An YPSIAEROTROPOLIS

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2008,
Winter 2008
Original Images:






Author: Tom Dodd and James Mann

Futures of the Past: In the early 1970s Washtenaw Community College President Gunder Myran invited Ann Cleary Kettles to come to “just one meeting” to discuss the future of Ypsilanti. Kettles remembers how that group became the Ypsi Futures project for the next several years. After witnessing the demise of the Ypsilanti Greek Theatre, the group made more modest predictions for what they wished for Ypsilanti’s future. Kettle attributes their creative thinking with the origin of the Full Circle Community Center, the establishment of a City Charter Commission, the first stop of the Michigan Artrain, and the start of revitalization of the depot district. Myran, Kettles and the Ypsilanti Futures group also recommended Ypsilanti stop trying to be so modern and focus on its heritage through what was to become an annual festival of local history. A renewed emphasis came to the Ypsilanti Historical Museum and the “modern cheese graters” covering several downtown buildings - including City Hall - were identified as “inappropriate” to the City’s history. Clearly, their visions of the future included a look into our community’s rear-view mirror. Ironically, an important part of Ypsilanti’s future was its past.

Futurists beyond the confines of Ypsilanti had higher-flying visions of the future as they imagined swarms of personal helicopters descending from space ships to lighter-than-air floating factories. Buckminster Fuller and Peter Max were their visionaries and ideas flowed toward a bright future. That kind of “futuring” was neither new nor novel. Nor was such up-in-the-air optimism limited to the committee in Ypsilanti.

Fair set the theme: More than 44 million attended the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair to see “The World of Tomorrow.” "The eyes of the Fair are on the future,” said the official World’s Fair pamphlet, “– not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: ‘Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.” The Fair’s logo, a clean and unadorned “Trylon and Perisphere” shouted “NEW!” as gentle roller-coaster rides whisked thousands of tourists into a Disneyesque animated model of a 1960 world in defiance of gravity. The future was coming and it was just around the corner.

Fantasies came true: American children had read the fantasies of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and more modern kids learned of futures through their pulpy comic books. Modernistic characters like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Brick Bradford flew across the horizon with shoulder-strapped jet packs. The popular heroes were credited with bringing into popular media the concept of space exploration in four-color, off-set newsprint. Dreaming of what might be was as popular with these kids as with the ancient Greeks.

Slickers challenged our imagination: Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines of our childhood predicted what “The Future” might look like - if only we were handy with bending plastic, laying cement blocks, and arranging corner windows made of glass blocks. Neon-lined shop windows and shiny, glass tiled storefronts helped to make old buildings appear modern. We even covered façades in Ypsilanti with metal grids to hide the old-fashioned architecture of yesterday. Some Ypsilantians harbored the hope that they could be projected into a futuristic Utopia where they could fly to work in private helicopters and take off in giant passenger air-borne passenger ships for exotic vacations around the world and into outer space.

Ypsilanti’s “aerotropolis” set the standard. Realizations of “The Future” surrounded the City of Ypsilanti with an airpark on Warner’s farm just south of Recreation Park, the development of the Ypsilanti City Airport to our west, McEnnan Airport to our south and, with the outbreak of World War II, the giant Willow Run Airport was developed just across the county line to the east. Ypsilanti was surrounded by total modernity.

Warner Field: An emergency forced a plane from Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens to make a landing in the field behind Warner’s farm in Ypsilanti in 1919. The field backed up to Recreation Park where Ypsilantians were accustomed to seeing races, circuses, ball games, and other large expositions. The pilot could not have chosen a more propitious landing site. The aircraft’s landing drew the whole town to the field that today is known as Woods Road and Pleasant Drive.

For the next year, locals who had their own airplanes used the field as their own private landing strip with Warner’s permission. Soon after, state laws and local ordinances began to set the standards for such an operation and “Warner Field” went back to grazing cows for the Warner Dairy on Michigan Avenue.

Calf in the air: The Holstein-Friesian Association of Washtenaw held its first annual picnic at Recreation Park on Monday, August 11, 1919, with a fair sized crowd in attendance. As part of the program a Holstein calf from Shady Knoll farms was auctioned off to the highest bidder, who was John Bazley who bid $500. The calf was to be delivered to Bazley's farm by a Curtis plane which was at Recreation Park for that purpose. The calf was led to the Warner barn to be prepared for the flight, where it seems it objected to the idea of a ride in the plane. As the crowd was waiting patiently to watch the start of the flight, a bag of straw was substituted for the calf.

The plane took off as planned, but it was soon evident that something was wrong with the engine. The plane was flying low and turned to head back to the park. As the plane attempted to land it was caught in the top of a tree, turned partly around and crashed into another tree and then crashed to the ground. Fortunately no one was hurt in the crash, but the plane suffered extensive damage. The aircraft needed to be repaired before it could take off - without the calf. "So ended a perfect day," concluded The Ypsilanti Record of Thursday, August 14, 1919.

Ypsilanti City Airport: During the 1920s those who wished to see a vision of the future, looked to the sky, and many saw the future in the shape of an airplane. The 1920s was the age of aviation and the airplane was all the rage. No city was complete without an airport, and that included Ypsilanti. To make the vision of the future a reality, the Ypsilanti Board of Commerce formed a committee on finding ways of securing an airfield.

On Tuesday, July 27, 1926, a group of twenty men interested in the possibility of an airfield near Ypsilanti listened to William Mars, an airplane manufacturer who spoke on the general developments in aviation. Ypsilanti, Mars pointed out, was on the biggest air route in the country - New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago. Airplane factories near Ypsilanti were six months behind in deliveries, he contended, and prospective buyers living in Ypsilanti would place orders if a landing field were near the city. Within five years government officials expected people to fly to and from their place of employment in metropolitan areas miles apart. Airplanes were then selling at $2,400, the cost of a medium priced automobile. "Air transportation is not coming," said Mars, "it is here now."

