Very few people know that Brookfield, for a limited time, had an airport. It wasn’t an airport with any kind of buildings on it, nor did it have any officially paved runways, but some aircraft did land and take off here.
It all began back in 1938 when, to celebrate Air Mail Week, May 15-21, the U.S. Postal Service announced that it was holding a statewide essay and poster contest. Deadline for the contest was set for May 1, 1938, and the winner for the best essay would receive a free trip, either to Florida or the West Coast. The creator of the best poster would receive a plaque. (Apparently no one living in either Brookfield, Riverside or North Riverside ever won either prize.)
The Thursday, April 28 Suburban Magnet newspaper related that also the “plans for the first airplane flight from Brookfield, with a special Brookfield-Chicago Zoological Park cachet [are] going forward this week.
“Meantime, the announcement was made that Chicago post office officials would join in the demonstration here to dispatch the mail by plane [on] May 19, [at] the parking area north of 31st Street and the zoo, being the one [site] considered at the moment. Captain Crosby of the Brookfield Police Department is to fly the plane, and it is understood that a special feature will be provided whereby the mail will be taken to the airplane; this to be announced later.”
Brookfield Postmaster Michael Colgrass had “been advised that a rubber stamp”possibly more than one”will be needed to handle the requests for special imprints.”
The Magnet newspaper printed weekly updates about all this on its front pages. It had been decided that the north zoo parking lot site would used, and that the “special feature” was that “the plane, loaded with mail from Brookfield … will carry pouches of mail from the Brookfield Post Office, with the delivery [from each of four postal] stations being made by pony express.”
In other words, the airmail envelopes bearing the specially created stamp (which featured the zoo’s famous panda) would be collected separately, and each put into individual mailbags. Then riders from all four post offices would jump on their horses, secure the mailbags and ride the horses through the streets to the “Brookfield Airfield.”
The special envelopes did, indeed, use two rubber stamps. The first and larger one was in dark blue ink, of “a picture of a giant panda, an airplane and a background of skyscrapers, with the words, ‘First Flight’ at the top, and at the bottom, ‘May 19, 1938, Brookfield, Illinois, U S. Air Mail.'” The second rubber stamp, in red ink, bore the smaller-sized words, “Carried By Pony Express to Mail Plane.”
Of all the animals in the zoo, why a panda? Well, after the zoo received its first giant panda, Su-Lin, in 1937, the entire nation went panda-mad, and even the zoo had trouble keeping panda souvenirs in stock.
At the time, Brookfield even had a tavern/restaurant at 8847 Ogden Ave. named The Panda. Joining Su-Lin in February 1938, was another giant panda, Mei-Mei. It was planned that Mei-Mei would be “taken to the scene of the takeoff” at the flying field on May 19 to help celebrate the occasion.
Locally, the excitement was rising, week by week. More than 50 invitations using the panda cachet envelopes were to be sent out, advertising the Brookfield Kiwanis Club’s Zoo Day on June 8.
Every year the Kiwanis Club sponsored Zoo Day to bring handicapped and underprivileged children out to see the zoo. These 50-plus special “First Flight” airmail envelopes would go to other Kiwanis Clubs in the Chicagoland area. Maybe the fact that Postmaster Colgrass also happened to be the president of the Brookfield Kiwanis Club inspired the idea of using one event to publicize the other.
Further information in the Magnet newspaper for May 12 told that airmail designated for the flight had to be in by 11 a.m. at the Brookfield Post Office. It was then known that deliveries by pony express would be made by Carl G. Speidel for the Brookfield Post Office, and Herman Kraft of the Hollywood Post Office.
The identities of the other two riders were not yet known. Mail was set to be carried from the Congress Park Post Office to the Riverside Post Office, and then to the airfield.
The program would begin at noon, and would continue for 15 minutes, with radio station WLS of Chicago broadcasting the entire event. On hand would be zoo Director Edward Bean, assistant director Robert Bean, first aid and animal care person Mary Bean and George Speidel of the zoo staff. And Mei-Mei, of course.
Now came the big day, on May 19, 1938, observing the 20th anniversary of the establishment of air mail in the U.S. After an earlier rain had fallen, the sun came out and shone down on the paved and puddled parking lot.
