Week 3: #52 Ancestors – Favorite Photo
By Eilene Lyon
This hand-tinted family photograph has been hanging on my wall for years, but I had never researched it. The man on the left is my great-great-grandfather, Thomas A. Reams (1833–1922). My grandfather, Laurence M. Smith, said that his Grandpa Reams had the opportunity to fly the year before he died. The ride took place at Felts Field in Spokane, Washington.
Armed with that clue, I learned that the pilot in this photograph was no run-of-the-mill barnstormer. At the time of his death in 1938, he was the most famous aviator in the Northwest, and considered one of the top 15 pilots in the world. But neither he nor Grandpa Reams had any premonition of these things in 1921.
Nicholas Bernard Mamer was born in 1898 in Hastings, Minnesota. Lt. Mamer flew for the Army Air Service in World War I, stationed in the Panama Canal Zone, most likely in a Curtiss “Jenny.” After the war, he settled in Spokane and at the time of this photograph (at age 22) was flying a Lincoln-Standard J-1 for the United States Aircraft company. (Thank you to Brandi of Make the Journey Fun for help identifying the plane as a J-1.)
On Easter Sunday 1921, Nick Mamer and fellow pilot Ernie Tattersfield, gave 19 lucky citizens a chance to touch the sky. Seventeen were brave enough to request stunt flights. (I suspect Grandpa Reams may have been one who demurred.) Photographers were on hand to document the occasion.
Mamer could confidently fly his J-1 completely inverted. On another occasion, he flew while Tattersfield did a wing-walk to entertain the assembled crowd. Most of the Easter passengers requested a fast tail-spin.
Mamer’s fame partly stems from his 1929 flight with co-pilot/mechanic Art Walker in a Buhl Airsedan biplane called the Spokane Sun God. During this non-stop trip across the continent, another aircraft refueled their plane through a one-inch hose. They also had to refuel the pilots, who dropped their meal requests at strategic locations.
The flight started in Spokane, then went south to San Francisco. From there they headed east to New York City, then back to Spokane. All this was done in five days and supposedly without sleep. (I am skeptical.)
Sometime in the 1930s, Mamer and his wife, Faye (Carey), relocated to Seattle and he became a commercial pilot for Northwest Airlines, flying the Seattle-Minneapolis route. On January 10, 1938 Mamer was at the helm of Flight 2 from Minneapolis in a 14-passenger Lockheed Super Electra “Zephyr.”
As the aircraft approached the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman, Montana, the tail structure failed, sending the plane plummeting toward the peaks. All ten aboard were killed on impact, as the craft burst into flames. It was the first fatal accident for Northwest and the Super Electra. Mamer was survived by his wife and a daughter.
Nick Mamer had a varied career as a pilot. He flew news photographs around the western states. He flew fire patrol routes for the U.S. Forest Service. He had his own air service established at Felts Field (originally Parkwater airstrip). One of the more interesting flights I found in news reports involved a young woman named Esther Devlin.
At the age of seven, Esther suffered from scarlet fever, which left her “stone deaf.” Thirteen years later, encouraged by physicians who thought a shock or an airplane “drop” might restore her hearing, she climbed into the J-1 passenger seat.
Mamer took the plane as high as 13,000 feet, the highest altitude any Spokane passenger had been up to that time. He instructed Esther to remove her helmet and then sent the craft on a mile-and-a-half plunge toward Earth. When he asked her if she was cold, she heard him clearly and said, “No.” What she took to be the sound of horns, Mamer told her was actually the wind moving through the aircraft wires.
Though her hearing was not completely restored, she could hear loud sounds and said she planned to take future flights in hopes of further improvement.
Well, I didn’t let this photograph tell a full thousand words, but it could have!
Feature image: Thomas Alexander Reams and pilot Nick Mamer. (Collection of the author)
Laurence M. Smith memoir essay dated April 15, 1992.
“19 Take Easter Flights in Air” The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA) March 28, 1921, p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.
Montana, U.S., State Deaths, 1907-2018 for Nicholas Bernard Mamer> Montana Death Records> 1935 Mar-1944 Nov image 144 – https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/5437/
“We Are Over the Peak—Nothing Worries Us Now” Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 11, 1938, p. 16 – via Newspapers.com.
“N.W. Airlines Plane Down In Flames; Nine Persons Aboard—Nick Mamer Pilot of Ship Reported Destroyed Near Bozeman” The Spokesman-Review, January 11, 1938, p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.
“New Air Stunts for Local Fans—Mamer to Give Exhibit at Parkwater Sunday” Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 15, 1920, p. 8 – via Newspapers.com.
“Mamer Has Luck on Photo Trip—Spokane Pilot Rushes Pictures to New York Times Plane” Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 18, 1923, p. 6 – via Newspapers.com.
“Forest Patrol Starts June 15—Mamer, Spokane Pilot, Prepared to Set Forth on Daily Flights” Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 17, 1923, p. 13 – via Newspapers.com.
“Airplane Pilots to Stage ‘Wing-Walking’ Tomorrow” Spokane Daily Chronicle, May 21, 1921, p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.
“Deaf Girl Flies; Now Can Hear—Esther Devlin, Stone Deaf for 13 Years, Gets Benefit From Plane Trip” Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 14, 1921, p. 3 – via Newspapers.com.