Barnstorming Palmyra, Wisconsin

By Scott Spangler on October 19th, 2020

General Aviation Thrives on Kettle Moraine Grass

Palmyra-1Situated along the Scuppermong River in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, the Village of Palmyra is, says the welcoming sign across the street from the Palmyra Municipal Airport (88C), “The Heart of the Kettle Moraine,” a state forest carpeting more than 22,000 acres of glacial hills, kettle lakes, and prairies about 40 miles west of Milwaukee. What remained of the Great American Flying Circus, writer Richard Bach, photographer Paul Hansen, and skydiver Stu MacPherson, landed there midweek during their Nothing by Chance barnstorming adventure in 1966. The 2800-foot Runway 9/27 is still turf, but the handful of hangars Bach mentioned has grown to approximately four dozen.

Pulling into the parking lot on a glorious autumn day at the start of October’s third weekend, a sunshine yellow Sonex was warming its AeroVee in preparation to commit aviation, following behind a Piper Cherokee. Ropes bound a lonesome Cessna 180 on flat tires to the grass just off the concrete ramp by the Palmyra Flying Club hangar. Across the way was the fuel depot for 100 LL and autogas. While the runway is lighted turf, all of the taxiways connecting it to the ramp and all of the hangars are paved with concrete or asphalt, and all as neatly tended and cared for as the grass that looked regularly barbered.

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Walking toward the afternoon sun, it was clear which hangars most likely witnessed the arrival of the Great American Flying Circus and the ground loop, at the end of Paul Hansen’s inaugural flight in the Parks biplane that extended their stay. Several of them were built with airplane outlines, pilot engineered out of concrete blocks and sheet metal, one with a hand-winch cable pulleyed over its rounded roof to lift the door by its wedged protrusion that made room for its occupant’s nose, spinner, and prop.

With no windows in any of the hangars, old or the dozens of modern metal square boxes, there was no telling what manner of airplanes resided in them. But the tire-tracked grass abutting their closed doors said some winged creature lived inside. More of the modern airplane houses were connected to the paved taxiways with concrete driveways, some bordered with fancy brick inlays. Rust-free propane tanks snuggled up to most of the walls in the alley between the back-to-back hangars, where the grass was as well manicured as the rest of the airport.

What I was looking for was the cornfield the barnstormers walked across in 1966 to reach the D&M Truck Stop Café for burgers and the Barnstormer Special, Stu’s creation that whipped up strawberry sherbet and 7 Up in the malt mixer. “Stu wrote it down, and it might still be on the menu.” If it was still there, that was going to be my lunch, but first I had to find it. Wandering among the hangars looking for someone to ask, the only person I saw was one lucky soul in a Citabria, elbow resting in the open window frame, taxiing toward he runway. He waved in passing.

Palmyra-22With only one more cluster of hangars to explore, I met Bob Massie (on the left) and Rick Jelinek, who was standing in the open door of his Piper Cherokee. The hangar belonged to Bob, Rick said, noting that Bob “comes by to check on me to make sure I’m not doing anything foolish.” Bob said he remembered the flying circus’s visit, but didn’t offer any specifics, other than he’d taken his first flying lesson at the airport in 1946, two decades before the Great American touched down on the grass.

“Yesterday,” they said, “we had a lot of planes in for breakfast at the Edge of Town Café.” To get there, look for the path that leads to a gap in the trees on the airport property line. Walk past the truck garage to Maple Street (State Highway 59) and look to the left. “It’s been there forever, but with Covid, it’s only open from 6 to 2, so if you want to eat, you’ll have to go into town.” The people who owned the café also owned the restaurant in town, in what used to be the Main Street bowling alley. With no money in bowling, they closed that but kept the kitchen, Rick and Bob said, but the food’s good.

Palmyra-26Finding my way past the hangars, through the trees, and beyond the truck garage, the café truly is on the edge of Palmyra, population 1781. Before they closed up, the owners left the venetian blinds almost all the way open. Inside, eight padded chrome stools faced a Formica counter. Neatly stacked coffee cups stood ready by the two-pot Bunn brewer. Four booths abutted the front wall, two on either side of the door. A small dining room adjoined at the far end with, as far as I could see, two or maybe three tables with a chair on each of their four sides.

It was a short walk into town. Palmyra’s Main Street was three blocks long, Bach wrote, and that’s still the case. There’s no sign of the dime store, with its glass-fronted counter displaying a selection of candy, where Stu bought a roll of crepe paper to make wind drift indicators. But there were only a couple of empty storefronts. Carlin House, home to the Palmyra Historical Society, was closed, and the Kempo Goju karate school was dark. The Kettle Hill Grill, next door to the Powers Memorial Library (Est. 1927) was serving late afternoon diners. The Dida Belle Salon offers “manicures and pedicures for men, women, and children.”

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Other storefronts, like the Hot Rod Bar & Grill, were busier. So was Squiddy’s, a bar next door to the Dog House Liquors storefront. One imagines that Squiddy’s other neighbor, the Fellowship Bible Church, would be open the following day. Confirming its rural, small-town roots, an International Harvester Case 6150 combine grumbled down Main Street past the Uglow Block, home to the T&D Grill & Lanes, and, going the opposite direction, a Model T pickup truck flying a large American flag putt-putted by, its driver yelling hello to a friend on the sidewalk by St. Mathew Lutheran Church. Overhead, heard but unseen, an airplane hummed its way home in the late afternoon light. Maybe it was the Citabria. Scott Spangler, Editor

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