By Stephen T. Jackson Madison County Historian
The Herald Bulletin
---- — Aviation in Madison County was no stranger when Welch Field opened in 1929. It had been 26 years since the Wright Brothers initial flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. but in that time interest in flying had mushroomed all over the World and Madison County was no different.
Before the Welch field, at least two airfields were operating in our county in the 1920s. The first was located on old Ind. 67, five miles south west of Anderson. It was a private field operated by Nimrod E. Keesling. The grass field was located where Freed’s Village is today. Except for a hangar little else is known about the Keesling Airport. The Yellow Kitchen barbecue operated by Mrs. Ethel Keesling was adjacent to the unlighted field.
The other airfield was called the Anderson Aircraft Company. Organized in 1924, the company was founded by an aviation pioneer named Fred Parker who, along with his family, moved to Anderson that same year.
The field was located in what we know today as South Edgewood. It was situated in the area between Park Road (then nicknamed the Airport Road) on the east and Central Way on the west. The north-south boundaries were roughly today’s Redwood and Oakwood Drives.
In addition to the airfield, the company had 11 usable planes, a design room, and one Lawson passenger airliner. It was here that Orin Welch first appeared in Anderson in 1927 taking the job of manager. Originally from Ohio, the 21 year-old had been flying for only four years.
A year later he owned the company and became involved in the manufacture of airplanes. It was here that he built his first plane, the one he named “Miss Anderson.”
He also taught men and women to fly at his Orin Welch Aviation School. The school was well known and respected all across America. However, he was not the first to build or fly an aircraft in the county.
Glen Tait is credited by one historian as being the first Anderson man to make a recorded successful flight. Other early local aviators were Harry and Frank Dunn, J.T. Ferris, and Harry Krause.
History records a flight here in 1909 by Gath Shoemaker, a high school student, which barely skimmed the ground. About that same time Charles Hensley made a flight lasting about 10 minutes in the old Harter Field.
Two years later, Anderson native Dan Arborgast and Earl Slaicke of Indianapolis flew a pusher type Curtiss airplane which barely left the ground. Also in 1911, the skies above Anderson were the scene of a 15-minute flight at 2,000 feet made by Jimmy Ward. Jimmy was one of the most popular of the early exhibition flyers
A company known as American Aircraft of North Anderson made a test flight on Nov. 21, 1916, over Anderson High School at a reported height of 3,000 feet. The company was located on the east side of Indiana Avenue, north of Vineyard. By 1920, they were out of business.
Esther Dittlinger, in her book “Anderson: A Pictorial History,” states, “The C.E. Aeroplane Company of Anderson was producing transcontinental tri-planes in 1916, and Futtle-Wright Aircraft Motors was making the Reward five-cylinder radial aircraft engines at their plant on West 25th Street.”
Such was the history of local aviation before the beginning of World War I. Afterward, exhibitions and Flying Circuses were about the only aviation activity seen in Madison County until Fred Parker’s arrival in 1924. That marked the beginning of a new era in aviation in Madison County. Orin Welch’s arrival in 1927 took local aviation to a whole new level.
In 1929, Mr. Welch began to look around for space to expand. The growing popularity of aviation necessitated a more accessible airfield. Important too, was a field that would provide living quarters for Orin’s family.
Looking for places to land
Enlisting the help of the Anderson Chamber of Commerce, who obviously recognized the advantages a large air field would bring to area, a search was begun. After viewing more than 40 farms the Chamber found one which complied with the government requirements. The site selected was on a portion of the Lamper farm three miles southwest of Anderson on Ind. 67.
The site contained adequate space for both a hangar and a level grass strip. After purchase by the Orin Welch Aircraft Company, the family moved to the field very early in the spring of 1929.
It quickly became one of Anderson’s best advertising attractions as planes flew almost every hour in the day training students enrolled in Welch’s aviation school. At night with boundary lights shining and the beacon flashing in the sky the field attracted thousands of persons. The aviation division of the Chamber purchased the beacon while the city of Anderson furnished others lights.
The entire property was composed of nearly 150 acres, more than half of which was flat. During the first year a long runway with the wind was developed. At night it was lighted by nine 1.5 million lumen floodlights which showed clearly every contour of the runway.
The property contained a large building that housed a hanger and a machine shop capable of making repairs up to rebuilding an entire plane.
An early innovation was the delivery of air mail from Anderson to Indianapolis. Soon decorative envelopes appeared advertising the air mail was from the Welch Airport in Anderson, Ind.
Shortly before 6 p.m. on Sunday evening Nov. 9, 1930, a fire from a blow torch being used to repair a rudder on a Swallow training plane caused extensive damage. A building 120 feet long and 50 feet wide, which served as a hangar and shop, was gutted by flames.
The large beacon light, installed at the top of the hangar was wrecked when it crashed into the mass of burning ruins.
After the $25,000 loss which was mostly uninsured, Welch moved the business to Portland, Ind., and five years after that to South Bend. In 1940 it was known as Welch Aircraft Development and was located at Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The former Welch Air Field, however, continued to be used for an unknown period of time.
If you are curious as to the location of the Welch Air Field, it was where state roads 9 and 67 turn east from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Formerly, the Linder’s on the Point restaurant was situated in the split overlooking the valley to the east. That valley was the site of the air strip which is now crossed by the highway and also 53rd Street a short distance to the north.
For more information contact the Madison County History Center, 15 West 11th St., Anderson, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, 9-4. Phone 765-683-0052.