Inspiring Florida women: Adventurer and first female licensed pilot, Dessie Smith Prescott

JoAnn Ryan

Dessie Smith Prescott lived an impressive life, especially considering she did what women could only dream about doing when she was born in Island Grove, Florida in 1906.

(See photo of young Dessie Smith Prescott on Pinterest).
A Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" (a common choice for barnstormers)Photo byPublic Domain

It was only three years earlier that the Wright brothers made the first successful attempt to fly an airplane.

As her friend, Pulitzer-prize winning Florida writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, would later describe, Prescott possessed a dichotomy of dispositions:

She is an astonishing young woman. She was born and raised in rural Florida and guns and campfires and fishing-rods and creeks are corpuscular in her blood. She lives a sophisticate's life among worldly people. At the slightest excuse she steps out of civilization, naked and relieved, as I should step out of a soiled chemise."

Long before she would ever learn to fly an airplane though, Prescott demonstrated fierce determination to work hard and succeed in life, despite her hardships. Her parents had tragically both died by the time she was a teenager, and thus she undoubtedly had to grow up fast.

She waited tables, sold cars and real estate and did what she could to survive before moving to Pennsylvania to live with her brother. This is where she learned to fly airplanes.

And learn she did. Paid for her own lessons and everything.

Soon after she became involved in the stunt pilot business, infamously known as the barnstormers, but quit in frustration due to what she said was lousy maintenance of the planes. By the time World War II came along though, she was more than ready to join the Women's Army Corps and attended Officer Training School in Des Moines, Iowa.

In between everything, she would often return to her home state of Florida. She hunted, fished and earned the distinction of being the first woman in the state to hold a pilot's license.

Often, she would take people on their first airplane ride ever, although it wasn't always a pleasant experience, as she later remarked: "I had some wet seats."

In Florida she famously embarked on another bold adventure. According to an article by Kevin McCarthy in Coastal Angler Magazine, by 1934 Rawlings was understandably in a rather unhappy state. Her marriage was crumbling, and their orange production business was failing, as it was for so many people in those days.

No doubt, she needed a good break from things. Along comes Prescott with just the right kind of plan. She suggested they embark on "a ten-day trip down the St. Johns River, from the Highway 50 bridge to the Ocklawaha River."

Altogether, it was a 100-mile-long trip.
Williams (1837) Florida - St.John's River & Volusia on the right bankPhoto byPublic Domain

This caused a rather indecisive uproar amongst the men who surrounded them. It just wasn't something women did, according to Rawlings' later published account in Cross Creek:

"Two women alone? The river runs through some of the wildest country in Florida. You'll be lost in the false channels. No one ever goes as far as the head of the river." Then, passionately, betraying themselves, "It will be splendid. What if you do get lost? Don't let any one talk you out of it."

They didn't, and thus their adventure began. Operating an 18-foot boat that was often dwarfed by the other watercraft on the St. John's River, they navigated, fished, camped and faced all the challenges the river had to offer.

St. John's River is, of course, full of character: marshy, sprawling, transformative, wild, labyrinth-like, often deceptive, full of invasive species of plants like the water hyacinth and, above all, amazingly beautiful.

And then, there is always the human factor to take into account.

At one point, they approached the boat after a night of camping to see that it had taken on significant water. Upon discovering the seams were coming loose, they failed to panic, but instead set about fixing the cracks by ripping up a shirt and stuffing the rags in to hold things together. And it worked.

In just such a way, both women relied on their instincts and abilities to get them through. They learned and adapted and came out on the other side of things stronger and better than they were before. This is the true essence of living:

"I thought in a panic, I shall never be happy on land again. I was afraid once more of all the painful circumstances of living."

Thanks to modern technology via the internet and Project Gutenberg, you can read Rawlings account here. Read the entire book or skip down to "Hyacinth Drift", which details the account of the St. John's River trip.

After the war, Prescott spent the rest of her days guiding hunting and fishing expeditions and later traveling the world.

In 1990, Dessie Smith Prescott gave this in-depth interview to long-time Tampa Tribune reporter Leland Hawes, and in 1999 she was inducted into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

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