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Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Committee on Aviation, Resolutions and Reports Relating to Aviation, 1919-1932
La Crosse Series 031
Table of Contents
- Resolutions, 1919-1932, of the Common Council of La Crosse, Wisconsin, dealing with aviation and the first publicly operated airfield in La Crosse called Salzer Field. The City first leased the 115-acre site in 1919 and later purchased it in 1928, finally abandoning it in 1933.
- Collection Title
- La Crosse, Wisconsin, Committee on Aviation, Resolutions and Reports Relating to Aviation
- Date of Materials
- La Crosse (Wis.). Committee on Aviation.
- Call Number
- La Crosse Series 031
- 0.4 cubic feet
- Physical Description
- 1 archives box
- Language of Materials
- La Crosse Public Library Archives
[Identification of item], La Crosse, Wisconsin, Committee on Aviation, Resolutions and Reports Relating to Aviation, La Crosse Series 031, La Crosse Public Library Archives, La Crosse, WI
It was in October of 1911 that the residents of La Crosse got their first glimpse of an airplane, a mere eight years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful flight. Regional daredevil, Hugh Robinson, came to town and thrilled crowds by giving a flying demonstration at the fairgrounds.(1) Several days later, he returned, landing his hydroplane in the Mississippi River, to deliver airmail to the city. Although these events were rare and strictly for entertainment, La Crosse’s fascination with aviation began.
By 1919, land owned by the Salzer Seed Company (on La Crosse’s south side) was being used as an airfield. Salzer Field quickly became home to the La Crosse Aero Club, a group of local aviation pioneers who flew mainly for excitement. It wasn't long before the City of La Crosse and the Chamber of Commerce became enthusiastic about the publicity and economic growth the airport could bring to La Crosse. With this in mind, an agreement was made that the land used as the 80-acre airfield would be tax exempt, yet still owned by the Salzer Seed Co.
The City and Chamber of Commerce were right. People came from miles around to see aerobatic shows, try to win a ride on a local plane, and witness military planes up close on publicity stops. In 1926, La Crosse was added to a daily mail route between the Twin Cities and Chicago and only months later, the city decided to purchase the Salzer land, making it the City of La Crosse’s first airport. Soon after, Northwest Airways began running passenger flights out of the city. In March 1928, the City signed a land contract with the Salzer Seed Co., transferring title of the now 115-acre airfield to the City.
However, these changes placed a great deal of pressure on the City. With the rapidly evolving standards of the aviation industry, demands were being made to make improvements to the airport in order to keep airmail and passenger services in La Crosse. The runways needed to be leveled, boundary lights put up, and a beacon added to mark the field. Struggling for funds, the City failed to make these improvements by the given deadline, and in 1932, La Crosse was dropped from the airmail route. In the spring of that year, the City abandoned any hopes to repair Salzer Field and turned all of its attention to French Island where land was already being leased as a temporary runway. The City officially abandoned Salzer Field on July 13, 1933.(2) The Salzer Field site was located at the corner of Losey Blvd. and present day Ward Ave., just south of Erickson Field.
The La Crosse County Board of Supervisors leased a field on French Island in 1933 for a five-year period to develop airport facilities.(3) Progress at the new Pfafflin Field was slow, but thanks to a project set up through the Civil Works Administration, a Depression-era “New Deal” program designed to keep people employed, work at the airport continued. On August 18, 1935, the two runway field was dedicated as a County airport.
County supervisor Raymond C. Bice was credited with leading the County Board’s Aviation Committee “through 20 months of jousting with the CWA [Civil Works Administration] and FERA [Federal Emergency Relief Administration].”(4) Simultaneously, the City was dealing with the collapse of the municipally owned and operated Mississippi River bridge. Immediately after the dedication of the airport, the County’s executive control of the airport ceased, and it passed “into the hands of Ray Pfafflin, who, under the terms of a contract executed with the County, will operate the airport for five years, with the county having the option to buy it at the end of that time.” The land was the location of the original Pfafflin farm.(5)
Airmail service eventually returned to the County airport, yet the facilities were still unable to meet the requirements for passenger transportation. The County tried to condemn the Pfafflin land so that it could receive $46,000 of WPA [Works Progress Administration] funding for extensive construction including an administration, control and hangar building(s), as well as extensive flood and boundary lighting equipment.(6) Later that year, Judge Arnold Murphy ruled that the County could take possession of the land upon payment of $13,500 to the Pfafflins.(7)
An out-of-court settlement was reached by the County Park Commission and the Pfafflins in which the County paid $14,141 for the airport land.(8) In order for the federal government to give money to La Crosse for this cause, the land had to be publicly owned. In the end, La Crosse County abandoned its efforts to further develop Pfafflin field contingent upon Raymond Pfafflin dropping his appeal to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, a citizen committee was organized to study the long range plans for a municipally owned airport. This group, working with the State Planning Board, state and national representatives, and city officials, managed to bring a referendum to the voters. An Aviation Board was also established to oversee management issues. The United States government finally stepped in and agreed that the airport in La Crosse, due mainly to the city’s location between other major cities, Camp McCoy and the onset of World War II, was worth sending federal aid. Quincy Hale, a local lawyer, was instrumental in this fight to bring the municipal airport into being.
