The 1911 wedding invitation didn’t seem anything more than ordinary. The bride had the announcement printed in difficult-to-read Germanic script. Unravelling it reveals Henry H. Claassen and Nina C. Stanley announced their marriage in Vancouver on Saturday, Oct. 7. It’s the smaller, legible, sans serif print in all capitals at the lower left-hand corner that’s stunning: “AN AVIATION WEDDING 1000 FEET ABOVE THE EARTH.”
The two Vancouver lovebirds longed to float above that year’s Clark County Harvest Festival as they wed. Henry and Nina imagined dreamily lifting off the ground as two individuals, then floating suspended between heaven and Earth, exchanging vows, trading rings, kissing and then finally descending bound as one in marriage. Likely, their unstated romantic vehicle was a balloon, and not an airplane, for most at that time would struggle to lift two people, let alone the ceremonially required minister.
A balloon wedding might seem more sensible, so the intended newlyweds might at least squeeze a clergyman and a couple of witnesses into the basket. But how would the bride enter and exit the balloon basket gracefully? Was an aerial wedding valid? Before lawyers determined the wedding’s legal status, more couples signed up for aerial nuptials.
Hot-air balloons had lifted from the city before, in 1890 and 1891. Neither rose to the 1,000 feet the wedding invitation proclaimed. April 1890, Vancouver’s first balloon ascent took Professor William Lang skyward. He floated up from 13th Street, reaching 500 or 600 feet. Local papers dubbed this modest ascension a success.
Days before the Oct. 7 wedding date, the bride wanted assurance that her nuptial knot would bind the two as tightly as a wedding in a church. Vancouver lawyers chimed in without consensus.
James Stapleton, Clark County attorney, declared that to make a wedding aloft legally binding, the ceremony must be repeated on terra firma. Stapleton said the license issued was for Washington and nowhere else; floating in the air, the pair were not in the state. Attorney Fred Tempes conceded he needed to research that fine point. In the early days of aviation, the concept of air space was still undefined. Perhaps the state attorney general should decide, some suggested.
The threat of the state attorney general declaring the legality of an in-air marriage soon deflated. The law didn’t stop it. The lack of a balloon did. Clark County Harvest Days officials couldn’t secure one. What they could offer was an airplane made by Emil Komm, an amateur aviator. Although Komm’s plane never flew, it premiered at the Harvest Fair where First Presbyterian Church Rev. H.S. Templeton presided over the Claassen-Stanley wedding. Without leaving the Earth, the pair exchanged vows with Komm’s unusual screw-prop airplane as a backdrop. That December, Komm advertised his plane for sale in Popular Mechanics.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.