Air Mail in Skaneateles

On a pleasant Thursday morning, May 19, 1938, a bit after 11:30 a.m., Skaneateles Postmaster Walter Herrling and 1,000 pieces of important mail left the Village via Onondaga Street, bound for the Frank T. Evans farm, home of the Pine Grove Dairy. Herrling did not have a large delivery for Mr. Evans. Rather, he had come to meet local pilot Eugene Horle, out in the fields beyond the barns, to make history.

The occasion was National Air Mail Week, a celebration of 20 years of U.S. air mail. The week before, Postmaster Herrling had advertised in the Skaneateles Press, inviting everyone in the Village to take part. Each letter carried through the skies would bear a special cachet, rubber-stamped in purple ink, and the U.S. Post Office had issued a new 6-cent air mail stamp for the occasion.

Airmail

Because Eugene Horle did not keep a plane in the Village, he had to fly in before he could fly out. Assuming he landed safely in the open field, he would load the plane with its precious cargo and lift off for Syracuse about noon. One can imagine that Herrling was a little nervous, wondering whether Horle might be late, or worse.

Horle himself was not at all worried; he was licensed by the government (#2904), had 12 years of flying experience and exuded optimism. On the other side of the ledger, he was said to be something of a nut. According to the unvarnished assessment of one of his contemporaries, “First he was a nut about motorcycles. Then he was a nut about airplanes. Then he became a religious nut.” In 1938, Horle was past motorcycles but not yet flying with the angels.

For this flight, the confident Horle had obtained “a special plane of the latest type.” He estimated it would take six minutes to fly from the Evans’ farm to the Syracuse airport. There the letters from Skaneateles would join with those from other small towns to be sent “to all corners of the world.”

From the air, the farm was easy to find, just east of the Village, a big open space out behind the house and barns. Horle was on time at both ends of the flight. Syracuse Postmaster Edmund L. Weston wrote him a letter of congratulations which Horle shared with The Skaneateles Press along with the news that he hoped soon to have a plane of his own that would be available for rides and lessons.

Horle was a tireless promoter. Ten years earlier, he had tried to turn the newly bequeathed Austin Park into the Skaneateles Airport. Clarence Austin’s will stated that the land “shall be held and kept perpetually as a public park for the use and good of the people.” But less than six months after Austin’s death, Horle claimed the benefactor really meant the land could be used “for any purpose the town should see fit” and added that because Austin had known aircraft pioneer William Boeing, he would have approved. In the Village at least, this is the first recorded instance of a pilot attempting to hijack a park.

But I digress, and must be on to another point: The flight of Eugene Horle was not our first brush with air mail history. Around 1930, an earlier U.S. air mail flight had also landed in the field behind the Pine Grove Dairy. Grace Evans McKnight, the youngest of the seven Evans children, wrote a letter on June 4, 2001, and described what happened:

“About that time, when the gov’t started to fly the mail, I was walking home from school – maybe 4-5 p.m., an overcast sky – poor visibility. A single-engine plane flew low as I was nearing home, and I ran to see it land on my father’s farm. The pilot walked to our house, and phoned Syracuse, and they came for him and the mail.”

In addition to recalling the flight conditions, Grace even remembered the name of the pilot whose trip was cut short by bad weather: Merle Moltrop. (This Pennsylvania native was already something of an aviation celebrity. In 1927, he had flown the first air mail from Pittsburgh to Cleveland.) The next morning, when the skies had cleared, Moltrop came back to the Evans farm and flew the plane away.

As for Miss Evans, she would eventually marry another pilot who landed in her busy backyard. She wrote:

“Most important to me was the plane flown by David T. McKnight, who landed in the dark – we drove cars down to the field with lights on where he was to land (a newly mowed hay lot). He had left Long Island after work – had never been to Skaneateles – not many flying hours – and he made a perfect landing! The farmers didn’t appreciate this at the time! This was about 1933.”

The flying courtship was successful. Grace and David were married in 1936.

* * *

My thanks to Paul Trabold and Grace McKnight for their memories.

An envelope from the day, signed by the postmaster and the pilot, with a plate block of the airmail stamps.

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