Written by Elaine Ryan
Photos by: Elaine Ryan
Elaine Adams Harrison is first to credit her success to “ a strong disciplined family background”. After spending a steamy afternoon sitting in her sunny screened in porch in Ft. Pierce on The Adams Ranch her father started in 1937, it became abundantly apparent she, too, set the pace and standard of excellence for which her own children were propelled into achievement. Her life of grand adventure and avant-garde style cannot begin to be harnessed in limited words here, but we are compelled to offer a few broad strokes of what we feel a truly iconic matriarch embodies.
Harrison’s insatiable appetite for grandiose adventure deceivingly opposes her slight frame and delicate features. Her eyes are bright emerald and her skin is the color a glass of skim milk, interrupted by freckles. She speaks in barely more than a whisper, but perhaps that is a function of age. Harrison is in her eighth decade of life, but shows few signs of slowing down. As she showed us around her rustic ranch home, Harrison opted to hurdle inconveniently placed pieces of furniture, rather than walk around them. She moves with purpose, though her gestures are capricious and playful. She still rolls her Tiger Moth biplane out of its hanger and onto the ranch’s grassy runway for takeoff weekly. “When I got out of the plane today, “she began with childlike inflection in her tone, “I realized there was a black racer in the cockpit with me. I like snakes in there. They keep the mice away,” she said, with a reassuring wink.
Elaine Adams Harrison comes from an impressive lineage. The heritage of overachievers that precedes her could very well have overshadowed her, if not for her own tenacity. Her father, Alto Adams, served on the Florida Supreme Court, and was appointed Chief Justice in 1949. “Judge”, as many affectionately knew him, was an attorney, judge, and cattle rancher. “ Judge was a man of character,” Elaine said. “He was empowering because he reinvented himself continually. My father never raised his voice or cursed. He didn’t drink or smoke. He was the finest in the world and had a gentle way about him. My mother was the keeper of the house and the colonel. She made her own cottage cheese and butter. She made her own Christmas ornaments. My mother was so steady, she was the platform for others to rise.”
And rise, Elaine did. Between living in Tallahassee for her father’s Supreme Court service and in Fort Pierce for the cattle industry, Elaine was exposed to a varied patchwork of people and opportunities. In the early era of aviation, Elaine Adams discovered flying, something that would become her lifelong love and endeavor. For Elaine, flying was an outlet to exercise her lack of inhibitions. The cockpit was the entryway to endless adventure possibilities—and one that led her to the man who became her copilot in life.
She obediently fell into what was expected of any woman of that epoch. Despite her unconventional attendance of flight school, Adams still fit the proverbial home economics model. She met a “very attractive man just out of submarine service during World War II”. He had seen her in ground school and asked her out. On their first date, he flew her from Tallahassee to Sea Island, GA. They shared a love of aviation and travel and enterprise and innovation.
Elaine married this fellow airplane aficionado and budding developer, Nat Harrison, in 1950. They had four sons before 1956. A devoted wife and loving mother, Elaine was grounded for a while after having children in such rapid succession. However, she was never far from her first love. When she couldn’t be in the air in her Waco biplane, Elaine Adams Harrison was instructing others to fly. It was at this time she was introduced to air races.
In the spring of 1966, and Nat and Elaine Harrison were living and raising their boys in Miami. Nat’s now thriving construction company had purchased a Cessna, which Elaine was predominantly flying. Women were occasionally operating aerial machinery internationally, but they were not allowed to wear slacks or shorts. A woman’s place may have slowly been moving out of the kitchen and into the cockpit, but only while dressed in a skirt. Four international races and as many years later, Elaine was an accomplished pilot and racer. She commanded much respect from her peers and continued to challenge gender role norms in pursuit of personal achievements. Her courage and convictions drove her, making her the Amelia Earhart of the tropics. It seems when one comes from a family of so many extraordinary people it really is relative. Greatness, therefore, becomes an expectation.
Lovers of Florida’s natural, rural landscape, the Harrisons would leave Miami (where Nat’s company was based) and visit Fort Pierce on weekends and as schedules allowed. Elaine spent a lot of time on The Adams Ranch with her sons and credits her curiosity, independence, and self-reliance, to its isolated geographic location.
“We had such a wonderful and unique life. My husband was the inspiration for our family. Nat was a phenomenally big thinker—ahead of his time. Even though he traveled often, I was never lonesome because I had four warriors [for sons]. We all respected each other, and self-reliance is so much of it. The beauty of being out here [on The Ranch] is it forces you into self-reliance or you could, quite literally, die.”
Elaine humbly continued to diffuse accolades for her achievements by redirecting the attention to her upbringing. “I really had a good family. Both my husband and I had good people behind us—a good, solid crowd. My brother, Bud, and I grew up without complications. Bud is a cattleman and wanted to raise cattle. I have always been into travel and wanted to see the world. My grandparents were dirt poor. My father worked very hard and this land wasn’t without challenges when he began The Ranch. The cattle business is hard. The mosquitos here used to be so much worse and malaria was present. So much of the area was underwater and the cows spent half the time in water. They would get screwworms. Judge used to say, ’People come out here and call this God’s Country, but when I came here, the devil wouldn’t have it.’ “
It seems Elaine Adams Harrison really did have it all. She continued to travel and explore, both on her own and alongside her husband for business. She was supportive of Nat’s frantic travel schedule, and they worked in tandem to raise the boys, giving them a private school education in Miami, but real-world schooling, as well.
“From the time there were eleven, the boys learned how to work; they were helping their father with sonar equipment, transmission lines, and tracking stations. “Nat traveled a lot, but we went when we could. It was an education for my boys to go to all those places, “ Elaine shared. With a brilliant father with a mind for vicissitude and an adventurous mother with an inordinate amount of spirit, it’s hardly surprising the list of countries the Harrison boys visited is extensive. When they weren’t on the ranch herding cattle, Nat, Mark, Patrick and Peter were working construction in The Caribbean. “All of my sons are very independent because we raised them to do what they want,” Elaine said.
In Fort Pierce, she continued to instruct others in flying, and did so for more than thirty years. When asked what she enjoys most about aviation, Elaine replied, “I have always liked to fly alone because then I wasn’t distracted. It was my quiet time. I liked to camp a lot. I went to Alaska in my Super Cub. I left from Miami and made it 7,000 to Alaska solo in seven days. I used to fly to New Mexico where we had a ranch. What I miss most about flying [long distance] is the freedom and the accessibility of everything.” Accessibility, apparently, even to danger. Harrison has “belly landed” planes with malfunctioning landing gear from more than 9,000 feet and hunted jaguars in Central America. She once was arrested and thrown in jail for more than two weeks in Brazil for what mostly constituted a misunderstanding.
Elaine’s passion for life and living it to the fullest is perhaps what is most inspiring, particularly in the South in a time of high conformist society. If there was a mountain to be climbed, Elaine Adams Harrison has most likely scaled it (“I got into climbing because I had a friend who wanted to climb The Matterhorn.”). If there was an ocean in which to scuba dive, she has explored it. Harrison has visited countless countries. An avid horsewoman, she started her own polo team at Windsor with son Mark in 1994 because a local club didn’t exist. She has always had vision and the ability to implement it to influence those around her. Harrison continues to live a phenomenal life, defying her age, and the overwhelming resounding theme continues to echo an emphasis on family.
Photos – Elaine Ryan
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