Queens of the Clouds

Aviatrix Katherine Stinson, in front of her plane at the Helena Fairgrounds in 1913

Barnstormer Katherine Stinson performed at the Montana State Fair in 1913. Among other stunts, she flew bags of mail from the fairgrounds, which she dropped onto Helena’s downtown post office, thus becoming the first person to deliver airmail in Montana. Photograph by R. H. McKay, Missoula, Montana, MHS Photo Archives 949-885

Working for the Grace Shannon Balloon Company from 1893 through 1895, fearless Rubie Deveau thrilled crowds with her aerial acrobatics, ascending in a hot-air balloon until she “looked like a speck in the sky” and then parachuting back to earth. Like many other aerial pioneers, however, her career was short lived. After 175 successful jumps, she was caught in an unexpected air current during her final descent and landed against a brick chimney, breaking her back. She was just eighteen. After she recovered, Deveau homesteaded in McIntosh, South Dakota, before marrying and moving to Missoula in 1925.

Early aerialists, including Rubie Deveau Owen, possessed an adventurous spirit that often overwhelmed reason. The list of those hurt and killed is distressingly long. Nevertheless, flight remained an exciting curiosity, with airplane manufacturers feeding the public’s interest through exhibitions at fairs and other events.

Both men and women participated in these exhibitions. In 1913, just three years after Bud Mars made Montana’s first recorded flight in an airplane, Katherine Stinson performed at the Helena fairgrounds. On a tour promoting the idea that the U.S. Postal Service could use airplanes, she thrilled crowds at the Montana State Fair, not only by performing stunts but also by flying bags of mail from the fairgrounds, which she dropped onto Helena’s downtown post office. Officially designated “the postmaster of the fairgrounds,” she thus became one of the first to deliver airmail in Montana. Continue reading