Early Hillsdale County aviation history is sketchy. For the grand opening of our current Hillsdale Municipal airport in 1963, a brief history was supplied by local historian Sarah Dimmers in which she reported that early airplane landings were made in “Robards’ field,” southwest of Hillsdale, prior to the first airport being established.
In the early days, Orville and Wilbur Wright reportedly circled the city of Hillsdale and buzzed the Fairgrounds. Whether that is true or merely fabrication, is purely “up in the air!”
The area’s first homemade plane was supposedly built in 1911 by George Waldner and Burton Pettit in a garage on North Hillsdale Street. Both worked at the Alamo engine factory in Hillsdale.
Hillsdale’s early aviation history has to include the daredevil himself, Art Smith, who gained national recognition as a daring stunt pilot, starting to fly at age 16. His parents mortgaged their home in Indiana so that he might have the money to build a plane. Smith is best known locally for his infamous aerial elopement from Fort Wayne with Aimee Coeur, and subsequent crash in a field northwest of Hillsdale (near Oak Grove Cemetery) in 1912. The couple was taken to the Smith Hotel, treated and married a few hours later.
On July 19, 1912, Art acted as “special aeroplane newsboy” for the Hillsdale Daily News, “making the first aerial delivery of a newspaper to Mack Harring of Osseo.”
Crashes were nothing new to Art. A 1915 front page Hillsdale Daily News article told of Art crashing in San Francisco, while taking his mother for her first ride. On Feb. 12, 1926, on a foggy and icy night, while delivering mail for the U.S. Airmail Service, Art crashed for the last time in Williams County, Ohio. He is buried in Lindenwood Cemetery in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In 1934, “keeping in step with the modern trend in transportation,” the Hillsdale Daily News announced that, “Hillsdale is to have an airport …” The article credited the efforts of “Mayor C.E. Lewis, City Attorney Paul W. Chase, members of Common Council and John R. O’Meara” in completing the negotiations. It was reported that, “the state aeronautics department” was “anxious to locate a landing field here because of the new routing of the transcontinental airlines from Detroit to Chicago over the county.”
Hillsdale’s first airport was host to the Kiwanis Club’s first Fly-In on Aug. 10, 1948. At least 60 planes flew in from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana for the event.
For some years, in the early 1950s, there was concern the Hillsdale airport would survive. The economy was suffering, interest from the general public had waned and only the Hillsdale Aviation Club kept the airport functioning. Requests for government funds to renovate the old airport were submitted but the funds never materialized.
In 1960, the old airport land was sold; the Hillsdale Area Development Corporation ultimately purchased the land and developed the Hillsdale Industrial Park.
Acreage was then purchased east of Hillsdale for a larger, safer airport. Charles V. Bishop, a former flight engineer with Eastern Airlines, was hired as manager/operator. The city built the main hangar and the office/lounge building, with much contributed by the Aviation Club’s Dawn Patrols and other fund-raising efforts.
The airport project has not been without its naysayers over the years, due in part to the issues of eminent domain and funding through the federal government, but in quoting the late Harry Dimmers, “There is no question but that the new airport is much safer, more efficient, busier, and more successful in every way (than the old airport).”
Carol A. Lackey