Early days of flight enchanted Sheboygan County residents

Echoes of our past
William & JoyWangemann • forThe Review

When the Wright brothers made the first powered flight of just 120 feet, heavier than air flying machines seemed to most people a hopeless dream and to some even sacrilegious. A few mumbled “If God had wanted men to fly wouldn’t he have given them wings?”

Of that first flight, lasting only 12 seconds, the world took little notice. But the aviation bug was in the air around the world, especially in France where the technology of flight took great leaps forward.

By the beginning of World War I, in 1914, just 11 years after the Wright Brothers first struggled into the air, flight had taken great leaps forward. The age of aviation had arrived.

During the “Great War” as World War I was often called, military aircraft of opposing nations dueled in the skies over Europe, many times to the death of one of the opponents.

The people of Sheboygan County were no exception. Even though some people thought that flying was nonsense and of no practical value many others were deeply fascinated with the age sold dream of men flying.

As early as the 1890s hot air balloon ascensions drew huge crowds to the county fair (which were held in Sheboygan for several years) and other large gatherings such as large picnics.

The Lakeview Hotel which was located at the foot of Wilson Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan drew enormous crowds when it was announced that there would be a hot air balloon ascension from their amusement park adjacent to the hotel.

Not only was there going to be a balloon ascension but a daring and courageous young man was going to make a parachute jump from the balloon.

When the day arrived the assembled crowd watched in awe as the balloon majestically rose into the sky. At about 600 or 800 feet a murmur went through the crowd as one of the young men in the basket suspended under the balloon was seen to climb up onto the rail of the basket and toss himself into space.

Men gasped, women screamed and some nearly fainted as the young man plummeted earthward. Suddenly a large white canopy blossomed over the courageous parachutist as he gently drifted to earth, safely.

On September 30, 1911 the Sheboygan Press announced that the greatest aviation meet ever held in the State of Wisconsin would take place the following day at the carnival grounds which was believed to be in those days on the city’s far south side.

The press also announced that world famous aviator, Lincoln Beachay, will fly daily for several days and will be involved with fellow aviator C.C. Witmer and that furthermore they will be involved in a 5-mile race.

Not only was the aviation featured but a large carnival would be present with a trained animal show, several bands, a Wild West show, Turkish dancers and Oriental music. Also on the long list of entertainment that was to be presented was the acrobatic midget, Egyptian mummies and unbelievably, a two headed woman.

It was also noted that the entire carnival was to be lighted by electric lights. When the day for the big show arrived, people by the thousands streamed into Sheboygan. Every train that arrived at the depot was filled to capacity; farmers from as far as 4 or 5 counties away arrived in Sheboygan at 4 o’clock in the morning with their wagons loaded with excited people.

About mid morning Lincoln Beachay arrived at the carnival grounds with his flight crew and his aircraft which had been disassembled and packed into several large crates. The airplanes in those days had a very limited range and were unable to fly from one city to the next which made it necessary for them to be taken apart, packed in crates and shipped by train to the next air show. Beachay had announced that while in Sheboygan he would try to set a world altitude record; however, windy conditions prevented him from doing that.

It might be noted that Lincoln Beachay achieved world fame when he was the first person to fly a loop in an airplane. Beachay also designed a special harness that would prevent him from falling out of the plane when he performed the loop.

The harness had one flaw in that it was difficult for the wearer to quickly release the harness and free himself from the aircraft.

The flaw was to have tragic results for Beachay. Several months later while performing aerobatics off the coast of California his plane suffered a severe structural failure and crashed into the Pacific Ocean.

Beachay was killed in the crash as he was apparently unable to get out of the harness and drowned when the aircraft sank.

By the year 1928 aircraft had made amazing progress mainly due to the fact that during World War I nations that were involved in the war did their utmost to build faster and more sturdy aircraft.

Here in Sheboygan the Brotz family were early pioneers in aviation. An early airport was established on land now occupied by Madison School. The airport was bounded on the west by 24th Street on the north by Georgia Avenue on the east by south 20th Street and on the south by Union Avenue.

Even today this area on City Plat maps is labeled “the airport sub-division.” After several tragic accidents at this airport, due to the rough nature of the ground, the Sheboygan landing site was moved to just south of Union Avenue.

The all-grass flying field that was adjacent to Georgia Ave. was generally referred to as the Brotz Airport. In fact the first aerial photographs, which still exist, were taken in June of 1928 by planes from this airport.

After the landing field was moved to the Union Ave. site, problems with rough ground still existed which were the cause of several fatal accidents. The airport was then moved to a site in Kohler just east of the present Woodlake Shopping Center.

In 1942 a resolution was presented to the common council proposing that the City of Sheboygan invest in a municipal airport.

After 7 years of wrangling the proposal was voted down by a referendum. After much debate and lengthy delays the new Sheboygan County airport was opened in 1962, 20 years after a Sheboygan airport had first been proposed!

If readers have any suggestions or comments please feel free to contact us at wangemann@yahoo.com or, 920-458-2974.

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