It came as no surprise to me because it was and is a natural! Recently U.S. Rep. Jim Banks introduced legislation to designate the main hanger at the small historic Smith Airfield in Fort Wayne as the National Airmail Museum. Sure, the project will cost about 2.5 million dollars to develop, but the people involved are determined and involved. So far, the fundraising is successful and is on-going. No federal funds are being utilized.
Prior to 1911, there was no such thing as airmail delivery. Oh sure, the idea of aerial mail delivery was conceived as far back as 1870, when inventive people in France decided to experiment with balloons. The first free balloon transport carried 500 pounds of mail, but balloons are hard to control. It wasn’t a successful venture. History records that some of those balloons “were carried miles away from their destination and some of them were never heard of after leaving Paris.”
There are museums for everything so one might speculate why not one for the Airmail Service and why should such a museum be located in the Midwest? Aha! The foresight of the Friends of Smith Field must be credited.
Smith Field dates back to 1919, and became one of the first in the U.S. to have a nighttime lighting system. It has been connected with the U.S. Air Service since the U.S. Postal Service came to Fort Wayne in 1930. Eight years prior to Smith Field, “demonstrations of airplane mail service were made in India, England and the United States. The first air mail service in the United States, however, was conducted at the aviation meeting at Nassau Boulevard, Long Island, N. Y., during the week of September 23 to 30, 1911. Earle L. Ovington, with his ‘Queen’ monoplane, was duly appointed an air mail carrier and covered a set route between the temporary post office established at the flying field and the post office at Mineola, N. Y., dropping the pouches at the latter point for the postmaster to pick up. This service, performed without expense to the Department, was flown at regular intervals during the period, a total of 32,415 post cards, 3,993 letters and 1,062 circulars being carried. It was quite satisfactory on the whole, and very promising.”
The history of the U.S. Postal Service is well told by author Nancy Allison Wright. In her article, “The Reluctant Pioneer and Air Mail’s Origin,” she relates the story of Major Reuben H. Fleet, who on May 03, 1918, was ordered by the War Department to begin preparations for launching the airmail service. As Wright puts it, Fleet “already had a full plate of duties. He was the executive officer for pilot training in the U. S Air Service, Signal Corps Aviation Section, among other responsibilities." His is an interesting story, and she tells it well, but I digress.
The concept for a National Airmail Museum to be in Hanger 2 at Smith Field is ideal, the perfect location. Fort Wayne boasts a rich aviation history. Smith Field is named for pioneer aviator Art Smith who was born in Fort Wayne. Smith built his own airplane and learned to fly by trial and error. He gave such fantastic exhibitions, that he became famous, and by 1915,was the star attraction at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition.
After W.W. I, Smith flew for the U.S. Postal Service. He died in 1926, in an airplane crash while delivering mail between Chicago and Cleveland. For more on Art Smith, readers may refer to Art Smith, Pioneer Aviator, the biography I wrote about this intrepid, dare-devil adventurer a few years ago, published by McFarland and Co. [Available on Amazon, the Fort Wayne History Center, Birdboy Brewery Taproom (Roanoke, IN), Wright Patterson Air Museum in Dayton, and area book stores. I hope it some day will find its way into the Airmail Museum.]
At any rate, Hanger 2, features a rotating carousel door and is historic because it is a rare example of hangers from the 1920s, and because in 1944, "it became a production center for Interstate Aircraft TDR-1 Assault Drones, an unmanned twin engine aircraft that was an early version of the ‘cruise missile.’”
Friends of Smith Field and individuals such as Bob Wearley, retired Air Force Pilot and former member of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, who first laid out plans for a National Air Mail Museum believe such a place will tell the story and document the rich history of pilots and aircraft in such a way as “to inspire a new generation of aviation enthusiasts.” Moreover, I feel certain this Museum will be an attraction that pilots, families, and historians will want to visit again and again. Check out details about the project at www.nationalairmailmuseum.org. You won’t be disappointed. You may want to send them a few dollars or more. It’s worth it.