116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
An unexpected search for Amelia Earhart
Trip to Atchison, Kan., full of history and natural beauty
By Marion and Rich Patterson - correspondents
Apr. 19, 2021 8:46 am
We didn’t go to Kansas seeking Amelia Earhart, but we found her in Atchison.
Sunflower State summers are blistering hot and winters are brief, frigid affairs. But spring and fall weather is glorious.
When we lived in Kansas, we loved its March and November sunshine. After a dark, snowy and confining Iowa winter, we completed our COVID-19 inoculations and longed for sunshine.
Many sun seekers head for Arizona, Texas or Florida. We went to Kansas in late March.
Although our goal was to enjoy spring weeks before Iowa’s, we noticed fine print on the Kansas map showing Amelia Earhart’s Atchison birthplace. We entered Kansas in that historic town and over three days absorbed tidbits of Kansas’ human and natural history.
Atchison is mostly built on a steep bluff above the Missouri River, about an hour north of Kansas City and an easy 320-mile drive from Cedar Rapids. We left early and arrived at the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum by noon.
Nearly everyone knows the final part of this intrepid woman’s life. She and navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from New Guinea and were never heard from again. Their disappearance has fascinated people for more than 80 years and, despite many searches, the mystery remains. We knew about the disappearance but little else about her. The Museum filled in our knowledge blanks by focusing on her remarkable life before she presumably died just short of her 40th birthday.
A risk taker, Earhart never accepted the expected role of an early 20th century woman. Born in her grandparents’ home in a town emerging from rough and tumble frontier days, she and her younger sister, Muriel, were non-traditional. They collected worms, ants and other creatures and wore pants when dresses were expected.
"Amelia's first “flight” was in a rickety box that she launched from a tool shed roof down two boards they slathered with lard and called a “roller coaster.” The story is she flew into the bushes and emerged scratched, bruised and totally ecstatic from the adventure. Her grandmother put the kibosh on that idea.
The family moved often and young Amelia saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair when they lived in Des Moines. She later lived in many states and Canada, holding an array of diverse jobs ranging from stenographer to associate editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine. She designed women's clothing and, as a nurses aid, tended victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.
A life changer happened in California when her father paid $10 so she could take a demonstration flight.
“When I was 300 feet up, I knew I had to fly,” she later said. Odd jobs funded flying lessons from Neta Snook, one of the first women to earn a pilot’s license.
Amelia was the 16th woman to earn a pilot’s license, but she wasn’t alone. Female pilots of the era were, like her, risk takers. It was the Roaring ‘20s. The nation was obsessed with flight. Airplane races, derbies and flight records were eagerly reported in the media.
In 1922 Amelia piloted a plane to 14,000 feet, higher than any female pilot, and in 1928 she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. She was a passenger on that trip but a few years later she piloted her own plane solo across the ocean. The flights made her, like Charles Lindberg, a celebrity.
Every year. Atchison holds an Amelia Earhart Festival. It will be on July 16-17 in 2021.
The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum is owned by Ninety-Nines. The organization was founded in 1929 by 99 female pilots, with Amelia Earhart serving as its first president. Today, the Ninety-Nines provide substantial scholarships as well as encouraging women and girls to pursue aviation. The group operates the Kansas Museum and one in Oklahoma City.
Our good friend, Elaine McCalley, was an aviation pioneer and one of the first women to earn a commercial pilot’s license in Idaho. Now 102 years old, she told us she joined the Ninety-Nines when she was a young woman pilot in a field dominated by men.
“It was and remains an outstanding group,” she said.
THE LOCKHEED ELECTRA 10-E
After leaving the childhood museum, we crossed town to visit the new Amelia Earhart Hanger Museum.
Executive Director Allison Balderrama met us at the door and showed us the only surviving Electra 10E, the type plane Amelia was flying when she disappeared.
Most exhibits aren’t yet in place, and the museum isn’t open on a regular schedule but anyone interested in seeing the plane can call two days ahead and arrange a tour.
ATCHISON’S MUSIC LEGACY
Amelia Earhart may be the best-known Atchison resident, but the town resonates with music.
