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News / Life / Clark County Life

Images From the Attic: Clark County history

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: February 24, 2024, 5:43am

Forced labor helped build Vancouver’s Municipal Airport during 1929. Several men guilty of vagrancy or drunkenness found themselves working at the nascent field constructing its first hangars while others cleared ground for more. While on the job three prisoners took “French leave,” as The Columbian chided. One was found dining downtown.

Even with forced labor, establishing a municipal flying field for Vancouver faced many barriers. The city leased part of the land from the railroad. Sometimes the field flooded, and the Army Air Corps 321st Squadron shared the space. Still, the city yearned for the status of an airport, motivated in part by envy of Portland’s new Swan Island Airport, which opened in 1927. So, the city was unwavering and resolved any problems, even seeking a bond issue in 1929. Although cheap labor helped erect the field’s hangars, the town rented each for $30 a month, and by March 1930, the city had rented the entire double row of them.

The rough municipal field saw modest use in the late 1920s. But by March 1930, it was in good shape. Still, it wouldn’t open officially until May 25. An ad announcing the opening day featured a locomotive, an auto and a plane speeding past Mercury, the Greek god. The text promised free general admission and parking for 50 cents. But the “penny a pound” airplane ride was a tease. The dollar minimum prevented children and the ultra-slim from flying too inexpensively. Below the ad’s banner proclaiming “time, energy, distance,” 20 advertisers anchored the event.

The Army’s 1925 dedication of the airfield, now known as Pearson Field Airport, was all male. The city of Vancouver’s 1930 dedication featured Edith Foltz, the second-place finisher in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby. The Columbian called her a “noted aviatrix,” stating she was among the few women holding a commercial pilot’s license. The reporter was unmistakably smitten. The unbylined article described her as, “Small, slender and thin in smart flying togs with a colorful scarf about her hair, your Mrs. Foltz is the center of a lot of eyes.”

Ten thousand spectators attended the opening of the airport, some arriving at 8 a.m. For blocks around the field, vehicles filled every available space. Foltz, declared the queen of the show, won the dead stick landing contest, which involved landing the aircraft with its engine off. She halted her plane “almost squarely” on the finish line. (The ”dead stick” refers to the propeller, which stops spinning once the engine is turned off, leaving the pilot to glide onto the landing area.)

Other grand opening events included upside-down flying, Hap Roundtree performing stunts in an ordinary biplane, and four glider flights. An automobile towed the glider and pilot C.S. Murry until it lifted high enough for release. Late afternoon, the audience heard speeches by Mayor John P. Kiggins and Judge George Simpson for the Elks. The judge raised the American flag before both speakers went aloft to drop a ceremonial wreath on the field. The day ended with the mayor’s favorite pastime — a baseball game.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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Columbian freelance contributor