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Saturday, May 21, 2022

From the Archives… Denton’s First Municipal Airport

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On December 17th, Denton Enterprise Airport officially opened a new runway. It is thus somewhat serendipitous that while recently doing an inventory of maps and blueprints transferred to the library during Trash to Treasure Day 2016, I came across a survey map of the Denton Municipal Airport dated November 1928 which would serve as the impetus of this posting. The Denton Municipal Airport depicted by this map operated from October of 1928 to December of 1937, but I didn’t know that when I found it.1

What I did know was that Denton had been home to a number of airfields over the years. I further knew that Denton Enterprise Airport was previously known as Denton Municipal Airport, and I assumed this might be an early map of that airport. It wasn’t. For one, The City of Denton didn’t purchase the land for Denton Enterprise Airport until 1943.2 For two, this map placed the airport betwixt (because — 1928) Pecan and Cottonwood Creeks, a location which in no way resembles the physical features of Denton Enterprise Airport, nor did it resemble those of the other historic airfields of Denton, Denton/College Field and Hartlee Field.

Map of the Municipal Airport in the City of Denton Texas, 1928. Denton Municipal Archives.

Just by comparing this map to current online maps of Denton I could get a general idea of where this airport was located. Pecan Creek is still labeled on maps and while Cottonwood Creek is not, it is still depicted. The best I could estimate was that this airport laid somewhere west of Carroll Blvd., east of Fulton St., north of Panhandle St. and south of University Dr., but other than that, there seemed to be little easily discoverable information on this particular airport. That lack of information drove me to want to find its exact location.

I searched old editions of the Denton Record-Chronicle using the library’s access to newspaper archives (available to you at the library as well!) and found an article about the opening of the airport on the front page of the Oct. 2, 1928 edition. The article mentions festivities that included air races from Meacham Field and Love Field, stunt contests, a model plane competition and a dance on the courthouse lawn. The article also gave me the general location of the airport, “three fourths of a mile northwest of the courthouse.”3

I was surprised at how close to downtown that sounded and wanted to pinpoint its location as best I could. Other sources have listed its general location relevant to landmarks such as the Calhoun Middle School (the high school of the day), but I wanted something definitive. I reread the October 2nd article and realized I had missed something (not the last time in this story, but more on that later)!

Mentioned in that article were the names of the pilots that participated in the air races from Meacham and Love Fields and their passengers. I recognized one of those names immediately. While I was an intern at the History of Aviation Collection at the University of Texas at Dallas, I was responsible for reprocessing the William G. Fuller Collection, 1917-1978. Fuller was the original Airfield Manager for Meacham Field. He was also Director of Aviation for Fort Worth and Grand Prairie, Mayor of Euless and the name that caught my attention in that Denton Record-Chronicle article. He was listed as a passenger on M.L. Buchanan’s plane during the race from Meacham Field.4

I then realized there were other names that seemed familiar, several in fact: Buchanan, Vernon Johns, W.O. Jones, Bill Ponder and Mrs. W.G. Fuller. Not only were these names familiar to me because of the work I did on Fuller’s collection, but I realized I had seen them all in the same photograph!

From left to right, Top Row: M.L. Buchanan, Evelyn (Mrs. W.G.) Fuller, Vernon Johns, Mrs. W.O. Jones, William G. Fuller, W.O. Jones. Bottom Row: Bill Ponder, unnamed, unnamed, illegible. William G. Fuller Collection, History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections and Archives Division, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas.

On the back of that photograph, along with the names of the people in it, were the words “Opening Denton Airport 1930.” Obviously, the airport opened in 1928 so I believe the date is likely an error in memory or an approximation from when Fuller donated his papers in 1963. Regardless, I thought, if this photograph exists surely there must be others, given the hullabaloo surrounding the airport opening; and because there was a Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff photographer, D.B. Green, and Star-Telegram representative, Mabel Gouldy, on Bill Ponder‘s plane (incidentally, he finished in first place in the race from Meacham Field) as well as another representative, Bessie Stephenson, in Reg Robbins‘ plane (second place).5

The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) is the home of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s photographic archives, so I contacted Sara Pezzoni, Photo Collections Specialist, but there weren’t any relevant photographs in that collection. Since UTA also has a sizable cartographic collection, I also contacted Ben Huseman, Cartographic Archivist, but he was unable to find anything of relevance in his collections either. Not yet discouraged, I turned to more local sources.

I reached out to Gary Cook, a Senior Development Coordinator with Denton County and local history buff. He concurred with my assessment of the airport’s general location using aerial photographs at his disposal, but nothing showed the airport or its remnants. I checked the aerial photographs that we received from the City of Denton Engineering Department in 2016, but the earliest we have is from 1989. I then got in touch with Cody Yates, a GIS Analyst with the City of Denton, and he was able to provide me with a 1942 aerial photograph of the area. This was the earliest photo he had, but there was still nothing recognizable to me as the remnant of an airport. I decided to broaden the scope of my search, and thus began a series of frustrating disappointments in trying to locate a photograph, map or anything that would definitively show the airport’s location.

