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By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

Charles A. Lindbergh’s history-making solo flight from New York to Paris in May of 1927 in The Spirit of St. Louis electrified the people of the nation and it set off a wave of aviation mania in the little town of Folkston as well, the great depression notwithstanding.

In Folkston at the time was a wealthy doctor from Ohio, J.W. Buchanan, who thought that his lot in life was to show his newly adopted home town a better way, and he didn’t mind spending tons of his personal money trying to bring the transformation about.

The combination of Buchanan’s money and the yearnings of the Folkston people to become a part of the new aviation scene, served to partially shield some of the people of the town from the economic depression.

The federal government had been in the Air Mail business since 1918 when the army and the Post Office Department set up an experimental line between New York and Washington, D.C., using army pilots. Nearly forty army pilots lost their lives flying the mail in the first three months and the Post Office assumed control of the line from the army and employed civilian aviators.

In 1920 air mail service began between New York and San Francisco; the planes flew only by day, the mail being transferred at dusk to trains. Continuous day and night air mail service was not instituted until 1924, and in 1925 the Kelly Air Mail Act turned over the handling of air mail to private contractors; branch lines and north-and-south lines were rapidly added. It was this north-south expansion that afforded the people of Folkston its love affair with the airplane.

The federal government began its expansion by acquiring land in towns and cities every 45 miles to make into emergency landing fields for the pioneering air mail pilots in their twin-seated open-cockpit airplanes.

During World War One, 14,000 planes were manufactured by the United States, and a large number of the Waco airplanes, used in the war, became available for purchase by civilians. Many were quickly grabbed up by would-be independent air mail contractors. Passenger service by airplane had been launched in 1914 between St. Petersburg and Tampa.

On June 28, 1928 Mrs. W.H. Robinson’s Charlton County Herald broke the news to an excited community “Folkston Is Assured Of An Aviation Field.” It was like an answer to the people’s prayers. At the same time she introduced a transplanted French nobleman recently moved into town, Count M. deWay, of the Folkston Locating Company

Most of Mrs. Robinson’s readers knew that Folkston Locating Company was owned by Dr. Buchanan, but Count deWay’s mission in town had tweaked their curiosity. They often watched as the small Frenchman rode stiffly along the town’s dusty streets astride one of the prettiest horses the town had ever seen. deWay wore an expensive European riding habit, complete with shining brown riding boots and he carried a riding crop in his hand. They both seemed to strut past the store fronts. He exerted every effort to play the part of the European nobleman he claimed to be.

Buchanan had given land to the government for the airport. It was a forty acre tract of land fronting on the Dixie Highway, located between Folkston and Homeland. The airport would have lights marking the two 2,000 foot grass runways, and a tower with a 2,000 candle-power rotating beacon light at the top.

Thus was ushered in one of the most exciting five year dramas in the history of the town, with a cast of characters to rival a grade-A movie. Names like Orlando Roberts, Mingo Stewart, Paul deWay, Frank Light, Jim McKendree, Dick Stadham and Archie Comer became commonplace.

Dr. Buchanan, who was convinced that Folkston had a place in aviation history, while in the middle of his ambitious Dixie Lake development and several other innovative businesses, gave Count deWay a green light to develop the Folkston airport into a show place for all southeast Georgia. deWay was to have the aviation field ready by May 1, 1929. It was a time of boom for the nation and especially the south. There was no hint of the historic stock market crash and economic depression that would come to the nation within six months and last until 1940.

Count deWay talked an eager Dr. Buchanan into a grandiose country-club scheme for development at the airport. They would call it the Okefenokee Airport, counting big on sightseeing flights over the great swamp. An airport inn and dining room would be built and named the Airport Café and a massive hangar was laid out on the drawing board.

Rooms for “hotel purposes” were scheduled, as was a miniature golf course, swimming pool and tennis court. deWay and Doctor Buchanan had it all figured out – on paper. The new development would be joined by a bridge with Buchanan’s equally grandiose Dixie Lake undertaking. One would complement the other.

P.C. Hall and Leon Askew, local building contractors were engaged to move the deWay bungalow away from the hangar area, leaving the dining room and hangar, built by contractor Hamp Wainwright in clear view of motorists on the busy Dixie Highway which passed by the property. Additionally, Leon Askew who lived nearby would be employed as the grounds-keeper and weather reporter for the airport. Much of the business of the airport would turn out to be from planes unable, because of weather, to make it on into the Jacksonville, Fla. air field.

The nation was moving closer and closer to the beginning of the great depression. Henry Hembly, a sickly Waycrossan, climbed to the top of that town’s unique tall water standpipe and jumped in, drowning himself. 300,000 gallons of water had to be drained before his body could be recovered. It was August 6, 1929.

deWay pushed his workers harder and harder attempting to make the scheduled opening. He failed. The beacon and field lights were turned on the night of August 9, 1929 and the field officially opened on Armistice Day, November 11, 1929. The huge hangar and airport restaurant with its unique bay windows were complete, along with a fancy tea room, and gasoline pumps. To celebrate the accomplishment, deWay, his wife, and son Paul, announced a dance and reception to be held in the restaurant. The people of the town were invited…and most of them went.

deWay, and local airplane buff and mechanic, Orlando Roberts, together bought one of the day’s premier airplanes, a restored World War One Waco, two-place, two-winged airplane just like the ones used to shuttle the air mail across the country. They flew the plane to Folkston from Roosevelt Field in New York.