The City hired Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., Inc., to develop a master plan for the municipal airport. The report praised the location and overall layout of the airport, and recommended three separate stages of building development: T-hangars, a large hangar, and refueling facilities.
The second and third stages included building other hangars when traffic levels warranted, and the hiring of an airport manager.(9)
The Pfafflin Field site became city property Feb. 2, 1946. On March 1, 1947, the La Crosse Municipal Airport was dedicated as a Class IV airfield. On the same day, Northwest Airlines began running four to five daily DC3 passenger flights into and out of La Crosse and regularly scheduled air transport service was instated. The airfield consisted of three asphalt paved runways that measured 5300 x 150 feet.(10) But the airport’s growth didn't end there; improvements were constantly being planned and work continued. A new terminal building was dedicated in 1953 and by the mid-1960s, the facilities again expanded to accommodate the increasing numbers of passengers and to bring jet service to the city.
Air service continued to improve at the La Crosse Municipal Airport to keep pace with the ever increasing safety requirements. These improvements included wind indication devices, lighting systems, emergency back-up electrical power, snow removal equipment, security fencing, maintenance storage buildings, and a terminal building. By 1975 the City had built a terminal building to accommodate the travelling public. La Crosse airline service was provided by North Central Airlines with a combination of Convair 580 and DC 9 jet aircraft, while Mississippi Valley Airlines provided service with Metroliners and DeHavilland Otters. Viking Aviation, Inc., and La Crosse Flite Center and Viking International Airlines provided charter and air cargo services. The airport was the fifteenth largest employer in the La Crosse area with over $1.4 million in wages paid in 1974.(11)
By 1990, the airport had grown to approximately 1,380 acres and a new terminal building had been completed on Airport Road.(12) In conjunction with the new building, an Airport Industrial Park was developed. The airport is a modern, all-weather capable facility. In 1998, more than 115,000 passengers arrived and departed from La Crosse, while 400,000 people used the airport.(13) Since 1998 the Deke Slayton Airfest, named for the Sparta native astronaut, has been held annually on Father’s Day which attracts many visitors to the airport.
---------- (1) “We Present Hugh Robinson, the Far Famed Aviator and Favorite of the Curtiss Co.,” La Crosse Tribune & Leader-Press 7 Oct. 1911:1; and “All is Ready for Robinson,” 18 Oct. 1911: 1. (2) “Project Here Among Largest for Wisconsin” La Crosse Tribune 30 Sept. 1940. (3) “Future of La Crosse County Airport Hinges on Law Suit,” La Crosse Tribune Jan. 1937. (4) “Talks, Aerial Stunts Feature Dedication of County Airport,” La Crosse Tribune & Leader-Press 19 Aug. 1935:1. (5) Ibid. (6) “Future of La Crosse County Airport...” (7) “County Gets Title to Pfafflin Airport,” La Crosse Tribune June 1937. (8) “County Airport Controversy Ended,” La Crosse Tribune 22 June 1937. (9) Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., Inc., Recommended General Plan for La Crosse City Airport, 10 Jan. 1945. (10) For more complete history and statistics, see the pamphlet titled La Crosse Airport Dedication March 1, 1947, located in the Archives’ ephemera collection under “Aviation”; also these books: Adventures of a Wooden Eye by Leslie Borer, and two books by Raymond C. Bice, A Century to Remember and Years to Remember. (11) Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, Airport Master Plan, Dec. 1975. (12) Howard, Needles, Tammen & Bergendoff, Airport Master Plan, 1990. (13) From Michael Daigle, La Crosse Municipal Airport Manager, Jan. 2000.
Scope and Contents
The resolutions (1919-1932) deal exclusively with Salzer Field, the first publicly operated airplane landing strip in La Crosse. The 80-acre site was leased from the Salzer family and the Salzer Seed Co. until 1928 when the City purchased the now 115-acre site in 1928 for $30,000 on a land contract.
Arranged in chronological order, some of the documents are letters to the Common Council from the Chamber of Commerce and other citizen groups urging improvements to the airfield so that air mail service could be authorized by the U.S. Postmaster and other aeronautic events could be held in La Crosse. This airfield was abandoned by the City in 1933.
La Crosse Public Library Archives 1998 December800 Main St.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, 54601
Access to Materials
Materials in this collection are available for patron use.
(Accession no. 1996.004) Resolutions were located in the City Clerk’s basement area of City Hall; came to the Archives as part of the Mayor’s Special Committee on Historic Records, Dec. 1996
Processed by Anita Taylor Doering, Jaime Dechant, and Amanda Lambert, Dec. 1998
Controlled Access Headings
- La Crosse (Wis.). Common Council.
- Salzer Field (Airport).
- Airports--Wisconsin--La Crosse
- Municipal government--Wisconsin--La Crosse
- Public records--Wisconsin--La Crosse