Except for the puddles, the surface dried quickly. A few slight delivery changes had been made. The mail pouch from the Congress Park Post Office was sealed at 10 a.m., and now was delivered directly to the flying field, with no traveling to the Riverside Post Office.
The pilot of the mail plane, a Cessna, was none other than Brookfield Police Captain H.C. Crosby, who had distinguished himself as a competent aviator by flying to the Pacific Coast the previous year. So this little trip to the Municipal Airport, today known as Chicago’s Midway Airport, was practically like walking across the street to him.
In attendance was a large crowd of several hundred interested sightseers and invited guests, including Postmaster Kreutgen of Chicago, Postmaster Lynch of Oak Park, and Postmasters Johnson of Hollywood, Mrs. E.M. Sherry of Congress Park, L.M. Lies of Riverside and Michael Colgrass of Brookfield.
Children were not left out of the ceremony, either, with those in attendance from all of Brookfield’s schools: S.E. Gross, Congress Park, Lincoln, St. Barbara’s, St. Paul’s and Hollywood.
Gross School Superintendent Cassady arranged that 400 children from the school would be there to see the festivities.
“We all got off from [Gross] school,” remembers Bob Fiala, who was 11 years old at the time. “We needed signed permits for a walking field trip. Little bottles of milk were given to us; they could have been from Willow Farms Dairy [in south Brookfield.]”
With young Fiala was his mother, Clara, who, using a box camera, took some black and white photographs of the event.
As planned, the event was broadcast over radio station WLS, which must have found plenty to describe, during times when featured speakers, such as Postmaster Colgrass, were not on the air.
At noon the affair began, with Colgrass making some remarks regarding the history of airmail delivery and a short talk about the pony express. Then came in the four pony express riders, Carl Speidel from the Central Brookfield Post Office, Herman Kraft from the Hollywood Post Office, Robert Soltwisch from the Congress Park Post Office and John Gould from the Riverside Post Office.
Dressed in old western-style clothing and atop their horses, clip-clopping in on the pretty well-dried parking lot pavement, they were a show all unto themselves. But so was the panda.
The pouches of special airmail, consisting of approximately 4,500 panda-cacheted envelopes (with 3,320 from the Brookfield Post Office alone), were turned over to Capt. Crosby, while the four Postmasters looked on to make sure everything was proceeding officially.
After the mailbags were loaded, pilot Crosby’s plane rolled down the parking lot and up into the wild blue yonder toward Midway Airport and subsequent delivery. Lastly, a 15-minute air exhibition, or “dog show,” was put on by two other pilots whose names are not recorded. How this must’ve thrilled the spectators, and perhaps many schoolboys went home and dreamed that night of becoming pilots someday and soaring through the skies.
But the most enduring souvenirs were the special “First Flight-Giant Panda” airmail covers, bearing their rubber stamped imprints, and red and blue six cent airmail stamps. Some 500 of the envelopes were purchased by Gross School for mailing. The 3,320 envelopes mailed at the Brookfield Post Office were all postmarked at 12:30 p.m., which must have been done in advance.
One wonders how many people asked pilot Crosby to autograph their envelopes, as at least one is known to exist.
It was quite a day, one that is still recalled some 68 years later. But this wasn’t the end of the “Brookfield Airport.” Eight years later, in the last half of October 1946, the U.S. Postal Service inaugurated a reduced rate airmail delivery by helicopter, with 900 “First Flight” helicopter cachet envelopes being picked up and sent on their way from the old 1938 zoo parking lot “airfield.”
These envelopes are not easy to find today. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one. I suppose against 4,500 of the pandas, a mere 900 of the helicopters would be harder to come by.
First class “helicopter-picked-up” airmail was sent to Brazil, Australia, British West Indies, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Chile, Curacao, Ceylon, Colombia, Dutch Guiana, Ecuador, England, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Newfoundland, Netherlands, Portugal, Panama, Puerto Rico, Philippines, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, India, Iran, Uruguay, Venezuela and Yugoslavia. Parcel Post packages also went to Finland and France.
Originally, to the post office, the helicopter method of delivery between suburbs seemed a good idea, but after a promising beginning, it proved difficult and impractical to implement, so it was abandoned. And that is why, today, there is no such thing”anymore”as the Brookfield Airport.