Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

OUR FIRST AIRPORTS


Runways to the Skies


Ever since the first Laurens Countians read about the Wright Brothers they dreamed of flying.   In the middle of the second decade of the 20th Century, daredevil pilots barnstormed across the nation, entertaining crowds of people in large cities and small cities like Dublin.  This is the story of the first airports in Dublin.   They were primitive by today’s standards.  Most of them were just long narrow cleared strips of land located at various locations on the edge of town.  It would be 1944 before Dublin would acquire a first class airport.  It was in the middle of World War II that the United States Navy constructed the present Laurens County Airport in preparation for the transportation of patients to and from the Naval Hospital in Dublin.

It was in the spring of 1919, just six months after the end of World War I, when the first true aviation activities began in Dublin.  Three men from Dublin traveled to Souther Field in Americus to enlist in the Air Service.  It should be remembered that it was at Souther Field where Charles Lindbergh made his first flight in an airplane.  Sergeant Ruff, the recruiting officer in Macon, flew to Dublin to secure even more recruits.  While in the city, Sergeant Ruff found a frenzy of activity surrounding the construction of a city airport, which was being  rushed to completion just in time for his visit.   Businessmen were anxious to solicit flyers to come to the city and performing aerial circuses.  It was suggested that all in the roofs in the business section be painted with the word “Dublin” to make it easier for pilots to know where they were.

Though no official Dublin airport existed in the 1920s, there were flights in and out of the city.  The members of the Lions Club met in May 1928 to discuss the location of an airport on “the pulp mill site,” now occupied by Riverview Golf Course.  A party of airline officials of the Dixie and Northern airline stopped in Dublin on a tour of the state in 1928.  Beeler Bevins and C.F. Dieter flew into Dublin on July 2, 1929 during their “All Georgia Air Tour,” which was sponsored by Georgia Power Company. The fliers were entertained with a luncheon at the Fred Roberts Hotel.  The men urged those in attendance to build an airport. 

The flight spurred city officials to construct a first class airport in Dublin.  Negotiations began immediately for an ideal site, one which was near the heart of the city and one which was close to the existing electrical lines serving the city.  On July 17, 1929, the Dublin City Council voted to enter into a lease to construct an airport on 42 acres across from the W.T. Phelps place on what would become Claxton Dairy Road.    The mayor and council suggested that arrows be painted on top of the city hall, the First National Bank building and the Wrightsville and Tennille Railroad depot indicating the direction to the airport.    Mayor T.E. Hightower urged that “Dublin be put on the air map of the United States Aeronautical Association as soon as possible.”  “All the world has taken wings and Dublin must take to the air, too, or be left behind,” Hightower added.    City officials hoped that Dublin would become a regular stop on the Atlanta to Savannah air mail route, since the city was located at the midpoint of the two cities.  The site was an ideal one since the ground was virtually level and only needed slight grading to put it in shape for landings. The work of clearing the field and putting it in compliance with the specifications of the National Aeronautic Association was apparently never fully  completed.  L.G. Clarke, an experienced airplane builder, came to Dublin in hopes of advancing the building of an airport.  

Another landing strip was on the west side of town on the E.T. Barnes place on the Macon Road.  This primitive landing strip, probably located near the Dublin Mall, accommodated a Ford Tri Motor plane which carried P.M. Watson, Marshall Chapman, B.J. Daley, Blue Holleman, Lehman Keen, Charles E. Baggett and George T. Morris on a flight to Macon in February 1931.   The road was lined with cars filled with spectators hoping to get a glance of the largest plane ever seen in Dublin until that time.  It was revealed that George T. Morris was actually afraid to fly, but didn’t want to back out since he sponsored the flight.  Morris wrote a letter to his wife informing her of the secret location of a cache of money hidden under a stump - just in case he didn’t make it back home safely.   Upon its safe return, the pilot solicited all those who desired to ride in the giant airplane.  Five hundred and ten people took him up on the offer, including twenty-five young boys who were the guests of Jim Kendrick.   Herbert Moffett took his entire family for a ride and commented that “the plowed fields were the best view.”    

The pilot, Ray Loomis, urged Dublin citizens to build a better airport.  Loomis said, “the field you have now is very good and should be enlarged and stumped to allow two runways. Engineers from the CWA came to Dublin in the spring of 1934 to survey the site on Highway 80 West as a permanent site for a municipal airport.    Morris Motor company continued to sponsor Ford Tri-Motor plane rides through 1935.  

The kids of Dublin formed a Junior Birdmen Club in February 1935.  Emory Beckham was elected the wing commander, while Jack Baggett was chosen as the club captain.  Billy Keith served as the secretary-treasurer.  Other members of the club were Earle Beckham, Luther Word, Owen Word and Jimmie Sanders.  The club, organized to promote an interest in aviation, was the only club between Macon and Savannah.

The enthusiasm of the Junior Birdmen inspired city officials to begin construction of a municipal airport two miles south of town on the Dublin-Eastman Highway south of  the present site of Mullis’ Junkyard.  With the support of Monson Barron, the city’s oldest aviation afficionado, Clafton Barron, and Ellison Pritchett, who had worked for Boeing, Lockheed, and Douglas, a four plane hangar was constructed on the site.  Local officials continued to push the Barnes site on Highway 80 West, as well as the Cullens site in East Dublin on Highway 80 East.  Neither of the three sites ever attained the status of a first class airport. 

By the end of 1930s, aviation fever had reached its peak.  Thirteen young pilots had earned their pilot’s license and six more were in training.  Though still without adequate landing facilities, these young men landed and took off in pastures on flights no longer than fifty miles.  Among the first to obtain licenses were Emory Beckham, Earl Beckham, Emmett Black,  L.A. Mitchell, W.H. Barron, Jr., Izzie Lease, Nat Lease, Lenwood Hodges, Ross Moore and Robert Werden.  Ed Hobbs, Claxton Edenfield, Bill Sanders, Sterling Lovett, H.C. Coleman and Joe Lord were working diligently in obtaining their licenses.  These men shared two airports, mere pastures, with two Piper Cubs owned by Ross Moore and Izzie Lease and a Avon two-passenger open type plane owned by W.H. “Bud” Barron, Jr.

It would take the political power of Congressman Carl Vinson to bring a permanent and high class aviation facility to Dublin.  Built by the U.S. Navy in 1943 in connection with the establishment of the U.S. Naval Hospital, the airport, renamed the W.H. Barron Airport after its greatest promoter, was turned over to Laurens County.  The airport continues to maintain one of the longest runways in Georgia.  

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