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Amelia Earhart ate dinner with a local family after being stranded at the Fargo airport

A former Fargo woman said her pilot father once brought the great aviator home for supper and a night of incredible stories.

Northwest Airways Northern Transcontinental survey flight, 1933
Amelia Earhart spent time in North Dakota when she rode along as an observer for part of the survey flight to convince Washington officials that a route to Seattle via the northern tier of states was feasible in the wintertime. From left: Pilots Joe Kimm, Hugh Rueschenberg, Amelia Earhart and Mal Freeberg in front of a Northwest Airways Ford Tri-Motor. In 1934, Northwest began service on its "Northern Transcontinental" route between Chicago to Seattle and Tacoma.
Contributed / Delta Flight Museum
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FARGO — Can you imagine the phone call Clarence Bates made to his wife Janeau on that unusual day on the job at Hector Airport in Fargo?

“Hi honey, I’m leaving work now. ... Sure, I’ll pick up a loaf of bread. Also, I’m bringing Amelia Earhart home for dinner.”

Of course, I’m completely speculating about this phone call. But we can let our minds wander a bit as we unravel the mystery of the night one of America’s aviation pioneers is said to have dined with a Fargo family and how the story came to light in the first place.

Listen to this story on Tracy's 'Back Then' podcast

The tragic crash

In October of 2022, I wrote a story about a deadly Northwest Airlines plane crash in Moorhead in 1941. The only survivor was the pilot, Clarence Bates, who was thrown from the window upon impact. Of course, the story was tragic, but because Bates survived he was able to provide aviation investigators with important information about the possible causes of the crash (icing was ruled a likely culprit) and how they could be prevented in the future.

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14 people, including prominent CEO's and politicians, died on Oct. 30, 1941 when a Northwest Airlines plane crashed just outside the city. Only the pilot lived to tell the horrific story.

Sadly, one year after surviving that crash, Bates was killed testing B-24s for the U.S. Army.

Clarence Bates photo
Pilot Clarence Bates was a veteran pilot who logged more than 7,000 hours in the air. He worked at Fargo's Hector Airport when he is said to have brought Amelia Earhart home for dinner.
Forum archives

While reading Bates’ obituary, I stumbled across a letter his daughter Barbara Bates Schoening wrote to the Star Tribune in 2010 about the glory days of Northwest Airlines and her father’s time working in Fargo before his death.

“My father, Clarence Bates, was a romantic, barnstorming white silk scarf and helmeted pilot in the 1920s and 30s. He loved flying more than money. He joined Northwest Airlines as operations manager at Hector Field in Fargo in 1933. Amelia Earhart was stranded at the Fargo airport and he invited her to our home for supper where she regaled our family with tales of her exploits.”

Say that again, Barbara.

You broke bread with an aviation heroine? You're going to need to tell us more about this.

A stormy winter

I set out to learn what I could about the details of Earhart's visit, but I was coming up empty searching for details in The Forum archives and with historians and aviation experts in the area. I was also having difficulty locating Barbara Bates.

Then, just one day before this story was to publish, I received an email from Elizabeth Dolphin, Barbara Bates' stepdaughter. She just happened to be emailing me about that story on the Northwest Airline crash in 1941. We published that story in October. What a fluke, she'd reach out so many months later. Anyway, one thing led to another and she was able to confirm her stepmother's story about Amelia Earhart and that visit to Fargo.

It happened in the winter of 1934 to 1935, when Barbara was about seven- or eight-years-old. Earhart had been a frequent visitor to the region over the last couple of years.

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According to the Delta Flight Museum , "In 1933, Amelia Earhart rode along as an observer on a Northwest Airways survey flight to help convince Washington officials that a 'Northern Transcontinental' route between Chicago and Seattle was feasible in winter."

earhart map.jpg
In December 1933, Northwest Airways successfully launched service to Seattle through the northern United States. Amelia Earhart was part of a test flight on the route in January of 1933.
Contributed / Delta Flight Museum

One stormy night that next winter, Earhart was once again headed for Seattle when she stopped in Fargo to refuel. However, she was unable to take off again because of the bad visibility.

That's when Hector Operations Manager Clarence Bates invited the aviation pioneer over for dinner. Barbara told Forum columnist Bob Lind in 1998, that her father was "hospitable to the bone," often bringing guests home for dinner.

bates family.JPG
The Bates family in a sailboat, around 1938. From left; Barbara, mother Janeau, father Clarence and Bob.
Submitted photo

The dinner

Barbara, a student at Horace Mann Elementary School in North Fargo, didn't think much of it when Earhart walked through the door. But her opinion changed quickly. She later wrote of the occasion:

IMG-2310.jpg
Barbara Bates Schoening, 95, lives in Minneapolis and still remembers the night she met Amelia Earhart when she was stranded at the Fargo airport in 1934 or 1935.
Submitted photo

The night that Amelia Earhart spent with us is a warm, pleasant memory. She had freckles, just like mine. I hated mine. However, there was Amelia whose face was covered with freckles. It was a comfort to me.

I had recently been told what a wonderful role model she was. She was someone who was making history setting new goals for women and was someone to be emulated. Not only was she comfortable with her own freckles but she was very kind to me. She answered all of my simple questions with grace and patience. She partook in our modest supper with praise for my mother's cooking. She was very attentive and respectful of my father and kind to my grandmother who always lived with us. She was also friendly with my 10-year-old brother, who was in awe of her.

When the night was over, Barbara and her brother Bob knew they had been in the presence of someone pretty special. Unfortunately, the next day when they went to school to tell their friends, no one believed them, including the teachers, until The Forum later published a report of Earhart being stranded.

Ameliasmile.JPG
Amelia Earhart on the lecture circuit in 1936, not long after her dinner in Fargo.
Contributed / Delta Flight Museum

Earhart's visit to Fargo in 1934 or 1935 didn't receive quite the fanfare her bigger excursion to Bismarck received in 1933. The Bismarck Tribune took note of that visit. It's interesting to note, it was the same day headlines declared that a man named Adolf Hitler had assumed power in Germany.

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News also paid attention as Earhart flew on to Helena, Montana, as documented in a YouTube video from the Montana Historical Society.

After Earhart's many trips across the upper Midwest, the aviation industry was able to surmise that air travel in the dead of winter in the Dakotas and Minnesota indeed was feasible. Northwest officially opened the route months later. Sadly, about three years later, on July 2, 1937, Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

The world mourned an aviation pioneer who inspired a generation of women to soar through the sky. And who let one little girl in Fargo know that it's pretty cool to have freckles.

If you have any historical story ideas, email me at tracy.briggs@forumcomm.com .


STEP BACK IN TIME WITH TRACY BRIGGS

Tracy Briggs Back Then with Tracy Briggs online column sig.jpg
Tracy Briggs, "Back Then with Tracy Briggs" columnist.
The Forum

Hi, I'm Tracy Briggs. Thanks for reading my column! I love going "Back Then" every week with stories about interesting people, places and things from our past. Check out a few below. If you have an idea for a story, email me at tracy.briggs@forumcomm.com.

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Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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