Rick Abbott - Writer, Photographer, Videographer

Rick Abbott - Reporting - Florence Klingensmith

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 Oak Mound Cemetery. Nick Wagner / The Forum

Oak Mound Cemetery. Nick Wagner / The Forum

'A real daredevil': Fearless aviatrix gets fitting monument in Minn. hometown

By Rick Abbott

Published June 14, 2015 - The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

KRAGNES TOWNSHIP, Minn. – Florence Klingensmith would have known something was dangerously wrong.

Speeding through the sky in a bright red Sportster plane, with an engine more than triple the horsepower of the plane’s original, Klingensmith averaged about 200 mph in the first laps of the trophy race just outside of Chicago.

In fourth place, ahead of four male fliers, Klingensmith was flying well.

But as she crossed over the grandstand, a ribbon of bright red cloth came floating down from the plane. The overpowered engine was too much for the light craft, and Klingensmith was forced to attempt an emergency landing.

Just 350 feet above the empty field, Klingensmith flew flat and straight.

Suddenly, the plane flipped and started to fall to the earth. Klingensmith tried to deploy her parachute and bail out of the doomed aircraft.

She smashed into the ground shortly thereafter, dying instantly, her parachute later found tangled in the wreckage of the fuselage.

It was a day after her 29th birthday.

‘An extraordinary young woman’

To honor one of the Oak Mound community’s most famous natives, a small model plane was affixed to a monument near Klingensmith’s grave at the Oak Mound Church. After decades of wear and weather, the plane had to be thrown out.

But the Oak Mound 4-H Club sought to restore a fitting memorial to the famous pilot. Led by Alex Swanson, 19, the club’s historian and vice president of the Oak Mound Cemetery Association, the group was able to erect a small column of bricks, with a red and white model airplane on top, encased in a plastic box.

Alex Swanson, fellow club members and other residents from the area held a special dedication ceremony at the church in honor of Klingensmith on Sunday.

“Growing up in this community and in this church—this is the same church Florence was baptized in and attended as a kid—I guess I’ve always known that we’ve had such a rich history in this community,” Alex Swanson said.

Alex Swanson, a history buff from an early age, researched and helped raise money for the project. He grew up hearing of Klingensmith and her escapades.

“I remember growing up and going out into the cemetery and looking at that stone of hers many times and thinking how amazing of a person she was,” Alex Swanson said.

Alex Swanson’s grandfather, Alvin, was in attendance for the dedication.

“I talked to people who went to school with her. They said she was pretty wild,” said Alvin Swanson, 83. “She was a real daredevil, apparently.”

Mark Peihl, archivist at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, has spent about 30 years learning about Klingensmith. Piehl spoke of her legacy at the dedication Sunday.

“She’s one of my favorite local history individuals. She’s quite an extraordinary young woman,” Peihl said.

Klingensmith was a pioneer in women’s aviation. She was the first licensed female pilot in the state of North Dakota and in Clay County, according to Peihl.

She was awarded the Amelia Earhart Trophy in 1932 by the famed aviatrix herself.

Klingensmith didn’t seem to be afraid of much. She was a skydiver, a stunt girl and even set the record for inside loops—basically a plane doing a somersault—at 1,078, a record that still stands today, Peihl said.

“She didn’t let anything stop her. I know as a kid going to Oak Mound School just south of here, her friends said that she was a wild tomboy who wore pants and boots instead of dresses and shoes. She really stuck out from the crowd, I guess,” Alex Swanson said.

But those daring acts weren’t all she was known for.

“Her dynamic personality and daring deeds overshadow a lot of her contributions to women in aviation,” Peihl said.

Those contributions include posts as an administrator at Fargo’s Hector Field and as a traffic manager for Minneapolis-based American Eagle Airlines. She also gave nationwide radio addresses to promote aviation.

“She taught other women how to fly, she inspired a lot of young women,” Peihl said.

‘Shocked and horrified’

The small community of Oak Mound was rocked by the tragic news of Klingensmith’s death in September 1933.

Hundreds attended her funeral, according to Peihl, including pilots from around the country.

“Although her family had moved away from Oak Mound at that time, they brought her back home where she belonged and laid her to rest in the cemetery,” Alex Swanson said.

At her burial, a flight of planes roared over the graveyard, Alvin Swanson said.

“I’m sure (the community was) shocked and horrified. She was such a well-loved character in the area,” Peihl said.

But her memory lived on in the countless stories that were told to kids like Alvin and continuing on to his grandson Alex.

“The community persevered. They were very proud to call her one of their own. I’m sure she was an inspiration to a lot of people from Oak Mound over the years,” Alex Swanson said.

About halfway through the dedication ceremony, forced inside the small Oak Mound Church due to rain, the sun peaked through the clouds and Alex Swanson ushered the crowd out to the cemetery, where an engraved plaque and the model plane sit near Klingensmith’s grave.

“Oak Mound Cemetery has stood as a shrine to the pioneers of this community for the past 114 years,” Alex Swanson said as he stood over the brick column, mosquitoes swarming around the onlookers.

“It was said when she died that she didn’t want anyone to lose faith in the sport of aviation. She wanted them to know that she was doing what she loved,” Alex Swanson said.

As the rain fizzled out and clouds parted, it turned out to be a perfect day for a flight.