Returning to Amelia Earhart's roots

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart is shown in this undated photo.
Aviatrix Amelia Earhart is shown in this undated photo. Associated Press

ATCHISON — It has been nearly three-quarters of a century since Amelia Earhart set foot in her hometown.

No matter.

Talk of Earhart — who vanished on a flight around the world in 1937 — is everywhere in this town of 11,000 as "Amelia," a movie about her life starring Hilary Swank, opens today.

At Earhart's birthplace and childhood home, across the street from the Missouri River, the doorbell rings often. Visitors from around the world step across the threshold and into Earhart's world.

Sigrid Browning and Gail Highland drove from Lee's Summit, Mo. to visit the home earlier this week. They also plan to see the movie in part, Browning said, because Earhart remains enigmatic.

"There is the faint sound of her voice and she's gone," Browning said. "That's the last heard from her."

Highland said Earhart simply impressed her.

"At that time — in our country — that was quite a bold movement for her to take on airplanes that probably weren't meant to fly that distance," she said. "She was brave."

Where it all began

Caretaker Lou Foudray is positive that the pioneering aviatrix still would feel at home among keepsakes from her grandparents and from her own childhood: a bathing suit she wore at age 4, a leather pilot's helmet with the letters AE etched on the inside, and countless photos of her in historic moments.

The house was built in 1862 by Earhart's grandfather, Judge Alfred G. Otis.

Although her parents lived in Kansas City, Earhart and her sister, Muriel, spent much of their childhood in the house.

It is where she slid down banisters and learned to read. She played with imaginary friends, sledded on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and explored nearby limestone caves.

"Unfortunately, I lived in a time when girls were still girls," she once told reporters. "Though reading was considered proper, many of my outdoor exercises were not. I was fond of basketball, bicycling, tennis and I tried any and all strenuous games... Sister and I had the first gymnasium suits in town. We wore them Saturdays to play in and though we felt 'free and athletic' we also felt somewhat outcasts among the little girls who fluttered about us in their skirts."

On display are Earhart's writing desk, cedar chest, luggage and monogrammed scarves.

In the front parlor, visitors can stand where her grandfather read bedtime stories to her. They can climb the stairs to the bedroom where she was born and look out onto the river.

Earhart grew up to make headlines more than seven decades ago. She became the first woman to cross the Atlantic as a passenger, to fly solo across the Atlantic, to fly nonstop across the United States, to fly an autogyro — a forerunner of the helicopter — across the United States, to fly from Hawaii to the West Coast and to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On June 1, 1937, she left on a 29,000-mile journey, hoping to become the first pilot to fly around the world at the equator.

But on July 2, as she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were beginning the final portion of their flight, the Coast Guard cutter Itasca heard Earhart's faint radio signal saying she needed a position because skies over the ocean were overcast.

She was never heard from again — and never found, despite massive and numerous searches.

Increased interest

Today, Earhart's birthplace museum will add to its displays with props and other items used during filming of the movie.

Since July, interest in Earhart has escalated, Foudray said. Normally, the museum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sees about 15,000 visitors a year. This year, the number will be closer to 20,000 or more. In recent weeks, Earhart has been featured in the New Yorker, on BBC, in USA Today and in other media.

"She was a fascinating woman — a fantastic role model for women — even today because she was one of the first who dared to be what she wanted to be," said Jacque Pregont, president of Atchison's Chamber of Commerce and coordinator of the annual Amelia Earhart Festival.

"She looked men in the eye and said 'I am going to do this because I want to do it.' That's a tremendous message for young and old women today."

Left her mark

Earhart still leaves her mark in Atchison today.

The Royal Movie Theatre will have special showings of "Amelia" today, featuring a live remote from a local radio station.

The huge bridge spanning the Missouri River bears her name.

The large Santa Fe Railroad Depot houses one of the nation's most extensive displays of Earhart memorabilia. It features her flight jacket, photographs and personal belongings such as her World War I nurse uniform, her report card, dancing shoes and a dress she bought in Paris and wore on her last visit to Atchison.

The International Forest of Friendship, on a slope near Warnock Lake, contains a walkway with names of more than 700 men and women who have been aviation pioneers and contributors.

And a likeness of Earhart is etched into a berm at Warnock Lake by internationally known artist Stan Herd. The portrait, composed of rock, wood and permanent plantings, shows Earhart wearing aviator goggles and a helmet.

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