PictureBetty Goerke.

Author Betty Goerke, now the chairperson of the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin (MAPOM), is a professor emeritus at College of Marin, where she has taught anthropology and archaeology for more than 40 years, is best known in local circles as someone who is as steeped in the history of Mill Valley as just about anyone.

But Goerke is also the author of a 2018 book whose scope goes well beyond local history – and she’s got a familial connection to it. A Broken Propeller, which was published in February, tells the story of America’s first transcontinental air race, in which pilots flew WWI planes with open cockpits and no parachutes. Goerke’s father was one of only eight who completed the race.

Goerke speaks about the book, including showing off photographs and a film clip taken at the time of the race, at the Depot Bookstore & Cafe on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7pm. 

In October 1919, 59 pilots competed in a round trip race that began simultaneously on Long Island and in San Francisco with predetermined stops 150 miles apart at airfields across the United States. Newspapers gave it front-page press: who was ahead, who was missing, who made an unexpected emergency landing, who crashed, and who was felled by blinding snowstorms.


Conceived by Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell to promote the future of flight in the United States, the race did not go as planned., as there were 54 crashes and seven deaths. Pilots faced heavy rain, gale winds, snow, ice, and treacherous landing fields. As a result they lost their way, and made courageous and foolhardy decisions. The heroes were the ranchers and farmers who helped downed airmen with food, lodging and fuel.

Goerke’s father, 1st Lt. Ralph (Baz) Bagby, was a former professional baseball player and an MIT graduate. Because of the familial connection, Goerke had what earlier reports lacked: memoirs of pilots, plus the charming and humorous letters and log of a participant in the race, her father, one of only eight who completed the race. 

The 411: Author Betty Goerke speaks about A Broken Propeller, which tells the story of America’s first transcontinental air race, at the Depot Bookstore & Cafe, 87 Throckmorton Ave., on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7pm. Free.

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