Through the rest of August, Folkston was giddy with the doings at the new airport. The efforts of the local Baptist to rebuild their church building came in second-best in the weekly newspaper columns. At the same time one of the area’s most devastating floods occurred, closing schools and causing heavy damage to much property, including Buchanan’s Dixie Lake development.

The nation’s economic bubble burst, set off by the stock market crash on October 24, 1929. Businesses and banks failed and production of goods and services dropped by almost thirty percent by 1932. Unemployment rose from 1.2 million to 12.1 million. A major crisis had developed. The activities at the airport were sidetracked while flood damages were repaired.

Still the aviation fever had not subsided. The Airport Café re-opened to the public on Friday evening June 7, 1930. On April 25, 1930 neighboring Waycross had opened its new airport and Folkston’s top promoter, Dr. A.D. Williams, attended the two-day affair. The reigning Miss Charlton County, Gertrude Wildes (Johnson), had a prominent part on the Waycross dedication program. A beacon light had also been put in service at Racepond, midway between Waycross and Folkston.

Folkston, in 1930 a town of 506, lived and breathed the excitement of its new airport. In conjunction with the airport café, Dr. A.D. Williams agreed to promote boxing matches inside the airplane hangar, calling it the Okefenokee Airport Arena. An early event matched Glynn Chancey, local favorite and Florida state champion heavyweight against an unknown opponent. “Wildcat” Saule, of Callahan was to face “Killer” Clark, while Bill Shumaker was paired against “KO” Eugene Rhoden. “Shrimp” Maines faced “Pee Wee” McKendree of Woodbine. Howard Huling and “Slim Jim” Askew finished off the evening’s card.

On October 18, 1929 the colorful deWay announced the hiring of a full-time pilot, E.W. Highsmith from Atlanta. He was reputed to be one of the best pilots in the state with experience in heavy transport planes. He was to have charge of the Waco aircraft and teach flying to the locals who were financially able to afford the fees. Highsmith made Folkston his home. dWay figured Buchanan would get his money back from sight-seeing tours over the Okefenokee. Floyd Larking was the first paying local to see the Okefenokee Swamp from deWay’s airplanes, accompanied by deWay’s young son, Paul.

The Folkston Airport continued to buzz with activity, mostly from air mail pilots who were unable to land in Jacksonville on account of bad weather. Leon Askew, and his daughters, Inez and Geraldine, made daily weather reports to Jacksonville. Mrs. Mary Askew always kept a spare bedroom in her home for stranded pilots. The airmail pilots would bring their heavy canvas mail bags into the Askew home and throw them into a corner until the weather cleared in Jacksonville enough for them to complete their trip.

At that time the local newspaper referred to planes in terms as a housefly. “The plane lit” said one edition of Mrs. Robinson’s Herald.

Barnstorming pilots heard of Folkston’s superior landing facilities, many unable to find jobs, and with little visible means of support. Some of the young barnstorming pilots brought their wives to Folkston with them. One was observed wearing her husband’s bedroom slippers to town, explaining that she didn’t have a pair of shoes of her own.

Those were the days of illegal whisky and rum running. Some thought one of the local pilots to be involved in flying rum to the United States from Cuba.

deWay and Buchannan, both confirmed optimists, envisioned the need for two additional planes to handle the traffic at the Folkston airport. In January of 1930 they announced plans to buy two six-passenger Bellanche monoplanes from Savannah to add to the Waco hangared locally. Those plans never materialized.

Orlando Roberts, who, with his brother, Louie Roberts, ran the Ford dealership in Folkston, on several occasions, taxied the Waco aircraft along the paved highway into town for painting or mechanical overhauls at the shop.

Some of the young pilots who loitered around the Folkston hangar went on to become top names in aviation. Archie Comer, who spent months locally, as an instructor in Americus, gave dual control time training to Charles A. Lindbergh. Another, Don Prebauld, went on to become a vice president with Eastern Airlines. In January, 1931, direct passenger service between Atlanta and Miami was launched on New Year’s Day with a seven passenger plane that made the flight in six and a half hours, allowing a thirty minute stopover in Jacksonville.

On Sundays most of the people from Folkston would gather at the airfield for an afternoon of sightseeing flights and excitement. Dick Stadham, flying Frank Light’s plane, carried Joe Blanc, a parachutist to the 1,500 foot level. Although the parachutist missed landing on the field, Blanc was close enough to be seen by the horde of spectators.

Leon Askew and his family mothered the Folkston airport and its people. The landing facilities were used almost daily for planes unable to get into Jacksonville. In July of 1930, A.P. Kerr, Superintendent of the U.S. Mails between Jacksonville and Atlanta was forced to land at the Okefenokee Field because of bad weather in Jacksonville. On another occasion a congresswoman in an army plane was forced to land at the local field.

The Atlanta newspapers reported that Charles Lindbergh and his wife, returning from a tour of South America following his historic flight, swooped low and dipped his wings over the Folkston airfield after noticing a crowd gathered for a Sunday afternoon stunt performance.

Dr. Buchanan and Count deWay’s dream never fully developed. The tough times of the depression took its toll on Buchanan’s financial resources. deWay himself couldn’t keep up the payments on the home he bought from Buchanan and in April of 1931, Buchanan foreclosed on the home. deWay and his family moved on to other parts of the country. Buchanan brought his son, Clarence in to help salvage what was left of the fortune he made practicing medicine in Ohio.

Charlton County Herald

from DeBrahm's Report
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