2015-07-02 / Life in Leelanau

Woolsey Airport hits 80th birthday; here’s how the family story started

Clinton Woolsey’s plane went down in 1927
By Dick & Sue Hanson
For Northport Area Heritage Association


THIS IS a photo of the plane that went down and took Captain Clinton Woolsey’s life. THIS IS a photo of the plane that went down and took Captain Clinton Woolsey’s life. Note: Some phrases in this article were taken from a 1935 document written by Mrs. Inga Melkild, and a few sentences are from newspapers of that era.

We will be celebrating Independence Day, which started in 1776. Our village of Northport was founded in 1849, and we have had 166 celebrations of our independence. During those years, many families have settled in our Township, and their interaction over the years makes this place what it is today. One key family is the Woolseys. They gave us the airport north of town that celebrates its 80th anniversary on July 14.

Chauncey, Byron and Clinton Woolsey – grandfather, father and son — are all key to our history. Chauncey, born in New York, spent many years as a sea captain sailing between the ports of Buffalo, New York and Chicago. (One source says that Chauncey married Caroline Cordelia Johnson about 1844 in New York.) He later fought in the Civil War and was killed in the Wilderness campaign of 1864.


THE WOOLSEY Airport as it appears today. THE WOOLSEY Airport as it appears today. It was Chauncey who received the original deed for 153 acres in Leelanau Township from the United States, signed by Abraham Lincoln. (There is a copy of that deed at the Northport Area Museum.)

He began to clear his 153 acres. When our country became embroiled in the Civil War, he enlisted as a private and was the oldest of a small party of men who in January 1864 started out from Northport for Grand Rapids. That winter the snow was unusually deep. They started out with a sleigh and team of horses, but they had great difficulty getting through to Traverse City. Arriving there, they sent the team back and set out on foot, and it took them between two and three weeks to reach Grand Rapids, where they were mustered into the army.


ABOVE ARE photos of three generations of the Woolsey family: Clinton, Byron and Chauncey. ABOVE ARE photos of three generations of the Woolsey family: Clinton, Byron and Chauncey. Chauncey’s son Byron became a farmer after the death of his father in the Civil War. In 1866 he married Sarah Hall, daughter of the A.W. Hall. The Hall farm was next to the Woolseys’ acreate. Byron did carpenter work at Northport Point, including most of the inside work of the Atwill Chapel. He also built the Ustic cottage on Gull Island. In Northport he hewed and put into place the sills and foundations of both the Methodist and Congregational churches. Later he gave 80 acres of his farm, fronting on Woolsey Lake, to become an airport. The people of Leelanau Township added another 120 acres to this. Byron’s cottage, “Seven Pines”, is situated on Grand Traverse Bay. There he designed a wonderfully attractive park, on which he spent a great deal of his time. There are pictures of many of his creations and carvings.

Byron and Sarah had seven daughters: Amorette, Frances, Edith, Hattie, Katrina, Lois and Mary. Their only son and the youngest of the family was born Aug. 29, 1894. He was named Clinton Fick Woolsey. As a child, Clinton always had a great interest in mechanics and liked to experiment with many things. In 1916 Clinton had some on and off periods with the Indiana National Guard. He went back into service the following summer, and obtained his commission as 2nd lieutenant of artillery at the officers’ training course at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. He was then sent to Fort Sill, Ok., and later became an instructor at Fort Taylor, Ky. There he became obsessed with the desire to become an aviator, and was sent to Kelly Field at San Antonio for training. And then more studying at Dayton, Ohio and Mitchell Field, Long Island.

He became a test pilot, and in 1925 he gave final training to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh at Brooks Field near San Antonio, Texas. That was just before Lindbergh’s historical flight to France.

In 1926, now-Captain Clinton Woolsey helped plan and supervise a Good-will flight to South America. He helped to test the planes before starting the flight, and he was the Chief Engineer of the party. The expedition was led by Major Herbert A. Dargue, flight leader; captains Clinton F. Woolsey, Ira Eaker and Arthur B. McDaniels, and lieutenants Ennis C. Whitehead, Charles Robinson, Muir S. Fairchild, Bernard S. Thompson, John W. Benton and Leonard D. Weddington. Their planes were named the New York, the San Antonio, the San Francisco, the St. Louis, and the Detroit. The Detroit was manned by Capt. Woolsey and Lieut. Benton.

Their fatal accident happened at Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Feb. 26, 1927, when their plane fell and burst into flames. They both lost their lives. The whole story of the expedition is given in a well-written article in the National Geographic Magazine.

Byron then conceived the idea of making a lasting memorial fitting to the memory of his son, Capt. Clinton F. Woolsey. That is when he gave the 80 acres, and Leelanau Township gave another 120 acres to build Woolsey Airport. A more beautiful site for an airport would be hard to find.

This is a very abbreviated account of the impact of the Woolsey family on Leelanau Township.

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