January 1995

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She Went Where Only Eagles Dared

The Story of Blanche Stuart Scott


Donovan A. Shilling

On December 30th, 1980, the United States Postal Department honored one of our nation's most colorful heroines. At that time such an honor was reserved only for those deceased citizens who had made an outstanding contribution in some way to our country. It seems ironic that so few Rochesterians ever knew about this phenomenal pioneer and her long trail of wild adventures and unbelievable exploits. She was, after all, one of our own having been born in Rochester in 1886. Her real life story was so incredible that it would make the most outrageous television serial pale by comparison.

A multicolored drawing of this attractive young girl was placed on the commemorative twenty-eight cent U. S. airmail stamp. In examining this small postal portrait one finds that the artist has captured some of our heroine's best characterisics. She appears both dainty and daring, youthful and exuberant, someone you'd like to know.

So, you ask, just who was this princess on the postage? What did she do that won her this honored place among Americans? Fewer than a half dozen people with Rochester connections have been given this national honor. These select few include George Eastman, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas, Clara Barton and Chester Carlson. Of this number we are fairly certain that none of these were actually born in our city. However, our heroine we are told, was born on Scott Road [now Mt. Read Boulevard] in a home where Rochester Products is now located.

We feel that, as a youngster, our pretty pioneer must have developed a boundless sense of determination as well as a deep confidence in her own abilities. Coupled with this she exhibited an adventurous nature that would dominate and shape her entire life.

It's fairly certain that her dad John C. S. Scott had a reasonably good occupation.

The 1892 Rochester and Monroe Country Business Directory reveals that her father was involved in the manufacture and sale of hoof paste. Unfortunately we are not sure if the product was a medication or a polishing agent for improving the appearance of horse's hooves. At any rate sales must have been brisk at the turn of the century.

An example of her father's love for his only child occurred during one Victorian Christmas. While the family was living at 116 Weld Street, Theodore Roosevelt's "Teddy bear" had become very popular. When our little eight-year-old heroine got up on December 25th she was to discover no fewer than 16 Teddy bears under the Christmas tree. We're told that she was greatly disappointed not to find a single doll among her many furry presents. Her tear-filled eyes were enough to send her doting father out shopping the very next day to bring home a doll.

As a pre-teen she displayed unusually good coordination and became a champion ice skater. By age twelve she was able to outperform almost all her male peers on a two-wheeler and amazed them with her trick bicycle performances. Most young girls would have been more than pleased with this kind of expertise. But her "tom-boy" interests gravitated to the latest mechanical marvels. Not surprisingly, she soon developed a passionate desire to learn how to drive one of the new-fangled horseless carriages that were just making their appearances on our city's streets.

History does not record what persuasive arguments our now thirteen year old used on her dad. However, the man who made his fortune selling hoof paste was to purchase a new, one-cylinder Cadillac automobile for his daughter. To the utter amazement of the neighborhood and to the consternation of the City Council our 13-year-old, with her red hair flying, drove the vehicle throughout the city. At a special session of City Council the city fathers looked in vain for a law forbidding the youthful driver from zooming along the thoroughfares. To their chagrin they discovered that in 1898 there was no legal minimum age for drivers of the new road machines. Further, driver's licenses were not yet a part of our culture.

Her dad passed away in 1903 and her mother was faced with bringing up a most "boyish" teen-ager. In no way was she physically boyish, it was just that she would rather tinker with an engine than bake a cake. The answer, her Mom decided, was to send her daughter to a fancy New England finishing school. Perhaps her "rough edges" could be removed there and she would return more "lady-like." Upon graduation she outwardly became more demure, but inwardly she was just as daring.

Three years later, now as a perky adult, she had moved to New York City. Our lovely redhead was now soaking up the Big Apple's glamour, still craving excitement and looking for work, probably in that order. While glancing through the want ads she chanced to read about Percy McGargle's record-setting automobile trip across the United States. He was the first man to accomplish the feat. That was it! If a man could do it so could our petite pioneer. She wrote to the Willys-Overland Motor Company proposing that she would be happy to drive one of their autos on a transcontinental tour. Just think of the great publicity having a woman at the wheel would bring to the firm. The Willys-Overland president agreed. He sent out press notices throughout the nation advertising the tour and the young female who was to challenge the driving record for a woman with a coast-to-coast run.

