Dubuque’s Mae Hackett Peabody was the first female passenger to fly on a regularly scheduled commercial airline way back on January 2, 1914, just one day after the very first commercial flight flew on January 1. Her flight aboard a Benoist XIV amphibious aircraft took off from the St. Petersburg, FL pier with Chief Pilot Tony Jannus at the controls. They flew across the bay to Tampa, reaching a top speed of 75 miles per hour at an altitude of just 50 feet.

Details of the flight from the St. Petersburg Independent were quoted in Dubuque’s January 6, 1924, Telegraph Herald:

“In the face of a stiff breeze from the southeast so strong that the small fishing boats did not leave the harbor, Miss Mae Peabody, of Dubuque, Iowa, took a trip in the Benoist airboat this morning… Miss Peabody was not daunted by the wind and said she was willing to go if Jannus was willing to take her as she had confidence in his judgment. The truth is that the pilot was a little hesitant about taking up a woman in the wind…

The boat, with Miss Peabody and Jannus in it, took to the water shortly before 10 o’clock. Soon after passing through the entrance to the yacht basin, the boat encountered big waves and did a deal of skipping on the tops of the breakers. Jannus soon rose from the water and sailed gracefully into the wind. He circled over the Tomlinson pier and then went east out over the bay.”

After the flight, Jannus complimented Mae and said, “You are all right. I will be glad to take you again, anytime you want to go. You have as good a nerve as any man.”

Mae was quoted as saying, “It is the best sport I have ever had.” She made tentative plans to fly again that year while wintering in Florida.

The small seaplane belonged to the new St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, a commercial venture proposed by Percy Fansler, an engineer from Jacksonville who convinced twelve St. Petersburg businessmen and the Board of Trade to invest in his scheme. The airline offered two roundtrips daily across Tampa Bay, using two bi-wing seaplanes called Benoist Airboats. A one-way fare cost $5.00 and promised a flight time of just 23 minutes between St. Petersburg and Tampa.

Mae was thrilled with her flight. When airline manager Percy Fansler suggested she purchase her own plane for $4,500, she actually considered the possibility. Although Mae didn’t buy a plane, the purchase would not have been out of the ordinary for this remarkable woman.

Mae Hackett Peabody, born on November 10, 1873, in Chicago, was adopted at the age of three by William H. Peabody, a successful Dubuque merchant. Mae was the niece of a Mr. Cunningham, Peabody’s former partner and friend. Upon his death, Cunningham left Mae a fortune of $150,000. Although the Peabodys didn’t adopt Mae’s sisters, Annie and Emma Hackett, all three girls grew up together in the Peabody family mansion on the corner of 14th and Locust Streets and lived among the elite of 19th century Dubuque.

Mae’s name often appeared in the Telegraph Herald society pages as the newspaper covered her many philanthropic activities. She served on the Board of Mount Pleasant Home and was active in the Get Out the Vote campaigns during the early days of women’s suffrage. She was a long time member of the Dubuque Women’s Club as well as the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs where she served as the Chairman of the Third District. During World War I, Mae set a record selling Liberty Bonds. She took a Red Cross course to learn to make surgical bandages and received certification from Washington allowing her to become an instructor.

The Telegraph Herald also covered Mae’s many distinguished visitors and the parties she and Mrs. Alice Struby Blount, editor and manager of The Dubuque Digest, hosted at their jointly owned Waupella Lodge near Mount Carmel. In 1916, the two ladies entertained 150 guests at a dance party held in the woods adjoining the Lodge, which overlooked the Mississippi River “on Mother House Hill.”

Mae’s exciting activities weren’t limited to Dubuque. In 1896, she travelled to Old Mexico on board an elaborately equipped Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad car.

In 1908, while she and several companions were visiting Tacoma, WA, U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft invited Mae and her friends to join him and his wife on a trip through Siberia. Mae’s party had plans to visit India, but finding India too hot, they joined the Tafts in Vladivostok.

Eight years later in 1916, Mae and her companion Alice Blount accompanied Anna Pennybacker, President of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, on a trip from Key West, FL, to Cuba to meet with the Havana Women’s Club.

Mae Hackett Peabody’s adventurous life ended suddenly when she died of pneumonia at the age of fifty on October 13, 1924. Her funeral was held three days later at St. John’s Episcopal Church and she was buried in the Peabody family plot in Linwood Cemetery.

Mae’s death was mourned by national and state clubwomen along with those whose lives she touched in Dubuque. Condolence messages arrived from across the country. Perhaps the note sent by Miss Flora Dunlap, a prominent member of the Iowa League of Women Voters, best summed up the collective feeling of loss:

With forward looking men and women over the state of Iowa, I mourn the passing of Mae Peabody. Many civic and altruistic movements will miss her help and counsel. She was a progressive in thought and a liberal in action.”

Mae willed her share of Waupella Lodge to Alice Blount. Alice died in 1951, in Pinellas County, FL, where she and Mae had wintered for many years – where Mae Peabody had the honor of being the first woman to fly on a commercial airline more than 100 years ago in 1914.

This article is part of the Shades of Dubuque series, sponsored by Trappist Caskets, hand-made and blessed by the monks at New Melleray Abbey.


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