By Ken Newton
St. Joseph saw it as another coat of polish on its reputation as a postal trailblazer. Pony Express riders left this city carrying mail in 1860. Airplane pilots would have the duty 66 years later.
Ninety-three years ago this week, the oldest living Pony Express rider, a whiskered octogenarian named Charles “Cyclone” Thompson, stood among 6,000 others to greet the first air mail flight to the community.
Wardell Schoff retains a bit of memorabilia from that day, May 12, 1926.
His aunt, Gladys Schoff, had been local royalty of a sort, an attendant to the Air Mail Queen. Marie Hogan, crowned the previous night at a City Auditorium dance, reigned for this occasion.
Gladys saved from that day a couple of tokens struck in commemoration of the inaugural flight.
On one side, the coin-like casting read, “Air Mail,” with the date and the city name. On the other, a relief showed the “Carrier Pigeon” bi-plane, made by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co., and the workhorse vehicle of aerial mailings.
Schoff, with his own interest in aviation, got the tokens from his late aunt and said the young women had sold them.
”I don’t know what they collected the money for, but every organization, you know, has to have money,” he said, noting the top-seller got to be queen. “Aunt Gladys did not sell the most. ... She was a country girl from Stewartsville, so she wouldn’t be exposed to selling these as much as some of them in St. Joe.”
News clippings and photographs from the day also have been kept by Schoff. “We started digging in what we call the office and finally found them,” laughs Shirley Schoff, his wife since 1955.
Air mail service had been sought by the business community in St. Joseph, including the Boosters Club of the local Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the arrival eve dance.
One route for postal flights went from Chicago to Dallas, and National Air Transport, the contracted delivery service, chose St. Joseph as an intermediate stop.
The pilot, Paul E. Johnson, began the flight about 20 minutes late from Chicago, headed to Moline, Illinois, but he managed to get to what was then known as Rosecrans Municipal Air Field about 12 minutes early.
(Mechanics at the airport in French Bottoms told the News-Press that the plane had no fuel left in the tank.)
Queen Marie mounted a platform and christened the airplane by breaking a bottle of Missouri River water on the plane’s propeller. Postmaster Elliot Marshall and various clerks and carriers brought 6,000 letters to be loaded into the plane.
Mayor Louis V. Stigall offered words about the relentlessness of progress, and Hugh McNutt’s 24-piece band played martial tunes to enthuse the crowd.
Johnson, who had landed at 10:13 a.m., departed at 10:45, about 10 minutes behind schedule.
Some stuck around to see Jimmy Bethel jump out of another plane in a parachute demonstration. The newspaper dryly reported that Bethel “was not injured.” Most had gone home by the time a northbound air mail flight landed at the field later that afternoon.
Schoff has farmed on land around Hamilton, Missouri, most of his life. Two generations have followed him into that livelihood. “They do the work,” he said, “and I do a little bit.”
A son, Mark, took a long-established aviation course at Northwest Missouri State University and got a pilot’s license. His father backed up the interest with an investment of real estate.
”I always cared for flying, and we have our own strip here,” Schoff said, talking about a runway carved into the farmland. Their plane has been used for flights coast to coast. “It has to be Hamilton International (Airport).”
Perhaps that’s why he has stored mementos from that day almost a century ago. Human flight continues to fascinate. No longer, though, can even a queen break a bottle on a propeller.