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



Crazy town names

I have some bigger posts in the works, but since none of those are ready, I thought I’d look into a favorite subject of mine: weird place names. I love looking at maps and finding towns with names that make me laugh, but they also make me wonder – where did the name come from? And why did it stick? Today, I’ll give you the histories (or theories) of the origins of six of the weirdest town names in Michigan: in the Lower Peninsula, we have Bad Axe, Hell, and Climax, and up in da UP there’s Paradise, Christmas and Vulcan.

Bad Axe

In 1861, Rudolph Papst and George Willis Pack took a trip through the wilderness of the thumb to survey the region. At one of their overnight campsites, they found an old, damaged axe. Pack suggested they use the name “Bad Axe Camp” in the survey and placed a sign along the trail. Oddly enough, the name stuck. The town incorporated as a village in 1885 and as a city in 1905. Now the second largest city in the thumb (after Caro), the city is also the county seat of Huron County. It’s a nice little town that provides many services to residents of the thumb. Oh, and they have an annual hatchet festival in honor of their name. Awesome!


There are a number of stories of how Hell, Michigan’s best known weird town name, got it’s name. Many stories revolve around George Reeves, who moved to the area in the 1830s and soon set up a sawmill, gristmill, distillery and general store/tavern. In one version of the story, when asked what he thought the town should be named, Reeves answered either “I don’t care, you can name it Hell for all I care” or “Name it Hell, that’s what everyone calls it.” Another version claims that when local men would go to help with the work in the (illegal) distillery, their wives would explain their absence by saying they had “gone to Hell.” A few other stories don’t involve Reeves at all. One story states that the name comes from two German travelers, who, when exiting a stagecoach at the location, were heard saying “So schön hell,” which translates as “So beautifully bright.” Finally, some folks claim the name just comes from the hellish conditions encountered by early settlers – it was very swampy and full of mosquitoes.

Today, the “town,” which was never incorporated,  fully embraces its name.  It has turned into a year-round Halloween themed tourist attraction, with Screams Diner and mini-golf and a few small shops selling kitschy souvenirs. You can even get married in Hell, at a tiny 8 seat wedding chapel. Best of all, all mail sent from Hell is burnt around the edges by workers at the tiny post office.


A small town just minutes north of I-95 near Kalamazoo, Climax’s name is not exciting as it sounds. According to the Kalmazoo Public Library, “When Judge Caleb Eldred came to Climax in 1834, ending months of weary travels to find a farm site, the area was a vast prairie for miles in the newly-formed county. To get a better view, his son Dan climbed a tree and said, ‘this caps the climax of everything we saw.’ So they named the place Climax Prairie. ” Despite this boring story, the town induces giggles to just about everyone who finds it on the map.


Not only do we have Hell, but we also have Paradise, Michigan, in the northeast part of the Upper Peninsula. I couldn’t find any information of how it got its name, only that is was founded in 1925. I would guess, however, that whoever gave the town the name really, really liked the place. Like Hell, Paradise capitalizes on its name for tourism, employing the slogan “Regardless of the season, wouldn’t you rather be in Paradise?” Close to many Northern Michigan attractions such as Whitefish Point Lighthouse, The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Tahquamenon Falls, Paradise receives a great deal of tourists interested in saying they vacationed in Paradise.

Also, I find it hilarious that the bottom the Wikipedia page for Paradise says  “See also: Hell, Michigan”


Another odd Upper Peninsula place name is the community of Christmas, Michigan. The history of the unincorporated village is not very long – in 1938, a factory was built in the area to manufacture holiday items. The factory burned down in 1940, but the name stuck and it has become a typical kitschy tourist trap, ready to stop visitors heading to nearby Munising and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  Christmas consists of a few of gift shops, restaurants and, of course, a 35 foot tall Santa Claus statue.


Perhaps the least well known of the odd town names on this list is the small town of Vulcan, in the western Upper Peninsula. Sadly, this town is not made up of logical thinking, pointy-eared aliens. Rather, it is named after the now-defunct Vulcan mine, which was in turn named after the Roman God Vulcan, the god of fire, who was often depicted as a blacksmith. The Vulcan mine was one of many that mined iron from the Menominee Iron Range from the 1870s to 1978. The names of many towns in the region were taken from the local mines that provided jobs for the residents. The mines were named by their owners, who occasionally used intellectual names like Vulcan in an effort show off their education. Another example of this is the Cyclops mine, named for mythological creatures who forged armor and weapons for the gods. Most mine names, however, came from the names of people involved in the operation, the mining company itself, or local landmarks.

This list really just scratches the surface of weirdly named towns in Michigan. I haven’t even touched on the towns of  Acme, Fruitport, Colon (named after the shape of a nearby lake. No, really), Paw Paw, Gay, Temperance, and Slapneck. And then there’s the many melodious Native American and letter-dropping French names that trip of out of state (and sometimes in-state!) visitors: Ishpeming, Negaunee, Mackinac (always pronounced Mackinaw), Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Sault Ste. Marie (Soo-Saint Marie – why we say “Sault” the French way but Americanize “Detroit,” I’ve never understood) and Point Aux Barques, just to name a few!

What are your favorite crazy town names, in Michigan or elsewhere?