Everyone seems to know the tune “On The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe” with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer. While riding on the Union Pacific he saw an Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe train and recognized the name’s rhythm. His song, released in 1944, has been performed by many musicians.
A visit to the Atchison Historical Museum in the old train depot connected us with more music. Earhart and Jesse Stone share the same hometown. Stone enjoyed a long music career and is best known for “Shake Rattle and Roll,” also performed by many artists.
We were surprised to see a fairly large factory in town and learned it is where MGP distills Till Vodka. About 220 people work there crafting it from Kansas red wheat.
“Wheat is neutral in flavor and produces a different mouth feel that people interpret as smoothness,” said marketing director Greg Mantis.
By overnighting at the Tuck U Inn Bed and Breakfast, we had time to drive up the broad Missouri River flood plain and later scan its vastness from the surprisingly large Benedictine College, built on the bluff toward the north side of town.
The next morning several Kansas secondary highways led us through the hills, woodlands, and pastures of the scenic eastern part of the state to the historic town of Council Grove.
Many drivers consider Kansas a mere boring pancake of cropland to be endured to reach the Rocky Mountains. We disagree and discover beauty in its hills, diverse wildlife, magnificent sunsets and cultural beauty. The state has plotted several scenic byways to help visitors bisect fascinating areas, and enjoy roadside plants, wildlife, and geology.
We always keep binoculars in our car, and Kansas is a birding mecca because of its central location.
Here many northern, southern, eastern and western bird ranges overlap. When living in Kansas, we were thrilled to watch species new to us like scissor tailed flycatchers, sandhill cranes and Mississippi kites. Our March trip was early for many migrants, but we spotted a diversity of waterfowl, meadowlarks and raptors.
Council Grove is in a relatively out of the way place, but that wasn’t the case in the 1800s. It was a key town on the old Santa Fe Trail. Native Americans, Explorers, merchants, soldiers and desperados once walked its streets, prepared for overland travel and sometimes got into mischief.
We paused at the Guardian of the Grove and the Madonna of the Trail statues. One honors the Native American Kaw Tribe and the other the courageous women who trekked across the land with children in tow.
The Council Grove Oak and Custer Elm memorials are simply the remaining stumps commemorating historical events in early settlement Kansas. A sad stop was at the Kaw Mission, where the government forced several treaties on Native Americans, each restricting them to smaller areas until they were finally pushed out of Kansas to Oklahoma.
TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL PRESERVE
Nestled in the Flint Hills a few miles south of Council Grove is the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, operated by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy.
We walked along the bottomlands of one of the nation’s largest protected tallgrass prairies. The region’s rocky hillsides spared it from the cultivation that destroyed nearly all of the American tallgrass prairie.
Here the sky is open and trees tucked into draws. Hikers experience what Native Americans and pioneers saw in the once vastness of grasslands. There’s even a bison herd.
After our hike, we drove a few miles to the tiny, but surprising, boutique town of Cottonwood Falls. Its antique shops and art galleries lure tourists, but the town’s most striking feature is the Chase County courthouse. Built in 1873 of local limestone in the French Renaissance style it is the oldest operating county courthouse in Kansas.
On a sunshiny Kansas afternoon, we departed Cottonwood Falls for a night camping beneath the state’s dark sky.
Just as the sun set and a near full moon rose, we pitched our tent in a Corps of Engineers campground at Melvern Reservoir. We had the area to ourselves, except for the owls and coyotes that serenaded as darkness descended.
Seated around a cheery campfire we enjoyed the smoothness of Till Vodka we’d bought in Atchison.
Iowa has only four federal reservoirs. Kansas has 28. Most have modern campgrounds operated by the Federal Government and state parks have been created along the shore of several of them. Camping, fishing, picnicking and boating opportunities on big lakes are easy to find in Kansas.
Only six hours after folding up our tent we were home in Cedar Rapids. In just three days we’d enjoyed Sunflower State sunshine, visited natural and cultural sites, and broken our COVID-19 induced year of non-travel.
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”