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Airports of the Saugatuck-Douglas Area

Saugatuck Airport

The Saugatuck airport was a short-lived and unsuccessful project that left the municipality with a tract forever known as the "old airport."

There was movement for an airport in Saugatuck as early as 1932 when a landing strip was prepared on the Roger Reed farm on the New Richmond road. According to the Commercial Record for July 29, 1932, "The promoters are hoping and expecting this port to be one of the best licensed ports in the state. Three planes will be there over the weekend for commercial and pleasure flying."

Shortly afterwards a 154 acre tract on 134th Avenue just east of 63rd Street was purchased by the Village of Saugatuck and in 1936 a $12,301 WPA project was approved to grade and construct two runways. After reporting that "a gang of men are working on the airport project, more will be employed as the snow leaves" in the February 14, 1936, newspaper, little is said about progress. In 1940 a letter writer complained that the village "had no right" to buy the land. "It's no good as an airport, and we don't need one anyway." According to figures he presents the village purchased 170 acres at the cost of $1,750, but sold the timber on the tract for $600, making the total cost only $1,150.

In 1948 the village officially gave up on the airport idea and planted 6,000 white spruce on the land, leading to its second local name "the Christmas Tree farm." The land is still owned by the City of Saugatuck. In the 1960's it was leased to a snowmobile club. More recently the New Age senior citizens club has leased the old snowmobile club house as an activity center.

 

Douglas Airport

Recently the Historical Society received a box of records and other paper artifacts from the Douglas Airport for the years 1947 through 1949 with a few items related to the nearby Airpark Speedway.

In June of 1946 an airport opened for business just south of Douglas, although it was usually called the Saugatuck-Douglas Airport. It was owned by Harl and Lucille Schneider and advertised "student instruction and scenic tours." In addition, a small restaurant, known as "The Airport Grill," served light lunches. It had two 2500 foot packed dirt runways.

In July local pilots joined together to paint the roof of a building in each town with the name of the village and directions and distance to the airport. In Saugatuck the roof of the Jones garage carried the information, in Douglas the lumber yard roof was used.

SKY HIGH FLYING SERVICE

SAUGATUCK-DOUGLAS AIRPORT

Student Instruction Phone Saugatuck 43,567 Charter Trips Fennville, Mich.

Harl Schneider was one of the earliest licensed pilots in the United States. One of his students, who had seen Schneider's pilot's license, said that the number on it was less than 100 and it was issued in 1920 or 1921, just after the end of World War II. Schneider had taught flying at an airport near Holland until he and Lucille were married and opened the Douglas facility. She was also a pilot.

They bought the old John Flagg farm just south of Douglas and Albert Crane of Fennville graded the runways. He still has an Indian arrowhead from that excavation. Because of the hardpan clay formations there was some difficulty in getting the runways to drain properly. Crane solved the drainage problem by drilling a five or six foot hole in the problem areas and setting off a stick of dynamite to loosen up the hardpan, then smoothing it over. The east-west runway was built first, followed by the north-south. Later hangars were constructed along the north edge of the first runway.

 

The airport was officially known as the Saugatuck-Douglas airport, but some bills made out to the facility use the name Douglas Lakeside Airport. Mail was received from the Fennville post office, leading to some confusion. Flying instruction was carried on by Harl and Lucille Schneider under the name of "Sky High Flying Service" according to a letterhead. They had two or three Aeronca airplanes, two seaters with one used by the instructor and another by the student, all painted bright yellow. In addition, in April of 1948 the Schneiders purchased a four-place Stinson for their own use and to give scenic rides. The plane was brought to Douglas from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, one of the longest flights recorded in the airport logs.

More common destinations were Manistee, Mackinaw City, Kalamazoo, and other small airports in Michigan and Indiana. Records show that planes frequently flew to Muskegon for repairs and maintenance.

