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Shortly before Charles Lindbergh became a national hero by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean — and long before his heroism was overshadowed by his anti-Semitism and hands-off attitude toward Adolf Hitler — Lindbergh was an airmail pilot flying a route back and forth between Chicago and St. Louis.
It was while flying that route in September 1926 that Lindbergh survived a dramatic crash near Ottawa, about 80 miles outside Chicago. The seemingly minor blip near the start of Lindbergh’s years of wealth and fame played a pivotal — and often overlooked — role in his story.
In Chicago, 95 years ago this month, Lindbergh first got the idea to try to fly across the Atlantic.
In 1926, Charles Lindbergh, a 24-year-old pilot, inaugurated a new 265-mile airmail route between Chicago and St. Louis. Lindbergh made weekly airmail flights for five months. Then on Sept. 16, he hit heavy fog flying toward Chicago. He and three other planes circled around airport Maywood Field (located in what’s today suburban Mayfield) without being able to land. Lindbergh was 5,000 feet up when the fuel tank went empty, and he parachuted out to safety.
The pilot and the plane hit the ground in cornfields near Wedron, 80 miles from Chicago.
In the middle of the night, the DeBolt family were in their farmhouse when they “heard this big boom and this tall thin guy came walking out of the cornfield with a parachute under his arm and said, ‘Anybody see a plane?’ ” said Charlotte Beach, recounting a letter that Jason DeBolt wrote about it.
Today, Beach runs the Fox River Bed and Breakfast in the old DeBolt House, where Lindbergh slept that night. His room is now decorated with pictures of the famous pilot and his plane. The room sleeps four. During the pandemic, the B&B has focused on long-term rentals for nurses or other temporary workers.
From the east-facing window, you can see a memorial plaque the LaSalle County Historical Society placed on the property on Sept. 16, 2001, the 75th anniversary of Lindergh’s crash.
The big white farmhouse looks much as it would have when Lindbergh slept here. It has a deep, curved porch, high roof peaks and chickens roaming around the yard. The DeBolt family built the house in 1901 on land they had been farming since 1829, Beach said. Inside, it has original wood trim and floors and tall windows, typical of an early 1900s farmhouse.
Linbdergh slept just one night in the DeBolts’ house. The next day he and his bags of mail caught a train from Ottawa to Chicago, where he checked into the Congress Hotel. While there, he went out to the movies and saw a newsreel that changed the course of his life.
The newsreel reported that a French World War I hero named Rene Fonck and his three-person crew were trying to win a $25,000 cash prize (about $394,000 today). The money, offered by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig, would be awarded to the first pilot to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean without stopping.
It’s possible Lindbergh also read about Fonck’s plans in a day-old copy of the Chicago Tribune. The day Lindbergh crashed, the paper had a Page 1 story about delays in Fonck’s attempt to fly what it described as a “huge” biplane across the Atlantic Ocean. The next day, on Sept. 17, Lindbergh himself was front-page news in the Tribune, for his parachute jump out of a crashing plane.
Either way, Fonck’s effort fired Lindbergh’s imagination. Biographies say he would muse about it during his airmail flights. He decided that with a lighter plane and no crew, a successful flight across the Atlantic was more likely. He was proven right when, on Sept 21, Fonck’s flight crashed on takeoff and two crew members died.
The following year on May 20, Charles Lindbergh successfully flew solo across the Atlantic and claimed the Orteig Prize. Maybe that would have come to pass even if he hadn’t crashed near Ottawa, slept at the DeBolts’ house and taken a train to Chicago. But as it played out, those few days in mid-September 1926 were pivotal in Lindbergh’s adventure.
Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.