On September 13, 1911, by now famous Jimmie Ward had answered the challenge made by wealthy, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s to achieve the first transcontinental flight across the U.S. Ward intended on using Curtis Pusher’s plane, named the “Hearst Pathfinder,” in pursuit of the $50,000 prize to the winner. Apparently, as it had been reported in the Thief River Falls News the locals still referred to Jimmie as Wilson noting that his parents resided in their new home in St. Hilaire.
Jimmie had started out as an auto driver and had also been successful on the car race tracks where he was “discovered” in Chicago. Perhaps due to his reckless driving on the tracks where he proved such a success, he was at one time refused an automobile license. Or so he claimed. The article went on to reveal, “When he took up aviation, he assumed the new name of Ward instead of Wilson in order to secure his license as an aviator.”
As it turns out, Jimmie Ward’s attempt in his “Pathfinder” plane was inglorious. According to Hearst’s contest rules, he was to leave New York to end up in California in 30 days. Ward’s competitor was simultaneously leaving California to arrive in New York. Unfortunately, Ward didn’t even get out of New York before he crash landed several days after his widely publicized start. His zigzagged path was due to getting turned around in his directions by looking below at physical features of rivers and landmarks. (Keep in mind, no instrument panel or navigational devices existed in these early aircrafts one hundred years ago)
This smashup meant terminal damage to Ward’s plane which ended his goal to reach California in the allotted time. Jimmie declared after looking at the plane wreck, “It is the first accident I’ve had in a year.” What he said next was something the newspaper reporters knew they could further sensationalize to their reading audiences. That is, if they understood Ward’s dry humor served up Danish style. When he looked down at his torn trousers, he exclaimed, “It is worse than I thought!” I believe Ward’s guardian angels were attending over him all the while his parents and sisters were praying for him in Minnesota.
Many young pioneer aviators were more often killed not so much from falling great heights but from the weight of the engine anchored behind the pilot’s seat. The black humor joke among early aviators was the engine would often be salvageable after an accident because the body of the pilot cushioned the blow. There were maybe a few brave women who went up in Ward’s plane with him, according to the photo of “Mrs. Jimmie Ward” in 1911. There is another photo of an unidentified woman at Marshfield, Wisconsin when he was doing an exhibition show for a fair, August 8, 1912. He was trying to encourage air travel with taking people up for rides but also to sell the Curtiss planes. The billing read: “Jimmie Ward, Dare Devil Aviator of Chicago, will make daily airship flights.”
Page 2 of 4 - Earlier that same year of 1912, Ward had been advertised in a brochure for the North Dakota’s State Fair in Fargo, North Dakota, “Jimmie Ward – the Altitude and Fancy Flyer.” He act meant a death defying, zigzag dance over the exhibition field. This performance amazed the crowds and was known as the “Merry Widow Waltz.” We don’t really know how many widows he would have created by this time if his aircraft had actually clattered to the fairgrounds below, killing him and maybe some of the spectators. A week later he was doing another exhibition show in Regina, Saskatchewan where their paper’s headline read: “Aviator Ward Stirs Crowd: Thousands View Intrepid Airman as he Skims the Clouds.” The paper listed over 5,500 in attendance for that day and the grandstand entrance was 3,400.
Ward had meant to make a triumphant return to Crookston during May of 1912 according to a January 25th issue of the Crookston Times. The reporter wrote: “Ward has a national reputation and such flight, if made, will attract great attention to the Red River Valley and be a great advertisement to this section of the country.” One hundred years ago, our early Crookston leaders were busy trying to find ways to make Crookston become better known and attract more people to our fair city. According to historian Russ Sundet, who wrote about Ward’s proposed exhibition event, it was cancelled “because only 120 faithful souls purchased the 50 cent tickets to see the local birdman fly. Three thousand persons, however, stood outside the fence unwilling to pay.”
In January 1912, the Elks building on North Main (what is now the True Value Hardware Store) had just been built and it attracted many of the richest and finest people from the City of Crookston. According to a January 25, 1912 Crookston Times article, “Jimmie Ward wore $2,000 worth of diamonds when here and spent the evening with boyhood friends in the new Elks Club rooms.”