The sun was high above New York's Times Square on May 16, 1910, when a huge crowd turned out to see the tour's start. They witnessed the pert driver sitting confidently behind the steering wheel of a brand new 25-horse-power Willys-Overland. On one side of the silver-and-blue-painted auto were neat letters proclaiming the vehicle to be the "Lady-Overland." Painted on the other side was a small bit of advertising hoopla. A boastful slogan read: "The Car, The Girl and the Wide, Wide World—New York to San Francisco."

Accompaning our determined record challenger was Gertrude Phillips, a young newspaper woman whose task was not to drive, but to keep a record of the monumental journey. With the cheers of the mayor and members of New York City Automobile Club still in her ears, the distaff couple were on their way. Their route would take them 5,393 miles with only 220 miles of the tour on paved roads.

Going from one Overland dealership to another they traveled to Columbus, then Dayton, Ohio. As the car bounced and jounced over the dusty country road just beyond that city our driver spotted an airplane performing at an exhibition sponsored by Dayton's Wright School. A cloud of aerial ideas began to swirl and develop in the mind of our driver as the two young women then headed for Indianapolis. The great automobile expedition hadn't reached the halfway point when ideas for a new adventure began to take shape.

These would have to wait however. The Overland's publicity agent had preceded our autoist by train. Thus a crowd of 60,000 spectators greeted our "Lady Overland" driver as she did a lap on the Indianapolis Speedway. She would never forget her second lap, this time behind the steering wheel of the "Green Dragon." The powerful green racer belonged to the famous race car driver, Barney Oldfield.

Finally, after 67 days the young women reached San Francisco's Market Street where an escort of automobiles made up a parade of welcomers. The adventure had included getting lost on unmapped roads, fixing and changing numerous flat tires, dodging pot holes, rabbits and gophers. Then narrowly avoiding frightened horses and cattle plus being the center of attraction at the innumerable small towns through which the gaily-painted "Lady-Overland" made its way. This successful journey gave her another first in the record books.

Now, with her record-setting motoring odyssey complete, the lure of yet another form of motoring took our pioneer's fancy. She was offered an airplane ride by Charles F. Willard, Glenn Curtiss' first student, only to have the flight canceled when the plane crashed just prior to her trip. Fate may have intervened at this point. She was approached by Frank Tipton, a press agent for Glenn H. Curtiss, with the idea of her flying for the Curtiss Exhibition Company.

You could easily guess her reply. When she showed up at the firm's Keuka Lake Field for her flying lessons, she was confronted by a surprised and reluctant Glenn Curtiss. He hadn't heard about his press agent's proposal. The charm, youthful exuberance, and honest manner of our record setter was too much for Mr. Curtiss. He wound up personally instructing the young adventurer. At the time, the 1910 Curtiss planes had but one seat with a rear pusher-type propeller. Mr. Curtiss had to run along beside the wing, giving verbal instructions as his student practiced "grass cutting" as taxiing the plane was then called.

A gust of wind lifted the box kite-like biplane about 20 feet into the air during one practice session on June 6, 1910. It was another historic occasion for our petite pilot. This unplanned solo flight was to be recorded as the first time an American woman had flown an airplane. When later interviewed about her unusual feat she candidly replied: "I would have been the first woman in the world to fly, instead of the first American, if the Baroness de la Roche hadn't flown two weeks earlier."

She confidently made her formal flight on September 2, 1910, smoothly lifting the plane off the runway, circling the field and landing before an audience of reporters. They christened the five foot, 100 pound young woman as the "tomboy of the air." Following this, hundreds of spectators turned out as she spent the first nine days in October flying with the Curtiss Exhibition Team at Chicago's air meet. Later in the month she flew in an exhibition in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She gave the audience a great aerial act flying well beyond her scheduled 15 minutes. Upon landing she overheard one disappointed spectator remark, "It wasn't as exciting as I had expected. Nobody got killed."

That did it, she decided to give up her highflying adventures for a more down to earth romantic performance. The following day she married Mr. Stuart, Overland's press agent, who had publicized her cross-country automobile excursion. Settling down in Dayton, Ohio, she played the part of the contented housewife until July, 1911. After almost a year of tranquil living the "tomboy of the air" was ready for further aerial exploits. She joined Thomas Scott Baldwin's air show troupe flying one of his Red Devil biplanes at Mineola, Long Island.

