Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937 on a doomed voyage around the world. But she’s still a huge presence in Atchison, Kansas, where she was born and lived with her grandparents for about a decade. Although she has moved to other cities, it is her home.
On the third weekend in July, the city’s population doubles, with about 10,000 residents for the year Amelia Earhart Festival.
“We’re all about Amelia,” said Karen Seaberg, who runs the festival. “You have Amelia Earhart Highway, Amelia Earhart Bridge, Amelia Airport. And so the festival kept that alive.”
Downtown, Commercial Street is lined with antique cars on the blocks. Vendors sell honey and candles, and a 7-piece ragtime group play rollicking renditions of songs from Earhart’s era. There is also cake.
“We make a cake every year and give it out for free to everyone down here at the mall,” Ryan Molt said as she handed out thick squares of chocolate and vanilla. “Just a little ‘Happy Birthday Amelia’.”
Despite Amelia Earhart’s name and likeness on signs, buildings, statues and even a slope in Atchison there is an appetite for more. A new Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum exploring the pioneer’s influence on aviation is scheduled to open to the public in 2023.
The centerpiece: a shiny Lockheed Electra 10-E named Muriel, after Earhart’s sister.
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Amelia Earhart with a Lockheed Electra 10-E, the plane she was flying when she disappeared in 1937.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
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— 2-Amelia Earhart_1937-in the cockpit of Electra.jpg
Amelia Earhart in a Lockheed Electra 10-E, the plane she was flying when she disappeared in 1937.
Library of Congress
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Amelia Earhart under the nose of a Lockheed Electra 10-E, the plane she was flying when she disappeared in 1937.
National Portrait Gallery
Karen Seaberg, the Festival Chair, also serves as President and Founder of the Amelia Earhart Foundation. The foundation raised funds for the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum.
Seaberg said that was it Grace McGuire, a flight instructor from New Jersey who tracked the plane. Earhart flew one just like this in 1937 when she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared while trying to fly around the world.
“Only 14 Es were made,” Seaberg said. “Amelias was 12 or 13 from the line and this one was second from the line. So it was probably the prototype that came off first, and that was probably the first that actually got used.”
McGuire spent three decades restoring the aircraft, planning to attempt the same flight as Earhart. After falling ill, McGuire knew she couldn’t make the flight, Seaberg said, so she decided to sell the plane to the museum.
The Lockheed Electra is now housed in a new hangar built for the museum at the city’s airport, where visitors were able to get a glimpse of it during this year’s festival.
Alex LaFave is a pilot and aviation enthusiast living in Basehor, Kansas. He brought his wife Miranda and two children, ages 2 and 4, to Atchison to view the polished, chromed and red planes.
Poster boards on easels around the hangar showed future plans for the history of the museum and exhibits focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A short film detailed Amelia Earhart’s life and career.
Until the festival, the Lockheed Electra was under lock and key while the museum was being built.
“You don’t see a Lockheed Electra very often,” LaFave said, “so it’s nice to come by and take a look.”
merging the parts
About an hour south and east of Atchison, in Overland Park, Kansas, is the main manufacturing floor Dimensional Innovations This is where the design, build and technology company puts together some of the museum’s exhibits.
The museum’s curved reception desk – still awaiting transport up the road to Atchison – showcased design elements used in the exhibits.
“Our designers really wanted to bring in the Art Deco feel of Amelia and her era,” says project manager Gabrielle Klockau, “so lots of walnut, lots of brushed aluminum, lots of rivets. You can see there in detail on the bottom and polished aluminum.”
Future museum exhibits are on view nearby, including an oversized book-shaped touchscreen display that allows visitors to flip through pages of information about Earhart’s early years and career, and learn more about the women who inspired her.
Hidden in another room, a work in progress: a scale model of the Lockheed Electra’s cockpit, made of foam, metal parts and fiberglass. Once it’s done, people can duck and climb inside.
“You can sit there, turn a steering wheel, flip switches, and hear different sounds and lights,” Klockau said. “We’re going to experience sunsets and sunrises” so people can experience what Earhart must have seen as she looked out her cockpit window.
Installation at the Atchison museum is already underway and more pieces will be making their way into the museum over the coming months. Then the testing process begins before the museum opens to the public.
Dimensional Innovations Senior Practice Manager Trisha Roberts Parker works alongside the engineering team putting all the pieces together.
“We really wanted to communicate everything about Amelia — not so much about her life as a child, because there is other museums that already do — but we really wanted to focus on Amelia as a seminal woman of her time,” she said. “And also some of the contributions she has made to her field in general.”
A computer-generated Earhart will greet visitors to the museum. Other technical innovations include a virtual reality game that recreates the 1932 flight when Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
There is also a touchscreen where visitors can cast their votes on theories about what happened to Earhart that day in 1937 when she disappeared en route to Howland Island in a bid to become the first woman to fly around the world.
“So there’s ‘crashed and sunk,'” Roberts Parker read off the onscreen options, “shipwrecked, search continues, assumed identity, reversed course, captured in Saipan and captured.”
And while we may never know what happened to Earhart on that final flight, stories told at the new museum about her life and impact as a pilot continue to be celebrated across Atchison.
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Amelia Earhart’s birthplace, now a museum, rests on a hill overlooking the river valley in Atchison.
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Hulio Burton, personal trainer at the Atchison YMCA, displays one of the Amelia Earhart Fun Run signs he put up in the city in July in conjunction with the Amelia Earhart Festival.
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A sign with Earhart’s face etched in concrete greets visitors to downtown Atchison, near 10th and Main Street.