Peoria’s aviation history began with balloons. Captain H. E. Honeywell of St. Louis built a balloon and named it Peoria. He won the “Greatest Distance Achieved” award during a balloon race at Peoria in 1909. Honeywell ended up in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains.
Soon, the “Aircraft Club of Peoria” was organized. Two years after the balloon flight, a plane named the “Falcon” was built here and flown from a meadow near Chillicothe. The plane was unsuccessful, and on its last flight, in 1912, ended up crashing and severely injured its pilot. But the foibles of early aviation failed to deter others from bringing their planes to Peoria. Walter Brookins visited the Mile Track (now Peoria Stadium) in 1913 with a Wright Biplane and James Ward came the following year with a Curtiss aircraft.
Glenn Curtiss, it must be noted, had actually lived in Peoria while working for a bicycle manufacturer (probably Rouse-Hazard). Curtiss considered building his airplanes in Peoria, but lacking enough space, decided on Buffalo, New York. In 1929, Curtiss’ company merged with the Wright Bros’ Wright Aeronautical, creating the Curtiss-Wright Corporation (see, even Peoria had a connection to the Wright Brothers!).
In 1919, Peoria was visited by a bi-plane built for commercial uses, such as performing aerial photography and flying passengers. The plane was a Curtiss JN-4D, and it was flown from the Mile Track.
Eventually, local aviation backers promoted the city’s first official airport, Kellar Field, which opened about 1921. The Peoria Journal reported on May 9 that year
Airplanes have already lost their novelty and are now considered an accepted means of transportation, according to a demonstration at the municipal landing field yesterday. Two planes arrived here Saturday and rested at the fields yesterday.
Hundreds of tourists and joy riders passed the field yesterday and not a one seemed curious enough to stop for a look. Willis Evans, secretary of the association of commerce, reports, “Passerby scarcely glanced at the planes,” he said. “The thrill, or novelty, if you like, of the machines has vanished. They are now considered in the same light as the steamboat, an accepted means of transportation.”
Perhaps aviation had lost its novelty, but in Peoria it would soon grow in importance thanks to Alexander Varney.
Born in Delavan, Illinois, Alexander Varney learned to fly while in Des Moines, Iowa. He came to Central Illinois to promote the Curtiss Aeroplane & Engine Co., flying a plane left surplus from the Great War. In 1922, he moved to Peoria and leased Kellar Field (later, Brown Field), set up the Varney School of Flight, and purchased an Aeromarine 39B seaplane brought here a year earlier by H. E. Cumerford. Young men from around the country came to the school to learn how to fly from both land and water. (NOTE: An Aeromarine 39B conducted the first landing on moving American vessel, the USS Langley, on October 26, 1922.)
A true air show was held at Kellar Field on May 11, 1924, writes the Peoria Evening Star that day
This afternoon at 2:30 o’clock there will be an exhibition of fancy aeroplane midair eccentricities at Kellar field. Likewise Jack Williams known to fame as the “Human Fly,” scaler of tall buildings and hero of altitudinous daredevilty will do nerve racking stunts on and under the flying planes. No admission is charged but Salvation Army lassies are to take to (sp) a collection, forty per cent of which goes to the Army.
With aviation having become “an acceptable means of transportation,” it was only a matter of time before Peoria would be added to the nation’s growing staple of commercial air mail routes. The nation’s first scheduled air mail flights began May 15, 1918 between New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. New York-Cleveland and Cleveland-Chicago routes were added the following year. The Chicago route was extended to Omaha in 1920 and on September 8 that year, scheduled air mail service reached San Francisco. (Mail was flown only in daylight; it was still handled at night by rail.). Five years later, Peoria was poised to become a stop on a Chicago-St. Louis route.
In early October 1925, the Post Office Department selected Robertson Aircraft Corporation of St. Louis, Missouri to operate the Chicago-St. Louis air mail route. National Air Transport of Chicago and General Airways System of New York had submitted competing bids. Peoria was actually omitted from the original proposal, but had to be added after political pressure. Service began on April 15, 1926.
(The next installment in this series will cover Robertson Aircraft Co.’s new air mail service and the first flight’s soon-to-be-famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh.)
– David P. Jordan