About Us,” Paradise, Michigan Chamber of Commerce
Blouin, Lou, “The Devil May Care: One Man’s Quest to Save Hell, Michigan” Found Michigan, October 12, 2012
Carlsen, Judy, “Where Did Norway Get Its Name?” Norway, Michigan (city website)
Christmas, Michigan Welcomes You,” Exploring the North
Climax,” Kalamazoo Public Library
Exploring Paradise, Michigan,” Exploring the North
Hell, Michigan,” H2G2
History of Hell,” Go to Hell, Michigan
Local History: How Bad Axe Got It’s Name,” Huron County Historical Society
Mining in Michigan,” Michigan Historical Museum
Stiffler, Donna, “The Iron Riches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” Michigan DNR
The History of Christmas, Michigan

Famous Michigander Friday: Elmina R. Lucke

I’d like to create a weekly feature where I highlight an important person from Michigan’s history every Friday. I’m calling it Famous Michigander Friday because I like obvious titles almost as much as I like alliteration (too bad this blog isn’t about Florida!). 

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to attend the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame 2012 induction ceremony in Lansing. The Hall of Fame inducts 8-10 women from Michigan each year into the Hall of Fame. Some inductees are contemporary women while others are historical figures. The ceremony was lovely and I greatly enjoyed hearing the contemporary inductees speak about their work.  I had the chance to attend because I spent a month this fall volunteering on a project digitizing the large media collection of the Historical Center & Hall of Fame. This project was absolutely fascinating, as it combined some of my greatest interests – history, Michigan, and women. It also gave me the opportunity to learn about some pretty awesome Michigan ladies. For my first Famous Michigander Friday, I’d like to talk about one of these amazing women – Elmina R. Lucke, inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1986.

I learned about Elmina by listening to some of the oral histories done by the Historical Center & Hall of Fame. The other volunteers and I needed to listen to each one and write a summary, and so to start I randomly grabbed a CD out of a box, which turned out to be Elmina’s. Soon after I started listening, however, I realized that this oral history was anything but random for me. Instead, it became one of those rare moments when history becomes personal – when you can connect something about the past to your own life. As Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen notes in their book, The Presence of the Past, people enjoy history the most when they can make they can make connections. Even as a trained historian, who enjoys all kinds of history, my ears still perk up when I hear something I can relate to.

So why did Elmina’s story become personal? Because she was born and raised in Carleton, Michigan, the same town I grew up in. Carleton isn’t a big town – in fact it’s not even a town, it’s a village. In 2000, its population was only 2,562, and in 1889, when Elmina was born, it would have been much smaller (it wasn’t even incorporated until 1911). It is quite unlikely to hear about someone else from my town when studying history. Thus, as soon as she said she was from Carleton, her story got much more personal, and I admit, interesting, to me.

Even though that was what got me hooked on her story, Elmina didn’t stay in Carleton for long. She attended grade school in a local one room schoolhouse, and as there was no high school in the area at the time, she moved in with an aunt in Toledo, Ohio, to continue her education. After that, she attended Oberlin College.  She graduated from Oberlin in 1912 and became the first person from Carleton to obtain a degree.  She then moved home for a year to “get to know her family” as she put it – due to going away for high school and college, she hadn’t lived with them for 8 years! She was not able to stay idle for that year, however. When the supervisor of education for the county found out there was a person with a college degree living in Carleton, he insisted that she put the degree to use and help him found a high school in the village. He taught science and math while she taught everything else. I find this part of the story interesting as there is an old school building (now dance studio) in Carleton that is always called “the old high school.” However, it was built in the 1930s – twenty years after Elmina started the first high school!

Elmina only taught in Carleton for the one year, after which she went abroad to Europe for a year with a group from Oberlin to study music. For anyone keeping track of the chronology, you’ll realize that we’ve now reached 1914 – a less than ideal time to be in Europe.  After WWI broke out, Elmina returned home but was unsure about what to do with her life. She taught for a few more years, thought about joining the Red Cross, but eventually settled into what would become her true calling – social work. She began that career directing social services for the U.S. Children’s Bureau in Gary, Indiana, before founding and directing the Detroit International Institute in 1919. The DII assisted immigrants assimilate into American life by teaching English and connecting immigrants to social services. The institute employed many translators due to the varied languages spoken by the immigrants coming into Detroit. In her interview, Elmina notes that she could access 27 languages with just a phone call!

After a few years working with immigrants in Detroit, Elmina realized that she wanted to do more to help people, but to do so she needed to further her education. In 1922, she enrolled in the International Law and Relations program at Columbia, becoming one of the first women in that program and eventually earning an M.A. She stayed at Columbia for 20 years afterwards, teaching at the Lincoln School of Columbia’s Teacher’s College.  In 1946, her work became more global in scope. She traveled to India to found and direct the Delhi School of Social Work. While in India she befriended Mahatma Gandhi, who became a great admirer of her work.  After her time in India, Elmina continued advising on social work education around the world, traveling to Egypt and Pakistan.

Elmina was given many awards, including an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College. She published a book, Unforgettable Memories, A Collection of Letters in India, in 1985, and passed away in 1987. Although she is not the most famous person from Michigan, her story is fascinating. It shows the broad reach of Michigan’s citizens, as a woman born in a small village went on to impact the lives of people around the world, and befriend one of the most famous people of the past century.  The fact that that small village is the same one I grew up in makes the story extra personal for me, but I think anybody can find Elmina’s life inspiring. She certainly deserves her induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame as she touched many lives through her work as a teacher and as a social worker.

Elmina with Social Work students, n.d.
Image from the Elmina R. Lucke Papers at Smith College

For more information, check out the Hall of Fame portion of the The Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame website. The site has biographies of the over 250 women inducted since 1983. It is definitely worth a look for anyone interested in Michigan history. The Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, also contains the Elmina R. Lucke Papers, an archival collection of her papers from the post-WWII period.