Looking back: The Globe-trotting Martin Sisters

December 2, 2018

Some people develop a “bucket list” of things to do and places to visit in their lifetime.

Sisters Lula and Mable Martin had a bucket list the size of a 55-gallon oil drum ... and it was filled to overflowing with exotic travel destinations.

From the early 1930s through the 1980s, the sisters roamed the world, visiting 75 countries and racking up more than one million miles of travel by every means of transport from jet airplane to oxcart to dugout canoe to their own feet. In 1949 and 1953, the two women literally circled the globe on 90-day-long around-the-world excursions.

While the list of their travels might make you suspect that Lula and Mable were possibly wealthy heiresses with the time and money to globe-trot, the sisters were, in fact, high school teachers who grew up on a Kankakee County farm. Lula taught math at Manteno and later at Kankakee High School; Mable was an English teacher, first at Chebanse, later at Bradley-Bourbonnais, and then at Peotone.

The sisters were “bitten by the travel bug” while still students at Kankakee High School, and it influenced their choice of curriculum at the University of Illinois. Their mother suggested, “Why not be schoolteachers here in Illinois like your grandmother and myself? And then each summer you’ll have three months off to explore the world.”

In a 1953 essay about their travels, Mable wrote that their initial trip was taken the summer after they began teaching at Manteno and Chebanse. The “jaunt to Mexico ... really put an edge on our appetite for travel. So for the past 14 summers we have set out for faraway places before the ink was dry on the last report card.”

“Traveling so extensively on a teacher’s salary is a challenge,” she noted, explaining that they “lived thriftily” and saved for trips nine months of each year. A key to meeting that financial challenge was the travel programs that the sisters presented to organizations in the Midwest and other regions of the country.

By the early ’40s, “The Martin Sisters, Globe-trotting School Teachers,” were presenting their unique blend of education and entertainment for paying audiences. Each program was divided into three parts: an “adventurous narrative” presented by the sisters (dressed in native costumes that they had collected), a colorful visual presentation (originally a slideshow, later motion pictures), and finally, an “interpretation of native dances,” again in costume. In their promotional brochures, the sisters billed themselves as “Lecturers. dramatists, journalists, photographers, interpreters of native dance.”

Assuring potential audiences that “Thousands have thrilled to the adventure stories, exquisite photography, and dramatic presentations of the Martin sisters,” a 1949 brochure listed a half-dozen available programs. They ranged from an Egyptian tour entitled “Adventures from Kankakee to Cairo” to “The Paradise of the Pacific” (Hawaii) to the just-completed “Around the World in 90 Days” journey that included visits to a dozen countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

The Martins were not “package tour” travelers; they meticulously planned each trip with extensive reading and research. They set their own itineraries, choosing travel methods and routes, selecting overnight accommodations, and hiring knowledgeable local guides. (It was no wonder that, after retiring from teaching, the sisters became travel agents.)

In addition to their lecture programs, they reached a wider audience through newspaper articles about their trips. After they returned from a 1951 South American journey, they related their experiences in a three-part newspaper series in the Chicago Tribune. The detailed articles related such adventures as their encounter, deep in an Ecuadorean jungle, with a lone woman hiking along a narrow road. “As we met,” they related, “the woman looked up at us and smiled. ‘You two are the Martin sisters, aren’t you?’ We just sat there gaping. It’s not often you meet strange people in the Ecuadorean jungle who know you by name.”

The woman introduced herself as a teacher at South Shore High School in Chicago, and explained, “I read about you in the Chicago Tribune some time ago and made up my mind that if I had a chance to travel, I would try to meet you. And I did.” The sisters commented, “Whoever said it was a small world certainly was right.”

In 1954, the sisters gained a new traveling companion when Mable became Mrs. Schubert Dankers. The “travel bug” continued to bite the sisters even after they retired from teaching: in the mid-1980s, after a half-century of globe-trotting, they were making journeys to Europe and to Alaska, and working as travel agents planning trips for others.

Lula died in 1991, and Mable in 2007. Their love of travel was summed up by Lula in a 1984 newspaper interview: “Travel opens up new worlds for you,” she observed. “It makes you more empathetic. You are more compassionate … because you see the people. They are real, not just names in a paper.”

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