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April 27, 2013

Oneonta greeted an aviation giant in 1928

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The Daily Star

---- — An early aviation superstar came to Oneonta in 1928. No, it wasn’t Charles Lindbergh, but local residents knew the name of Col. Clarence Chamberlin, a veteran who had served in World War I. They were pleased to have him as a visitor to the city’s recently opened airfield, on Country Club Road in Oneonta’s West End, among several other places on an April day that year.

Had things worked out better for Chamberlin in 1927, he would quite possibly have been the pilot to make the famous non-stop flight from New York to Paris. Due to a squabble among some colleagues and a court injunction, Chamberlin could only watch as Lindbergh took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island on May 20.

Chamberlin was hired a few weeks later by Charles Albert Levine for $20,000 to fly him to Paris. Chamberlin, in his aircraft Columbia, didn’t want to repeat what had been done by Lindbergh, so he took Levine on a more lengthy flight, to Berlin, Germany, a flight of more than 43 hours and more than 3,900 miles.

The two men were received just as heroically as Lindbergh had been in France, with autograph sessions, tours of the city, and many a luncheon and dinner with dignitaries.

Back in the U.S., Chamberlin was also well-known and -liked, so he hired a booking agent and barnstormed up and down the northeastern coast for years, including Oneonta in April 1928.

It was reported in The Oneonta Star of March 31 that Wednesday, April 4, had been declared Chamberlin Day in Oneonta by Mayor Bertus C. Lauren, and preparations were made for a day of meetings and public appearances.

Chamberlin had corresponded to his Oneonta hosts that he had spent Tuesday, April 3, tuning up his Sperry messenger plane to make the trip from New York the next day. Two big cabin planes were sent out of Oneonta on Wednesday to meet Chamberlin enroute and escort him to the airfield.

Chamberlin greeted his onlookers with a “barrel roll” salute as he circled the field for a landing. The size of the crowd was reported as “several thousand.”

First on the day’s agenda for Chamberlin was a joint luncheon of the Rotary and Kiwanis clubs at the Hotel Oneonta. Chamberlin came to Oneonta to promote aviation and a full service airport for the city. The field in the West End had not yet been officially designated as the city’s airport, so after lunch Chamberlin joined several city officials to take a look at several other proposed sites.

Chamberlin then went to The Oneonta Theatre to speak at a large assembly of school students. “There were a thousand wildly enthusiastic boys and girls” who greeted him for his talk and explanation of the moving pictures of his most recent aviation exploits. Chamberlin awarded a $5 prize to Miss Genevieve Orr for the best essay by a student on Oneonta’s need for an airport, and a $2.50 prize to Alfred Makowiecki for the best model airplane entered in a contest led by the American Legion. The colonel was also entertained by several “lusty cheers” by the high school cheerleaders and music by the high school orchestra.

After a dinner at the George W. Augustin home, “The Maples” in Laurens, Chamberlin returned to the theater for an evening talk to Oneonta’s adults. Everywhere he went that day, including the theater, Chamberlin told audiences that aviation was rapidly assuming a place of great importance in the lives of the American people.

Several hundred people gathered again at the West End airfield on Thursday, April 5, to see Chamberlin off, as he was starting on a trip to Buffalo. After putting some fuel into his airplane’s tank, “he swung readily into the air and after circling the field once or twice, he saluted the crowd and started down the Susquehanna valley.”

On Monday: A taste of the local life and times in April 1968.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.