Famous Michigander Friday: Harriet Quimby

I’ve mentioned before on the blog that I have previously worked on a digitization project for the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in Lansing, and also had the opportunity to attend their annual induction ceremony in October 2012. At that event, I also signed up to be a judge for the 2013 awards. Judging for the Hall of Fame was so fun! There are two categories to judge, Historical and Contemporary. Of course, I chose historical. Anybody can nominate some one for the Hall of Fame, and the judges then read the nominations and rank them. I really enjoyed reading the many nominations, which ranged well-known Michigan women to local heroes I had never heard of. One nomination really stuck out for me, and it must have for other judges too, as she was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year: Harriet Quimby. Although I wasn’t familiar with Quimby before reading her nomination, she’s actually pretty well known in the aviation world – she was the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license and the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

Quimby had always been an ambitious woman. As a young woman in the early 1900s, she moved on her own to New York City and became a photojournalist at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Quimby loved writing but also loved the theater (as a girl, she wanted to be an actress) and had a flair for the dramatic. Her writing included photos and articles about her travels as well as theater reviews. In 1910, perhaps looking for her next challenge, she attended an aviation exhibition, where she met John and Matilde Moisant. Along with his brother, Alfred, John ran an aviation school. Entranced by the idea of flying through the air in a man-made machine, Quimby convinced John to teach her to fly (fun fact: the Wright brothers refused to teach women). She became the first licensed American female pilot by August of 1911. After that, she began traveling with the Moisants to exhibitions, performing in her signature custom-made purple silk flight suit.

Harriet Quimby, c. 1911.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Harriet Quimby, c. 1911.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In March of 1912, she decided to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. So she traveled to England and convinced Louis Blériot, who had made the first successful Channel crossing in 1909, to lend her his plane. Although many believed she would fail, she completed the flight (in a borrowed plane!) a month later, on April 16th. Not long after this great accomplishment, Quimby headed back to the States to take part in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in July. Sadly, her luck would run out there. After a flight over the harbor with the event organizer, William A. P. Willard, she lost control of the plane. She and Willard were both thrown out of the machine and fell to their deaths in front of the crowd. Although her life met a tragic end, her legacy lived on as an inspiration to countless other women who looked to the skies and dreamed of flying.

At this point you may be thinking that this is an interesting story, but what the heck does it have to do with Michigan? Well, before Quimby moved to NYC, she grew up in Michigan. However, where exactly she was born is a bit of a mystery, which I think is an interesting story in and of itself. Although there is no birth certificate for Harriet, many sources state she was born in Coldwater, Michigan, where local lore claims her parents worked as tenants on a local farm. In 1988, a Michigan State Historical Marker for Harriet Quimby went up at Coldwater’s Branch County Airport. The marker itself has been used as evidence in publications about Quimby, as admitted by Ed Y. Hall, author of Harriet Quimby – America’s First Lady of the Air. Hall has stated that at the time, there was no reason to doubt a state historic marker, and so he cited the location in his book and held a book signing in Coldwater. The Mayor even created a Harriet Quimby holiday!

Hall later realized that there was little actual evidence for Quimby’s birth in Coldwater. The closest he found was a section of land owned by a “W. Quimby,” but that turned out to be a Wilsey Quimby rather than Harriet’s father, William. So in a reprint of his book in the 1990s, Hall noted the lack of evidence and asked that anyone who had any information to please contact him. He did receive a number of responses, including a woman who said she had evidence that the Quimby’s lived in Arcadia, Michigan, 250 miles north of Coldwater. Hall investigated further, and now believes that despite the lack of birth certificate, there is overwhelming evidence that Quimby was born and raised in Arcadia rather than Coldwater. Among the evidence are records showing that her father bought land in the area in 1868, birth records for other children in the families, and an 1880 census record showing the Quimby family, including a Hattie (Harriet). In 1998, the state of Michigan put up another marker in Arcadia (although the sign in Coldwater still stands as well.

There is a possible explanation for the mix-up. Before moving north, William and Ursula were married in Branch County in 1859, and had their first child, Jennie, while living there. It’s possible that the Coldwater residents who claimed they remembered a young Harriet were simply remembering the wrong daughter. But it looks pretty clear that the family moved away from Coldwater before Harriet was born.

In any case, the Quimby family left Michigan around 1885 to move to San Francisco, and in 1903 Harriet moved on to New York. She may not have had fond memories of her time in Michigan, as in later interviews she claimed to have been born in California. But here in Michigan, we’re still proud of her! At her induction into the Hall of Fame, one of the women who nominated her arrived to accept the award dressed as Quimby – complete with her signature purple flight suit. Now that’s what I call style!

Courtesy of the TheDailyReporter.com



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