Tom Kacich: Area birthed historic airfield a century ago

Tom Kacich: Area birthed historic airfield a century ago

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered the great world war.

Less than a month later came word that Champaign County might play a significant part in the war effort with funding for a wind tunnel at the University of Illinois to test "material and all points of construction" in aeroplanes. Further, the Champaign Daily News reported, the war department might also establish an aviation school that would be "a part of the course in aviation now being offered at the university under the direction" of Professor Elisha Fales.

Days later came word that Champaign businessmen were raising money to buy 80 acres in the Bondville area for an aviation school to train pilots to fight the Germans in Europe. And similar efforts were underway in the St. Joseph and Rantoul areas.

"These new sites were difficult to get options on, the farmers being reluctant to give up their land," the Urbana Courier reported May 13.

Around that time, a delegation from Champaign County, including Rantoul banker and future congressman William Wheat, went to Washington to seal the deal.

On May 22 — almost 100 years ago — they sent word back to Champaign County that the school would be established in Rantoul on 640 acres of land bought for $208,000 from area farmers by a group of Rantoul and Urbana investors, including Wheat.

Then began the race to build something entirely new: an aviation training field for what was then known as the Aviation Section, U.S. Army Signal Corps, a forerunner of the Army Air Service and the Army Air Corps.

English Bros. of Champaign immediately was awarded a $250,000 contract to construct the center, including 51 one-story frame buildings that were to include 12 hangars (each with room for six planes), classrooms, living quarters, a hospital, a gymnasium, a clubhouse and commissary.

Construction began at 1 p.m. May 25. The field was to be completed by July 15.

"Building was pushed with feverish enthusiasm," said the Chanute history, written about two decades after the field was established. "It was necessary to cut down trees, move farm houses and barns and dynamite stumps. Every carpenter and building mechanic within a 100-mile radius was mobilized. Every farmer who owned a wagon was employed to carry lumber, and even people who could use only a hammer and saw were mobilized for the task."

More than 2,000 people helped build the center, which in June 1917 was named for aviation pioneer, civil engineer and railroad builder Octave Chanute.

Also that month, spur lines from the Illinois Central and an interurban railroad were completed to aid the delivery of material, acetylene lights were used for nighttime construction work, white paint was slapped on every building prompting newspapers to call it a "white city," and tourists began adding to the congestion.

"Great crowds from Champaign and other nearby towns flocked to Rantoul on Sunday to view the new government aviation field and the organization of construction work thereon," said the Champaign Daily Gazette. "Nearly 5,000 automobiles passed through or stopped in Rantoul on Sunday. It was necessary to have men to keep the crowds from going into the field, and, it is said, it is quite probable that Company M will be called for guard duty at the field."

By July 9, a squadron of "Jenny" biplanes, built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Co. of Buffalo, N.Y., arrived at Chanute from Chicago, making the trip in 90 minutes.

And a week later, the training of pilots began — "hornets who will be turned loose in France to conquer autocracy," wrote the Champaign Daily News.

The aviation camp, which ended up costing more than $1 million, officially was turned over to the government in August, not even 90 days after construction began.

"The prime and fundamental purpose of the first school at Chanute Field was to get the fledgling pilots a thousand feet above the earth with nothing around them but space," said the official history, now on file at the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library. "Here, they were taught to deal with balky engines and treacherous wind-pockets, to train a machine gun upon an imaginary foe, to drop bombs from varying heights, and all the subtleties of the flying art."

Not all of their duties were quite so dramatic. Newspapers reported that they also dropped Liberty Loan pamphlets from the air on Taylorville and entertained civilians throughout East Central Illinois.

"Lieutenant Harry M. Smith of Chanute Field, the aviator who has been entertaining Urbana by performing feats above this city nearly every afternoon that the weather is favorable, wrecked his plane after making a forced landing west of Danville yesterday afternoon," the Urbana Courier reported in 1918.

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The historical archives at the Urbana Free Library is hosting displays of Chanute's history throughout May, culminating with a panel discussion at 7 p.m. May 31. It will be led by Mark Hanson, former curator of the Chanute Air Museum.

The archives also is looking for personal stories about Chanute. Here's a link to information about the Chanute collection and to the form about Chanute memories:

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 217-351-5221 or at

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