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Michigan Historical Society

Michigan Historical Society

Arcadia Township, a bright, cloudless afternoon perfect for flying, the childhood home of Harriet Quimby, pioneer aviatrix and journalist, was officially designated a state Historical Site Thursday afternoon with the dedication of a historical marker near the still-standing Quimby home southeast of Arcadia.

More than 100 people attended the ceremony which featured speeches by State Historical Preservation Officer Brian Conway, Col. Edward Hall author of a Quimby biography, and the reading of a letter from Michigan’s first lady, Michelle Engler.   The Onekama High School Orchestra also performed, and Onekama sixth grader, Kayla Peabody, dressed in a bright replica of Quimby’s trademark purple aviatrix outfit, closed the ceremony with a solo performance of the song, “I Believe I Can Fly.”

Quimby became the first woman to pilot an airplane alone across the English Channel on April 16, 1912. Flying a single-seat Bleriot XI, she completed the one- hour flight through a heavy fog only minutes after being introduced to the use of a compass.

A year before the channel crossing, the Wright brothers turn down her request for pilot instruction because she was a woman.  Quimby disguised herself as a man and completed her training elsewhere becoming in 1911 the first woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license.

She was a well known journalists at the time, writing regularly for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, the predecessor to Life Magazine.

She was killed just three months after the channel crossing when she was thrown from her plane while performing at a Boston-area air show at the age of 37.  Her crossing of the English Channel coincided with the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic and received little media attention at the time, perhaps permanently obscuring her place in history.

Michigan Historical Society

Speakers at the ceremony praised Quimby for her adventurous spirit and her willingness to overcome limits placed on woman at the turn of the century.  Each speaker also thanked Arcadia historian Bonnie Hughes in establishing northwest Manistee County as Quimby’s childhood home. Hughes, using census data, land plot maps, and store ledgers from the 1870s convinced the state historical preservation officials last year that the Quimby family lived in the Arcadia area in 1875 when Quimby was born.  Hughes spearheaded the effort to receive approval from the state for placement of the historical marker.

Prior to Hughes research, it was widely accepted that Quimby was born downstate in Coldwater.  Coldwater officials initially resisted efforts to establish Arcadia as Quimby’s birthplace.  Conway in presenting the marker alluded to the controversy and confusion regarding Quimby’s birthplace saying, “In 12 years no other marker as stirred as much commotion as Harriet Quimby’s.”  Calling Quimby, “talent, glamorous, and adventurous,” Conway thanked Bonnie Hughes for her research efforts.  “Bonnie is the person who made the connections that bring us here today.”

He also emphasized Quimby’s role in opening career options for women today. “As we gather today, there are women right now on board the space shuttle,” he said. “A young woman today can dream of what she wants to do and go for it, because of women like Harriet Quimby.”

A letter from Michelle Engler, read by retired Arcadia school superintendent Albin Hughes, praised Quimby’s “commitment to making all paths open to women,” encouraged area residents to “remember and, celebrate” the pioneer aviatrix and thanked area residents for the research and work needed to bring the historical marker to the area.

Bonnie Hughes, in a short speech presenting the marker to the Arcadia Historical Society, dedicated the marker to the area’s women and children. She also thanked the John Milarch family, who own the Quimby house site, for their cooperation in allowing the marker to be placed at the site.

The seven-foot-by-four-foot metal marker carries approximately 250 words of text outlining Quimby’s childhood in the area and her accomplishments as a pilot and journalist.

The marker was paid for by the Arcadia Women’s Club and Arcadia Township. Although the state designates historic sites and officially presents markers, state funds are not used to pay for historical markers.
The home is on private property and is in disrepair. It is not open to the public due to safety concerns. There are no immediate plans to restore the home or otherwise develop the site beyond placement of the marker on the public roadway easement near the house. A Quimby display is planned for the new Arcadia Township museum, which is scheduled to open in July of this year.

All mail leaving the Arcadia office Thursday was cancelled with a special stamp commemorating the Quimby dedication. The stamp was designed by Onekama Elementary sixth grader Cody Brandt. The cancellation stamp was also available at a reception at Arcadia Elementary School, following the dedication ceremony.

Thursday’s ceremony capped nine years of work by Bonnie Hughes, a retired school secretary and long-time Arcadia resident. She has long been interested in local history and did much of the research, writing and editing for a book detailing Arcadia’s history, published in 1980 as part of the village’s centennial celebration.

Hughes first became interested in Quimby in 1991 when the diary of a man who grew up in the Arcadia area in the 1870s was given to her by an elderly Traverse City woman. The diarist mentioned his neighbor, Harriet Quimby, who grew up in Arcadia and later became a famous writer and pilot.

Hughes early research however, indicated that Coldwater, south of Kalamazoo claimed to be Quimby’s birthplace.  The discrepancy between the diarist’s recollections and the claims of Coldwater historians drew Hughes’ attention.  “I love mysteries and history,” she said, “and when I find out something is going on that people don’t have the correct answer for, I have to find out more.”

The research proved to be problematic. Because Manistee County did not record births in the 1870s, Quimby’s birth certificate could not be located. And the issue was further confused by Quimby herself. She routinely shaved years from her age by claiming inaccurate birth dates and often claimed California as her birthplace.

But Hughes persisted. She gathered information from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., census data and land plat records from the state archives, and nineteenth-century store ledgers from the Arcadia area. These documents clearly showed that Quimby’s family owned land, bought groceries and lived in the Arcadia area in 1875 when Quimby was born and stayed in the area through the mid-1880s.

Hughes presented her evidence to state historic preservation officials, who agreed last year the home on Erdman Road near Arcadia should be dedicated as a state historic site. Because no birth certificate has been found, however, the state recognizes the Arcadia site as Quimby’s “childhood home.”

A marker in Coldwater declare that city as Quimby’s birthplace was recently replaced with a indicating that local tradition maintains Coldwater to Quimby’s birthplace.

Hughes believes Quimby’s life as an aviatrix and her ground breaking accomplishments for woman will help bring people interested in both aviation and women’s history to the area.  “She was daring enough to do the things she wanted to do at time when women were not doing them,” Hughes said.