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Column: Worthington - a city in the air age

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Column: Worthington - a city in the air age
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — This is the 75th year since that dark night when Orson Welles broadcast his radio story, “War of the Worlds,” a drama which brought distress to people all across the nation. It was not merely that the American people were unaccustomed to dramatic, false-news programs, although that fed the fear. In that era, America was chiefly tuned to George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” was an hour-long broadcast, the first 40 minutes of which were filled with false news bulletins describing an invasion of the earth by creatures from Mars. There were no commercials. Listeners were told, “We have just received this bulletin from Washington, D.C. … it is labeled urgent.” That sort of thing.

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The enduring story in Worthington lore is of an elderly woman who lived in a second-floor apartment near the downtown. The woman was listening to the Welles broadcast and went to a window to look at the sky. As she pulled back a drape the long-beamed, rotating red light on the steeple of the 1894 Nobles County courthouse swept past her window. The woman collapsed. There was an emergency call. Much excitement. It was thought the tale was true, but the newspaper account never mentioned a name and never gave specifics regarding the woman’s condition. It was a Worthington story as good as the story Orson Welles was telling.

The thing interesting today, especially after Aaron Hagen’s account of Worthington’s airport and fixed base operator Cameron Johnson in the Daily Globe last week, is not the frightened woman but the sweeping red light. Fewer than 10 years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight over the Atlantic ocean — in that era when the search for Amelia Earhart was still being pursued — Worthington was in the air age. Not only was there a municipal airport, but a pair of fabled lights had been put in place on the county courthouse. The red light went round-and-round to attract the attention of pilots in the night. The second light, a white light, beamed directly at the airstrip. Worthington was six decades beyond its founding, and Worthington was very much with the times.

Worthington’s airport of that age was on the opposite side of U.S. 59 and not far north of Interstate 90. The airport was a grass runway with a galvanized steel office/hangar building — steel siding of the kind that was being used in grain storage buildings.

So when was the airport opened for business? That is a date uncertain. There was never a day when the newspaper offered a headline, “Airport Opens.” In the smaller Worthington of that time, it was simply general knowledge that an airport had come to be. The fixed based operator (who had no title) was a pioneer pilot named Jimmy Zarth.

There were Worthington residents who were learning to fly in that time. There were planes — U.S. mail planes among them — crossing the country hourly and often looking even anxiously for a place to land. Skywriting was a sensation of the time. Small planes might loop before a bright blue summer sky and spell PHILLIPS 66 in the air.

Air shows were a feature of the age. Pilots, some of them from many miles distant, climbed and looped and swept low over the ground. Men would walk or stand on the wings of soaring planes. There were parachutists. Rides for anyone interested. There was an admission charge, but very many people merely parked their cars along U.S. 59 or a nearby gravel road.

The tragic end of the air shows came when one of the small planes crashed into a cornfield. The Nobles County pilot and three passengers were killed.

The most exciting day in Worthington lore was the day North Central Airlines first set down on a concrete runway at the present-day Worthington airport. For a decade, Worthington residents came and went in airplanes. Boardings sometimes were as many as 14 a day. This ended when the FAA ruled there could be no subsidy for air travel to any airport within 60 miles of what was counted a major airport. Worthington is 60 miles from Sioux Falls. End of local air travel.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.