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“Lindbergh in Montana” forward

As I write this in 2022, 95 years have passed since Charles Lindbergh electrified the world. He became the most famous person on the planet, the first media-developed hero of the modern era, in May 1927, when he completed the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic. He flew The Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris, a 3,600-mile trip in 33-1/2 hours. That seems slow today when jets travel from the U.S. to Europe in 10-11 hours, yet this was a time a little more than two decades after the Wright Brothers' first flight. What Lindbergh accomplished made him the toast of kings, presidents, business leaders and regular people across the globe.

Lindbergh, then 25, lived 47 more years until his death from cancer in 1974. During his lifetime, people in many U.S. localities, as well as in places in other countries, got ample opportunity to see him close up and from afar. He became a citizen of the world.

Yet, as a Montana native, I argue that the Treasure State can make as strong a claim on Lindbergh as one of its own as any place on earth, except of course his home state of Minnesota. He first came to Montana as a wing walker and parachute jumper with a barnstorming group, a century ago, in 1922. He and his colleagues performed at fairs in Billings and Lewistown, and he lived in the Magic City for three months. While in Billings, Lindbergh worked as mechanic, fixing car and airplane engines, at a garage owned by the Westover brothers, Bob and Edward.

Then, after the 1927 transatlantic flight, Lindbergh embarked on a tour to boost commercial aviation. Flying his Spirit plane, he visited all of the then 48 states. In Montana, he stopped in Butte and Helena, attracting massive crowds in both cities. He also flew over Great Falls and Missoula, soaring over the latter city enroute to his Spokane tour stop. Billings evidently remained dear in his heart because he went hundreds of miles out of his way to fly over the bustling city while en route from Helena to Butte.

Lindbergh visited Montana again in 1939 when war clouds were building over Europe and Asia. He was on a nationwide tour for the Army to review military aviation facilities. Flying across the Treasure State from west to east, he stopped in Missoula and Billings, where he renewed acquaintances with Bob Westover.

The famed flyer made numerous under-the-radar trips to Montana from the mid-1960s on. These journeys were prompted by his desire to visit his son, Land, who with his brother Jon had purchased a western Montana ranch. Lindbergh's growing conservation advocacy resulted in his being invited to Helena in February 1972 when he spoke to delegates of Montana’s state constitutional convention. The resulting landmark constitution, ratified by Montana voters that year, contains some of the strongest conservation and environmental protection wording of any state constitution. Those who've analyzed the convention’s work credit Lindbergh's remarks for helping to get this language in the document although he didn't advocate specific laws or regulations.

All said, I believe that Lindbergh's time in Montana deserves a book of its own. Lindbergh won a Pulitzer prize in 1954 for his account of the flight across the Atlantic. And A. Scott Berg's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 biography of Lindbergh remains the “gold standard” of books about this man's fascinating, complicated and often controversial life.

Thus, you will not read another Lindbergh biography, although this book outlines the highlights of his life from his birth in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1902, to his death 72 years later on Maui. Instead, “Lindbergh in Montana” represents my attempt to tell the story of Lindbergh's time in the state and to determine as best I can how he was shaped by the state I’ve called home for seven decades.

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Jamie Larson