of choice - a trio of c.1928 Indian 101 Scouts. [Cristine Sommer Simmons]
'Dutch', as Olive was known to her friends, suffered many injuries over the years she challenged the Wall - none of which stopped her.  Her first serious accident came in 1916, when she collided with her brother and broke her pelvis, keeping her in bed for ten weeks.  Tragedy struck in 1918 when she was performing a stunt with another woman rider when the two struck head on while criss-crossing on the Wall.  The other girl was killed instantly while Olive lay unconscious for 48 hours with a concussion and four broken ribs.  A few years later, in 1920 riding at a fair in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, a tire on her motorcycle blew up, forcing Olive, at high speed, onto a cable and leaving a severe gash on her right arm that required 48 stitches to close.  In 1923 at the Texas Cotton Palace, Olive fell and broke her left arm while riding cross-legged on her machine.

Olive Hager with her husband Dudley 'Daredevil' Lewis, both aboard c.1914 racing Indians. Note their simple riding kit of a white button shirt and khaki jodhpurs with boots: Wall of Death riders never did use safety gear, and still don't. [Cristine Sommer Simmons]
There were many more spills and thrills for Olive, but she kept right on riding.  There are records of her riding hte Wall well in to the late 1930s.  She often did interviews before her shows, putting down her favorite crossword puzzle to answer questions from inquisitive reporters, who were, no doubt, astonished that a daredevil stuntrider could be interested in as mundane an activity as workin on a crossword puzzle.

Hager's Wall of Death, with two women and two men riders, all on racing machines: on the far left is a Harley-Davidson 'keystone' racer, then Olive with her c.1914 Indian racer, Fay Radcliff (?) with a c.1915 Indian Powerplus engine in an earlier frame, and Jimmie Lee on an Indian Powerplus. Note their 'barker' (announcer) on the far right in his 3-piece suit, bow tie, and the only amplification available for his voice, a simple megaphone. [Cristine Sommer Simmons]
Away from the lights of the midway and the road of the engines, Olive was a quiet, home loving woman, who loved domesticity and rode to fame because it was her profession.  She confessed she loved the crowds and the noise and bustle of a show life, but much preferred her farm in Vermont after the season had closed and tents were all folded away.  But every Spring, she'd head out on the road once again, thrilling crowds across the country.

Editor's Note: The Vintagent has a few signed copies of Cris' book 'The American Motorcycle Girls', from which this article is taken: if you want a copy, click here.

If you want to read more Wall of Death stories and films, click here.

 

Cristine Sommer Simmons is the author of 'The American Motorcycle Girls', 'Cannonball Diary', and 'Patrick Wants to Ride'. She's an inductee to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, a 4-time Motorcycle Cannonball rider, podcast host, and a vintage motorcycle rider/collector for decades. Her website is here: follow her on Instagram.