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‘Flying Schoolgirl’ highlights 1915 Beltrami County Fair

Katherine Stinson. Submitted via Beltrami County Historical Society.

BEMIDJI -- As the opening date of the 2018 Beltrami County Fair arrives, it’s interesting to learn about events that made the early years of the fair unique and memorable.

The 1915 Beltrami County Fair, held in mid-September, was billed as the biggest fair ever, featuring more than 500 exhibits including a booth by the Summit Farmers’ Club of Blackduck that featured a bunch of celery 4 feet high. Events included a track meet program (including a fat man’s race and a farm horse race), and free entertainment by the Four Nelson Comiques (an acrobatic act) and the Huddleston trained animal act.  

It’s difficult to imagine how anything could top these attractions, but Katherine Stinson, a young female stunt pilot who performed four shows in two days, was the highlight of the fair.

Because school was already in session and many students were involved with the fair, school was let out early on Thursday and Friday. On Friday, Sept. 17, it was Bemidji Day, and businesses in town took a half-day holiday to allow people to attend the fair. Trains brought visitors from miles away and nearly 100 automobiles brought more from across the area. A record breaking 3,500 people attended the fair that Friday, and Saturday’s attendance was also high.

The original fair bill advertised “daily airship rides” by Aviator Penham, who canceled out just days before the event, reporting that he could not attend “on account of three of his machines being wrecked.” Several local people had signed up, hoping to take his airship rides. With the cancellation, the fair board managed to contract with Katherine Stinson, who was establishing quite a reputation in aviation. Having just completed a show at the Michigan State Fair, Stinson came at a far greater price than Penham and performed two airshows on both Friday and Saturday.

Billed as the “Bird Woman,” Stinson had been flying for three years. On July 18, 1915, just two months before arriving in Bemidji, she had performed a vertical loop at Cicero Field in Chicago, the first woman and fourth pilot ever to do the stunt. On Sept. 18, 1915, The Pioneer reported: “Miss Katherine Stinson, the famous bird woman, made two excellent flights in her aeroplane. The machine is of her own design and the engine was formerly used by Lincoln Beachey. Miss Stinson is very enthusiastic about Bemidji and the surrounding country, saying that the scenery around here is wonderful. ‘When I was up in the air I could see many big lakes and everything looked beautiful,’ she said. She flew to a height of about 1,200 feet.”

Stinson was just 21 when she became the fourth American female licensed pilot. Dubbed “The Flying Schoolgirl,” she looked so young that reporters refused to believe her age, leading to confusing reports that she was just nineteen when she flew in Bemidji, although she was really 24. By the time she visited Bemidji that year for the county fair, Stinson and her mother, Emma, had already co-founded the Stinson Aviation Company in Hot Springs, Ark.

The same year she visited Bemidji, she made history by becoming the first pilot of either sex to perform night skywriting with flares in Los Angeles. In 1916, she was the first woman to fly in the Orient, where fans referred to her as the “Air Queen.”

When the U.S. Postal Service first started using airmail, Stinson was one of the first women pilots to be sworn in. When the U.S. became involved in World War I, Stinson flew fundraising tours for the American Red Cross. When she answered the Army’s call for volunteer pilots, she was rejected twice because she was a woman, so she volunteered and was accepted as an ambulance driver in Europe.

Stinson’s loop-de-loops in Bemidji at the 1915 Beltrami County Fair were among the first of the 500 such stunts she performed without a single accident. She died in 1977 at the age of 86. Her performances in Bemidji certainly set a high bar for entertainment at the county fair.

IF YOU GO

What: Beltrami County Fair

When: Wednesday, Aug. 8, to Sunday, Aug. 12

Where: Beltrami County Fairgrounds, located north of Bemidji off U.S. Highway 71.

Cost: $ 5 per vehicle per day. Wristbands available for Midway.

Information: https://beltramicountyfair.org/