2016-12-22 / Life in Leelanau

Story behind family, Woolsey airport

By Richard Hanson
On behalf of the Northport Area Heritage Association

PART OF THIS huge barn built in 1874 by Byron Woolsey was incorporated into the foundation and walls for the terminal constructed at Woolsey “international” airport. PART OF THIS huge barn built in 1874 by Byron Woolsey was incorporated into the foundation and walls for the terminal constructed at Woolsey “international” airport. “Woolsey International Airport” – that is what “locals” call Woolsey Airport in joking conversations.

It came into being in 1935 and it is one of our local heritages with roots in the renowned Woolsey family. The original name of the airport when it was dedicated was “Clinton F. Woolsey Memorial Airport”. Formally, it could still be the same but today we know it as Woolsey Airport.

The main participants in that family concerning the airport creation are a grandfather, a father and a son — Chauncey Woolsey, Byron Woolsey and Clinton Woolsey, respectively. Three generations, each with unique histories.

First of all, Chauncey applied for a land grant containing 153 acres from the United States during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in 1855. (The Northport Area Heritage Association has a copy of that original deed with Lincoln’s signature.) He fought in the Civil War and was killed in the Wilderness Campaign of 1864.

Next, Byron gave 80 acres of farmland to create an airport; Leelanau Township gave another 120 acres. This land is located approximately five miles north of the village of Northport. The 80-acre portion contained Byron’s barn and milk building. (He had many Jersey cows for his milk business.)

Part of the building was a stone structure. In order to make today’s airport terminal structure, the barn portion was torn down and the remaining milk house became the existing Woolsey Airport terminal.

The original reason for Byron to want an airport was to memorialize his son, Capt. Clinton Woolsey, a U.S. military pilot who died in a United States goodwill flight to South America in 1927. Capt. Woolsey never did see the creation of Woolsey Airport but it was through his heroism that his father gave the 80 acres.

After all the preparations to modify Byron’s old barn into an airport terminal and to excavate two grass runways orthogonal to each other, a committee of five local dignitaries set the date to dedicate Woolsey Airport on July 14, 1935. An interesting sidelight to this occasion is that both Sue and I (Dick) were eyewitnesses to this dedication. Sue was three years old and I was four. (We have a picture of Sue leaning on the tail of an airplane.)

There was a lot of fanfare at this event, which included Byron and his seven daughters. Also, we saw the landing of a U.S. Mail biplane and the pilot brought in some documents, then visited with the crowd of people and then proceeded to take off and return to his home base. (My dad, Ted Hanson, took 16mm movies of the overall occasion.)

Through several years, a few pilots that I remember who had homes on Northport Point flew their planes in and out in the summertime. I recall Mr. Hinch was always popular when he came in. Another pilot named Harvey Line who lived on Paradesia Point flew his amphibian plane, landing either on Hall’s Bay in front of his home or at Woolsey Airport.

The Northport Pilots Association was a group of local pilots and interested people who formed to maintain the airport. They began an event that is still very popular in the summer. It became known as the Fly-In/Drive-in Breakfast, which is a gathering of all kinds of airplanes, vintage cars and other showpieces as well as the big pancake breakfast.

Throughout the years there have been many different types of aircraft that have come in for that event; probably the most notable was the National Guard C-130. This large cargo plane flew in and used only a part of the runway to land. The C-130 crew escorted visitors through the plane giving explanations of its use.

The amazing thing was when the C-130 took off, it only used half of the runway and climbed for altitude at about a 45° angle. Since the Gulf War, they have not been here because of their need in the war effort.

As the popularity of Woolsey Airport continued to rise, discussions came up as to whether the runways should be changed from grass to blacktop. Many wanted to keep the runways as they were from the beginning and others wanted to grade the runways and blacktop both the north-south and the east-west runways. According to people who were involved, it was apparent after some heated discussions that the runways would remain grass.

In later years, the Northport Pilots Association was disbanded and the Lions Club took over the function. For whatever reason, this change made for a smooth transition for the very popular fly-in breakfast.

As we look back over the years, the Fly-In/Drive-in Breakfast is reminiscent of small-town scenes that we see in the work of artist Norman Rockwell – conversation groups throughout the grounds, people conversing while they wait in line for their pancakes, people visiting at picnic tables, people looking at vintage cars, kids watching airplane landings and take-offs, everyone listening to the Northport Community Band, many watching the exploits of the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter as guardsmen demonstrate simulated rescue methods. All of these ongoing events are reminiscent to Norman Rockwell scenes.

If you want to know more about the Woolseys, we wrote and published a book, “The Way We Were.” It contains previous Enterprise articles of many local historical events. It contains an article on the Woolsey family. The book is available at the Northport Area Museum, 118 Nagonaba St., Northport, MI 49670.

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