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Early-day Glendive becomes a plane owner ... maybe

How often does any city, let alone a Montana city in the early years of the 20th century, become the chance owner of an airplane? That may have happened in the Eastern Montana city of Glendive as the result of a 1911 Fourth of July fracas reported in the Great Falls Tribune on July 5, 1911.

“It required the services of a detail of the state militia today (July 4) to prevent a long-suffering but disappointed crowd from running an airship in the Yellowstone River because it would not or could not fly.”

Glendive was all set for what was billed as the biggest Fourth of July celebration ever in Eastern Montana. The festivities had attracted several thousand people to watch baseball games and other athletic events, vaudeville shows and concerts. The biggest magnet of all, though, was an advertised airplane flight. Glenn Curtiss' aviation company had promised to send early day aviator R. C. “Lucky Bob” St. Henry to Glendive for a flight. But the Curtiss people backed out, and the railroad town had to scramble for a replacement.

The community found one in George Webster, of Fargo, North Dakota, who arranged to have Felix Schmidt of Chicago come to town. Glendive people paid $300 for a plane and pilot, and all seemed set.

When the biplane arrived, the flying group included Schmidt; the plane's alleged owner, a Miss Cosey Smith; and what newspapers of the time called a “mechician,” a mechanic named Eugene Grubbin.

According to the newspaper account, the crowd didn't like the looks of the plane from the start, but people waited patiently until 5 p.m. Then, “a wave of indignation surged over the crowd when word was passed around that the airship couldn't navigate the heavens today.

“Someone suggested running the machine into the river and simultaneously a cowboy in the crowd lassoed the propeller with his lariat and shouted for someone to bring him his good fast horse.”

One hundred people grabbed the plane, “and in an instant it was headed for the Yellowstone River a distance (of) only 200 yards (away).”

Panicked, Schmidt and Grubbin ran away; there is no word about what Smith did. Onlookers were pushing the plane towards the water and were halfway to the river when soldiers from Montana’s militia, now the National Guard, saved the day.

A militia contingent commanded by Major Don J. Donahue had been sent to Glendive that day to patrol the crowd and prevent possible accidents when the plane took off.

“The soldier boys now come in handy in order to save the machine from utter destruction,” the Tribune said. Donahue was fresh off impersonating George Armstrong Custer in a reenactment of the 1876 Little Bighorn Battle on the battlefield south of Billings a few days before. He ordered his troops to stand in front of the crowd and surrounded the plane with soldiers armed with bayonets. Those tactics saved the plane.

As for the machine's disposition, it's not clear from the newspaper article what happened.

“At midnight tonight as soon as the holiday is ended, the citizen's' committee will serve an attachment on the machine.” The Tribune's Glendive correspondent predicted that the city would take possession of the plane because no one believed its owner would try to reclaim it.

Note: I'm unsure what happened with the plane and plan to do a bit of research to find out.

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Jamie Larson