I contacted the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas to see if their Works Progress Administration (WPA) records for Denton County might contain maps or photographs, but no such luck. I struck out with the Texas General Land Office as well. The Newberry Library in Chicago holds the archives of Rand McNally, but had no Denton maps. I found only two institutions that had 1930s era maps of the Denton area (not even the City of Denton has City of Denton maps from the 1930s that I’ve been able to find).

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission has a 1936 and a 1938 map of Denton, but they contain no physical features or street-level detail that would aid in my search; and The University of Chicago, of all places, has a 1931 map of administrative precincts and railroads, but no airport, not even street names. I found myself quite surprised and frustrated that the 1930s presented such a black hole in my quest. If it weren’t for the newspaper article, I would have questioned if this phantom airport ever really existed. Great Depression aside, this was the Golden Age of Flight, how could there be so little information about Denton’s first Municipal Airport?

I was later able to find mention of the airport in City Commission Minutes from 1928 and information on the clearing of the creeks by the Street and Bridge Department in several Mayoral Reports we have in the City Secretary Records, 1892-1976,6 but these were just brief accounts of activities at the airport, nothing of a location. Two local historians, DJ Taylor and Mike Cochran, were then able to provide me, thankfully, with some local, contemporary accounts of the airport.

Mr. Cochran had no personal knowledge of the airport himself, but he located an individual who did. Mr. John Roberts, whose relative, Standlee Ector Roberts, grew up on the 1200 block of the west side of Bolivar St. He relayed a story of how Standlee would jump the fence in his backyard to play in the airfield with his friends as a kid. Assuming the addressing grid is the same today as it was back then, the 1200 block of Bolivar St. begins roughly at the intersection of 2nd and Bolivar Streets. Due west of that location lies the Carroll Park Addition situated between Pecan and Cottonwood Creeks.

Denton Landing Field, 1924. Courtesy DJ Taylor.

Mr. Taylor provided me with a photo of the area from before it was developed as the Municipal Airport and was being used as a landing field by Army pilots training out of Love Field. In the upper left-hand corner of the photograph above, you can make out the landing strip roughly situated between the two creeks. He also shared a story of a young Bob Storrie whose uncle would buzz his house on Egan St. when he would come into town before landing at that airfield. Mr. Taylor knows quite a bit about Denton’s aviation history. For more information on the Storrie boys and early aviation in Denton, including the fate of one of the original hangars of this airport, I recommend reading his articles in the Retrospect from September and December 2012.

From here though, I was stuck. I put my search on hold for a couple of weeks before revisiting it again, from the beginning. I reread that October 2nd article, and here is where I should remind you that earlier I mentioned missing something more than once during my search. This time, it turned out to be the last paragraph of the article, more specifically the penultimate sentence in that paragraph which I skipped over in search of “more.” It reads, “A circle 100 feet in diameter was traced with white rock near the center of the field…” I had dismissed the circle in the survey map that started this search as some arbitrary symbol denoting the center of the map, never thinking for a second this was an actual, physical feature of the airport. Surely, if rocks sat there for nine years they would leave a depression in the ground or even still be there! This is where I am especially thankful that Mr. Yates sent me that 1942 aerial photograph. When I looked at it again, like a slap in the face, there was the remnants of a perfect circle, just east of Alice St. situated between Emery and Cordell Streets.

Section of 1942 Aerial Photograph. Courtesy of City of Denton GIS Analyst Cody Yates.

This was my Eureka! moment. Still, I wanted to be able to better relate where the airport used to be with where current residences are now. Since the survey map was drawn to scale I figured I could superimpose the map onto the image above using the circle as a reference. Once I managed to get the circles to line up and on the same scale I could then put points on the map that corresponded with the four intersections that surrounded that circle. Then, I georeferenced the survey map with current satellite map data using those points, adjusted the opacity a bit and created the two images below that show the location of the original Denton Municipal Airport in relation to how Denton looks today. The creek paths may have been changed a bit over the years and the scale is likely not perfect, but I think it does the trick nevertheless.

Maps of the 1928 Municipal Airport of the City of Denton Texas as it would be seen today. Base maps courtesy of MapTiler, OpenStreetMaps and Google Maps.

Given the season, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps Santa placed any metal detectors beneath the trees of the folks in Carroll Park because who knows, more history could be buried right beneath their feet. Take that, Indiana Jones!

Written by Matthew Davis, Archivist, Denton Municipal Archives

Notes

1City Commission Minutes. December 20, 1937.

2Airport History. dentonairport.com.

3Denton’s New Airport Formally Opened. Denton Record-Chronicle. October 2, 1928.

4William G. Fuller Collection. History of Aviation Collection, Special Collections and Archives Division, Eugene McDermott Library, The University of Texas at Dallas.

5Denton’s New Airport Formally Opened. Denton Record-Chronicle. October 2, 1928.

6Mayoral Reports, 1917 – 1928, Box: 1, Folder: 11. City Secretary Records, MA 2019.002. Denton Municipal Archives.

Other Sources

Mike Cochran, DJ Taylor, Gary Cook and Cody Yates

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