At first it would be only a very low hum but, as time moved on, the sound became more distinct and, if one looked there — far off in the distance — a small object was flying toward us. It gradually grew into what every boy in town wanted to see — a real, live airplane, although some people still referred to them as “flying machines.”
The planes landed in a field on the edge of town, or as close to that as they could be landed, preferably on an alfalfa field, where that would cause less damage than on a grain or corn field.
It wouldn’t be long after landing that the plane would be surrounded by curious town folk and, of course, all the boys. The men that flew them were their heroes.
Charles Lindbergh was, for a time, one of them. Every boy had to have a “Lindy” cap to wear in winter and summer, ear flaps carefully buckled under their chins. To see one of the men who flew in open cockpit planes wearing one of those caps was just about three jumps short of boyhood heaven.
Where the term barnstormer came from isn’t in the books, but everyone was aware of what it meant. Most of the aircraft they flew were retired Army Air Corps Jennies and other planes which had been auctioned off from time to time, or directly at certain air fields when World War I was no longer a menace. While they were the latest models to be on the market, they were a pretty rickety piece of machinery to which one trusted his life.
The visit followed a certain pattern in each community they visited.
The arrival was complete with a loop or an Immelman (sometimes called “volplane”) before landing in a field. Sometimes the locals picked out a field on which to land, only to be disappointed in where the actual landing took place. In that case, there usually was a rush of people trying to retain their dignity as they hurried as fast as they could run to meet the pilot as soon as he climbed out of the plane. The pilot would introduce himself to those present, then invite them to take a closer look at his transportation without tearing up the fabric in which it was enclosed.
Most of the pilots had been in the U.S. Air Corps, so they knew what they were doing, and many of them had found work, as Lindbergh had, flying the mail once that system started operating, but still there was danger, however slight. They’d explain the mechanics of flight while usually managing to get a little taste of danger in the explanation (He was a hero, remember?).
After that the fun started. The pilot, or the assistant many of them had, who was the rest of the entourage, started selling ride tickets.
The price usually was five dollars for a 10-minute ride, which would take the passenger on a quick trip around the town, then land to pick up the next person who would risk his life for a ride. There weren’t many barnstorming accidents reported which involved passengers. The pilots were very careful; after all they didn’t want to hurt business.
In smaller communities just about everyone in town showed up at the landing field. Merchants locked their doors so they could go to see the visitors.
Landing a plane in an unplowed field was easy for them. After all, all the landing places in the country had only grass runways.
There was a field right on the south edge of Willmar which accommodated a lot of their visits. Undoubtedly that had a great deal to do with the organization of Willmar’s first flying club.
Those barnstormers’ visits brought excitement with each visit of the latest form of transportation. Adults, youngsters and children — whoever had seen them, remembered the visit for a long, long time.
One prospective passenger, who was close to three sheets to the wind, told the pilot to give him a REAL ride, The pilot took the passenger at his word and did some loops and rolls and a few other maneuvers before bringing his smart-alec passenger back to land. Then he spent the rest of the day cleaning his aircraft because the wise-acre had upchucked all over it.
One thing should be mentioned — the very first airplane that came to Kandiyohi County was the feature attraction at a fair until it crashed in Foot Lake.