Charles Lindbergh has loomed large in my life for fifteen years now. I somehow keep working at museums that tell his story and either display his plane the Spirit of St. Louis or a replica of it. So when in the vicinity of his boyhood home recently, the only Lindbergh home open to the public, I had to visit. The house sits on a bluff above the Mississippi River in the middle of Minnesota. The tiny town of Little Falls was a logging community surrounded by farmland. I suppose Lindbergh was both a city and a farm boy. When he was four, his father was elected to Congress and served for 5 terms.Charles and his mother traveled to Washington, D.C. during the winter and back to Little Falls each summer, to “camp” as the family called it.
“Returning to my Minnesota home after winters spent at the capital, a thousand miles away, riding the train westward in springtime, I seemed drawn by an elastic force, an attraction like gravity that grew stronger as I neared my home — drawing me back to central Minnesota , to our farm, and finally through the doorway of the house itself…returning to the farm home I loved so deeply.” [Autobiography of Values]
Like all houses, this one reveals stories about its inhabitants. The space behind the wall boards Charles created to hide his toys in case the house was broken into when the family was in Washington. The well he dug at age 17 to ensure water in the winter. The screened in porch where he slept in both hot and cold temperatures. Photos show him at work and at play around the property. His mother was a chemistry teacher who owned a Brownie Box camera and documented her son’s boyhood, developing the photos in her kitchen. My favorite is one of him with a raft he built, looking much like Huck Finn.
He didn’t like school much but managed to graduate from the Little Falls high school. After graduation Lindbergh farmed his parents’ 110acres with some help from a local farmer. He didn’t love farming, but demonstrated a natural inclination toward fixing things and inventing. During the summers his job was to bring in the ice blocks for the ice box. He invented a pulley system to help lift the large blocks up the stairs.
When he was about nine years old he was in an upstairs room of this house when he saw his first airplane. As he later told it: “The sound of a distant engine drifted in through an open window. Automobiles had been going past on the road quite often that summer… Suddenly I sat up straight and listened. No automobile engine made that noise. it was approaching too fast… I ran to the window and climbed out onto the tarry roof. It was an airplane! Flying upriver below higher branches of trees, a biplane was less than two hundred yards away — a frail, complicated structure, with the pilot sitting out in front between struts and wires… I imagined myself with wings on which I could swoop down off our roof into the valley, soaring through air from one river bank to the other, over stones of the rapids, above log jams, above the tops of trees and fences.” [The Spirit of St. Louis]
Below the house in the garage sits a sleek Saxon Six automobile. Charles learned to drive at age 11 and in 1916, he and his mother and uncle motored all the way to California. Charles did all the driving. What an adventure it must have been. Apparently he never wrote much about it.
Life changed forever for Charles and the family when in 1927 he determined to fly the Atlantic solo from New York to Paris and against many odds, managed to succeed. He earned the $25,000 Orteig Prize but got more than he bargained for. Overnight he became the most famous person in the world. People wanted a piece of everything Lindbergh and even the house and car suffered at the hands of souvenir seekers who stormed the house and scratched their names into woodwork, broke windows and damaged or carried off the few Lindbergh furnishings left by the family when they vacated the home. The family donated the house to the state in 1931 and the Minnesota Historical Society oversaw the restoration. Today it sits preserved and ready to tell the stories you don’t often hear about Lindbergh’s boyhood. Whatever you think of this controversial figure, Charles Lindbergh led a fascinating life on the world stage.