By now our Mrs. Stuart was being referred to as an an "aviatrix" by the press. While at the Mineola field she had a heated argument with someone and took to the air still feeling rattled. Before realizing it she discovered that she had been aloft for almost an hour. A large and concerned crowd greeted her as she landed. She was only supposed to fly over the airport and when she flew off in a snit and failed to return, it aroused fears that she had crashed. A reporter asked, "Do you realize that [your flight] was thirty miles out and thirty miles back?" The now mollified flier explained, "I needed to fly, so I flew." The following morning banner headlines were carried by the New York newspapers. They announced that the aviatrix, whose fame was increasing, had now accomplished the longest flight ever made by a female. It was yet another first for our pretty pioneer. She may well have also been the first woman to literally "fly off the handle."

Each successful performance added to our flier's confidence and daring. In barnstorming exhibitions she was thrilling ever-growing crowds of spectators with her "Death Dive." Starting her dive at 4000 feet she'd push the stick forward and hurtle earthward. The pounding of the plane's engine and shrieking of the wind over the plane's guy wires would fill the ears of the crowd. Then, at just 200 feet from a devastating crash, she'd pull up on the stick and roar over the field. It was dangerous, spectacular and nerve tingling. The people loved it. She had become the world's first woman stunt pilot.

Her next venture was in California. There the dare-devil aviatrix accepted employment in a slightly less dangerous occupation. She went to work for Glenn Martin, the famous airplane designer and builder. In her newest assignment she was to become the first woman test pilot. Her salary for these highly dangerous exhibitions and air-worthiness plane tests reached "as much as $5000 a week."

In 1916, at age 30, she was to hang up her small leather aviators' cap and goggles. The uninsured female flier had survived a number of violent plane crashes and several crash landings. The lucky lady had escaped her many perilous escapades with her life. Of course this does not include the legacy of a minimum of forty-one broken bones.

Life would continue to present new challenges and opportunities for a more mature and settled personality. Now retired from the glories of soaring the skies, she tried her hand as a movie producer in the fledgling days of the silent film. Her pioneering motion picture studio was located in Flushing, New York. Other events would also reshape her extraordinary life. She had divorced her first husband, Mr. Stuart, and her second spouse passed away in 1920. California connections then led her to a fourteen-year career as a scriptwriter of comedy dialogue for some of Hollywood's largest studios.

The 1940 Rochester Directory informs us that our heroine had returned to her native Rochester. Here she cared for her invalid mother and took a position as a radio announcer working for Gordon P. Brown's WSAY radio station. Later, in Hornell, New York, she became radio station WARC's program director. There may still be a few residents in the Genesee Valley who recall her popular radio show "Rambling with Roberta."

Following her strong sentiments that "retirement is a crime," she continued her career in public relations. In 1954 she was back in Dayton, Ohio, the place that first provided her with the inspiration to fly. It was as if a great cycle had been completed. This time around, with almost seven decades behind her, our still sprightly lady sometimes wore a wig and even dyed her hair blonde. The United States Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Field had hired the former, famous flier to promote their museum both in America as well as around the world. For several years she toured our country making radio and T.V. appearances reminiscing about her early adventures in the opening days of powered flight. She also found time to begin compiling an account of her life to be humorously titled, Not on a Broom.

Blanche Stuart Scott, passed away in the Flower City on January 12, 1970. Her remarkable 84 years held experiences enough for two lifetimes. At the 1940 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, she observed the 30th anniversary of her maiden flight. Another first then occurred when Captain Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, took Blanche for a 600-mile-an-hour ride in his two-seat jet trainer. She loved it and became the first woman to ride in a "rocket."

She was aboard the Gannett Newspaper helicopter when its pilot, Bill Cruickshank, made a landing on a city roof top. It was the first such landing in Rochester and, of course, another first for Blanche. We must also mention two other facts concerning Miss Scott. She never applied for a pilot's license and, some say, she may never have had a driver's license.

If you should go to the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., look for the portrait of Blanche Stuart Scott. It was ceremoniously placed there in 1950 to honor the demure and daring redhead from Rochester. She had the distinction of being the first American woman to go where only eagles dared to fly…

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