“Me, personally, I hope we never know for sure,” said Jacque Pregont, who leads the local Chamber of Commerce and coordinates the annual Amelia Earhart Festival. The event drew thousands of people to Atchison over the weekend, just ahead of what would have been her 120th birthday, on July 24. “She was an adventurer,” Ms. Pregont said. “And it’s almost a perfect ending — isn’t it — that there is no ending.”
The dueling theories — crashed in the ocean; marooned on an atoll; captured by the Japanese; returned to the United States with a new identity — surrounding Ms. Earhart’s disappearance have become part of her legacy.
“We cut it off right in the middle,” said Chris Taylor, a former newspaper editor here and the longtime director of the county historical society. “It’s like if you’re watching a really good movie and you just stop and your mind puts together the rest of the story.”
Passing generations have not eroded Atchison’s pride in Ms. Earhart. The aviator’s face is embedded in the city logo, and the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge crosses the Missouri River leading into town. Also bearing her name: Atchison’s airport, a local highway and a museum at her birthplace on North Terrace Street.
Ms. Earhart grew up during Atchison’s heyday, but subsequent decades brought floods, a drop in population and, more recently, the beginnings of a downtown revival.
Lewis and Clark camped on these hills during their westward expedition, and the city that sprouted later served as a hub along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. Today, the steep, brick-paved residential streets remain lined with stately homes dating to Atchison’s glory years, though some have fallen into disrepair. This city has also been home to a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member, three Kansas governors and a United States senator, but most everyone agrees that Ms. Earhart is the most notable export.
“She’s quite our headliner,” said David Butler, a nearly lifelong Atchison resident who said that the newest claims about the flier’s disappearance had dominated conversation at his coffee club. Mr. Butler said he was personally curious to know what happened to Ms. Earhart, but also thought Atchison benefits from all the theories.
“I think the uncertainty is probably better for us in keeping her memory alive,” Mr. Butler said.
Over the weekend, festival participants, many fresh with questions after watching the new documentary, signed a birthday card for Ms. Earhart, toured the white house overlooking the river where she spent much of her youth and visited Trinity Episcopal Church, where the font used in Ms. Earhart’s baptism is still at the front of the sanctuary. The weekend later took a tragic turn: On Sunday, a stunt pilot who had performed at the festival and an employee of the Atchison airport died in a plane crash.
On Saturday, residents spoke with pride as they told tourists that Ms. Earhart was more than just a record-setting pilot, but also a social worker, writer and a feminist decades ahead of her time. At the Earhart Birthplace Museum, volunteers recited details about the aviator’s former home — the wallpaper is nearly identical to when she lived there, and the woodwork untouched — and pointed to a collection of books offering disparate conclusions about her fate.
Ann Shaneyfelt, the museum’s chairwoman, said it was policy not to favor one conclusion over another. “We say, ‘Here’s a theory, here’s a theory, here’s a theory,’” said Ms. Shaneyfelt, herself a pilot.
She, too, said she did not especially want a definitive answer, “because that mystique is still why people are talking so much about her.”
Of course, others yearn for finality. Some among them: a few remaining Atchison residents old enough to recall glimpsing Ms. Earhart when they were children.
Bob Handke, a corn and soybean farmer, was displaying his own plane on Saturday at the Amelia Earhart Airport, just a few yards from the hangar holding the last intact Lockheed Electra L-10E, the type of plane that Ms. Earhart flew in her attempt to circumnavigate the Equator.
Mr. Handke, 90, said he remembered watching Ms. Earhart parade down Commercial Street when she came home to Atchison in 1935. “It would be nice to know what really, really happened to her,” he said.
Josephine Hildman, 89, also remembered Ms. Earhart’s trip to Atchison that year. Ms. Hildman said the aviator walked into her family’s chili restaurant, placed a to-go order and asked Ms. Hildman, then about 8 years old, about school and her interests.
“I was impressed with her,” Ms. Hildman said Saturday, “especially because she wore pants” at a time when most women favored dresses.
Ms. Hildman said she watched the recent documentary hoping for irrefutable proof about what happened to Ms. Earhart. The community needs certainty, Ms. Hildman said, and Ms. Earhart deserves a proper burial.
But the documentary left her unconvinced, and still the mystery persists.
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