During World War II many men flew planes who had never even ridden in one before, and many others were exposed to the miracle of flight. The post-war GI bill allowed many of the returning servicemen to attend college and would also pay for the flying course that resulted in a private pilot's license in the interest of "Vocational Rehabilitation." Pilots who had earned their wings flying military planes were another source of income as they adapted their skills to civilian life or simply revisited the thrill of flying without the combat responsibilities.

Payment directly from the federal government for veterans taking private pilot training was one of the major sources of income for the airport. One balance sheet shows that in 1948 the operation actually made a profit of over $1,500.

In a 1950 Airman's Guide the Douglas-Saugatuck Airport followed the ; Willow Run airport which serviced Detroit. The listing shows that the Douglas-Saugatuck Airport at Douglas was a commercial facility, it was 1.8 miles south of the center of Douglas, and 670 feet above sea level. There were two runways, the longest 2600 feet, and storage facilities but no repair shop on the premises. Fuel of at least 80 octane was sold there. The cryptic statements under remarks were notes to pilots flying into the facility for the first time.

Albert Crane said he remembers the first day the fuel tank was filled. He had dug the hole, the tank was installed and covered. That evening the West Michigan Oil Company truck had put some gas in it, but did not have sufficient in the truck to completely top it off. That night the first really big rain of the season struck the area and the water-soaked ground began to swell. The tank came up out of the ground, with the pump on top.

Lloyd Dornan, one of the former students, sometimes gave rides to tourists and was at the airport one day when radio broadcaster Paul Harvey flew in. He asked that his plane be refueled, "Full, and I mean right to the top." Dornan did the best he could and when he was finished Harvey stuck his finger in the top of the fuel tank to make sure it was truly full.

 

When students under the GI Bill had finished their flying courses, there were not enough local people seeking lessons to make ends meet. The airport stayed open for several more years, at least as late as 1951, but was used only by a few local people who owned their own planes and an occasional transient.

Harl and Lucille Schneider separated and Lucille married Chester Downer, also a pilot, but who also had an interest in auto racing. About 1952 they called Crane and asked him to build an auto racing track near the back of the property, essentially behind the airport runways. In addition to the quarter-mile dirt track Crane built bleacher seating on banks of earth. The wooden planks that customers sat on were held in place with stakes. It was considered safer than conventional bleachers because customers could not fall through.

 

AirPark Speedway advertising poster

It was called the Airpark Speedway and featured weekly races in stock and modified open competition classes. Mechanical specifications, from a rule sheet for the 1959 season included:

MODIFIED OPEN COMPETITION

1. Any American make or year engine for open competition,

2. Engines may be installed in any position. Drivers protected by firewall,

3. Any transmission permitted. Gear change optional,

4. Carburetion, ignition and fuel optional,

5. Gas tanks of heavy steel may be inside securely fastened, with firewall between tank and driver.

6. Four wheel brakes compulsory and in good working order,

7. Intake manifold of any kind, but may be reworked. Exhaust headers permitted.

STOCK TO THE EYE

1. Any vehicle will be allowed to run as long as it is stock,

2. Bodies and engine, transmission and rear end, stock to the eye,

3. Cars between years 1932 and 1953.

4. Any overhead valve has to be run in same chassis in which manufacturer installed engine.

In addition to car races a few other events were held at the Airpark Speedway. One of the last was the Second Annual Saugatuck Jazz Festival in 1960. The first annual festival had been held at Saugatuck's Big Pavilion in 1959. On May 6, 1960, the Big Pavilion burned and shortly after the ashes cooled a sign appeared reminding people that "Last year on this site was held what was obviously the hottest jazz festival in the country... "The sign also identified the Airpark Speedway as the new site. The festival was held in August and included the Dave Brubeck Quartet with Paul Desmond on Friday and Duke Ellington and his orchestra headlining the Saturday night show. But it did not do well as an outdoor event.

Portions of the land were later sold as home sites. The building that housed the old Airport Grill still exists remodeled as a residence. The road to the north is what is left of the east-west runway.