At that time he promised “an exhibition that would raise the hair of his spectators. The aviators which have been seen in this section have only traveled 25 or 30 miles per hour. Ward’s machine is speeded up to 75 miles per hour and when conditions are right can negotiate 90 miles an hour easily and a duck’s flight will be duplicated here if conditions warrant great speed. He will also do some very fancy work such as has never been seen in the Northwest.”
The name of Jimmie Ward’s plane for flying exhibitions was called “Shooting Star.” Perhaps, I think to myself facetiously, “Flash in the Pan” might have been a more appropriate name for Ward’s delicate vessel constructed to navigate for the air. Dr. Steven Hoffbeck wrote in 1995 that Ward’s flying career was “meteoric,” like a falling star that breaks up and burns brightly before disappearing from sight. People were not willing to pay for a performance they could see for free from a safe distance.
Page 3 of 4 - It was during this same time of his Crookston visit that he stayed with his parents and sisters in St. Hilaire for two weeks along with presumably his “Mrs. Jimmie Ward” wife who was Wife #2, Maud Mauger.
One photo, preserved for posterity, is of his Wilson family standing outside of their St. Hilaire house with Jimmie Ward’s trophies and portrait displayed. If you look closely at the photo, his father is holding an infant. Is this a child birthed by Maud Mauger who may be standing off to the right wearing a fancy hat?
His Wilson parents and sisters showed off the famous Mr. and Mrs. Jimmie Ward during their two-week visit to Minnesota in January of 1912. Or could the child who Grandpa Wilson is holding be one of his three sisters’ children who all stayed in the Crookston area. One became a Mrs. D. McAllister of Grand Forks, another was Mrs. J. LaPlante (later Theresa Andringa) of Crookston and Mrs. Fred Hanson of St. Hilaire. I wonder if any of their offspring have preserved these trophies with Jimmie Wards name of them? The Polk County Historical Society could finally give honor to one of the area’s first pioneering aviators, if only we knew more and had actual evidence of Jimmie Ward’s past winnings.
Jimmie Ward did serve his country honorably in the military by training fighter pilots for WWI at Kelly Field in Texas. He was pictured in 1917 with a Curtiss Jenny OX5 engine, which was an open cockpit biplane. There is a photo of Jimmie Ward two years later in April 20, 1919 with presumably “Mrs. Jimmie Ward” #3 at San Leon field in Houston, TX. She may have been the actress wife who died in a hotel fire in Kansas City, Missouri.
I was not able to find the date of when she perished in that blaze. I read somewhere that this tragedy probably afflicted Jimmie Ward more than anything else in his life. OR maybe all the near misses and the deaths of so many pilots he knew in the world war struck him down. In any case, he was ill by 1922 and died in December 3, 1923 at the young age of 37 from a cerebral hemorrhage. His family had thought he was spending time in a sanatorium in Florida. Perhaps when they heard the news of his death, they did not have enough money to give him a proper burial back in Minnesota.
For whatever reason, their communication remained limited and perhaps strained between him and his family. As far as I know, Jimmie Ward’s remains are still in an unmarked grave in Chattahoochee, Florida because it was discussed among the sisters as recent as Oct. 8, 1955 to remove his casket to be buried with the rest of the family in St. Hilaire, Minnesota.
Page 4 of 4 - Maybe the Swedish flyer, Charles Lindbergh, learned some valuable lessons from a fellow aviator about living life, though Lindbergh’s life had parallel tragedies. Four years after Jimmie Ward’s unheralded death in 1923, Lindberg flew his “Spirit of St. Louis” over the Atlantic Ocean powered by a Wright Whirlwind, the competitor to Curtiss’ planes. By this time, Lindbergh’s plane engine was a nine cylinder, air cooled and 220 horse powered. What a difference from 16 years before when aviation got its start with daredevil barnstormers like Jimmie Ward and so many others.
What a difference living a “bad boy” reputation while supposedly living a charmed life as well. Some things will probably remain undocumented about Jimmie Ward. Maybe that is just as well.
Next week I will write about a humble, Norwegian country school teacher, Agnes Aslakson.