"With airplanes making short work of such distances," noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press on Monday, August 2, 1926, "it will be possible to start out for a vacation at the close of business in the afternoon and be in the Upper Peninsula for dinner, to return for work again in the morning. A businessman could under those circumstances spend the nights with his family at a lake and fly back and forth to work, rather than see them only over weekends or not at all as is the case with many persons now. Government would be more efficient, for legislators at Lansing could return to their constituencies during the evenings to talk over new measures with the voters." All that was needed was a landing strip.

The Daily Ypsilanti Press published as part of the story specifications compiled by the United States War Department. These included having the airport within reach of ground transportation facilities, as there was no point in saving time by air travel only to lose it by a slow drive on bad roads. The size of the airport should allow for a clear unobstructed area of at least 900 yards in the direction of the prevailing wind, if not in all directions.

"The ground must, of course, be firm under all weather conditions. It is best for it to be sodded on account of the great quantities of dust which will otherwise be stirred up by propeller and wheels, which is not only disagreeable but is harmful to the working parts of the motors. The surface must be level and fairly smooth, as deep furrows or ditches will seriously damage or wreck machines."

"Standard markings for landing fields have been adopted by the government," continued the report. "An important one of these is a large white landing circle in the center of the field, 100 feet in diameter made of bands four feet wide built flush with the ground, to prevent interference with the rolling of airplanes over them. The markings are to be made of crushed stone or perhaps planking."

"Within the landing circle should be a direction landing marker, in the shape of a cross or bar, depending upon the shape of the field. This maker is to show the aviator overhead in what directions are the best runways. To be seen distinctly from the air, these markings must be panels fifteen feet long by three feet wide."

Aviators of the day followed railroads to keep their bearings, so markings on the roofs of buildings near the railroad were advisable. "Lumber sheds have proven good locations for such markers. Simple block letters in white with dull black backgrounds are best. Gravel and pitch roofs are to be avoided as markers on them become blurred quickly. If a roof has a slope of over 30 degrees, the sign must be painted on both sides. Such signs can be used to indicate the name of the town, the direction of the landing field, distances to other points, etc."

Land for the airport was procured at Carpenter and Morgan roads in Pittsfield Township, by a syndicate of thirty people. The airport included one hundred sixty acres in a field a half mile square. At the airport a hanger was constructed, 32 feet wide and 114 feet long, with room enough for four planes. "It is so arranged that each plane can be wheeled into place with a large door exactly in front of each plane," reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of January 24, 1927.

The Ypsilanti City Airport was dedicated with three days of events at the airport on June 10, 11 and 12 of 1927. Some twenty-five hundred people watched as the program began with an aerial parade which was followed by a speed race around the field. Planes raced that day at over 80 miles per hour. The next day, the planes raced at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Each day included a dead stick landing contest and a parachute drop.

"The program closed with a double parachute drop, Robert Manier and Leon Snyder leaping simultaneously from planes while at an altitude of 1,500 ft. Snyder, who had given the parachute drop the two preceding days, Sunday landed on the field. The wind the days before drove him beyond the landing field, into fields across the road from the airport," reported The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Monday, June 13, 1927.

"Leaders in aviation in Michigan who attended the meet here credit Ypsilanti with having carried out one of the few successful air meets so far held in the state. Pilots expressed appreciation of the courtesies extended them and entertainment provided. The crowd proved enthusiastic and intelligently interested in aviation and the program was not marred by mishaps or controversies. In addition to proving constructive as well as interesting, the meet was a financial success," noted the account.

“Lucky Lindy” landed here: Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Ann Morrow, landed at the Ypsilanti City Airport at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, September 1, 1930, in their Lockheed plane. The two were making a coast-to-coast tour and stopped in at Ypsilanti to visit Dr. Alexander Ruthven, President of the University of Michigan. The two took off for Buffalo, New York at 4:45 p.m. They were forced to land at Bellefonte Pennsylvania because of heavy fog.

"In keeping with the Lindbergh policy of private trips for brief visits, the ship was set down here with no advance word of the arrival and attendants at the airport failed to attach sufficient significance to the landing to prompt local announcement of any kind," noted The Daily Ypsilanti Press of Tuesday, September 2, 1930.

Privatized and gone: The airport was made a private field on June 10, 1931, when it was purchased from the original owners by Milo and Mrs. L. W. Oliphant. They in turn sold the field to Dwight Reynolds in January of 1945. The airport was sold once again in August of 1946, this time to Donald J. and Lucy J. Gridley.

Gridley Airport: Fifty-nine private planes responded to the Dawn Patrol Fly-in at Gridley Airport in 1947. The airport was located on the northwest corner of Carpenter and Morgan, Pittsfield Township, and was sometimes referred to as the Ypsilanti City Airport.
I-94 later crossed through a portion of the airport and US-23 went through the western portion of the airport. Today the Daniel L. Jacob & Co. Inc. (Budweiser beer distribution outlet) and an inflatable tennis court occupy much of the corner property.
The Gridley Airport remained in operation possibly as late as the 1960s. The story of the airport ends because the space needed for the expansion of U.S. 23 made it unsafe for the landing of planes. Airplanes and airports were once the vision of the future, and this airport was closed because of the need for other means of transportation. U.S. 23 and Interstate 94 now meet at the northwest corner of the former Ypsilanti City Airport.

McKennan Airport: McKennan Airport at Stony Creek and Textile Roads has been mowed over to become Pineview Golf Course. Lucille McEnnan’s not posted with a photograph of the airport indicates the McKennan Airport was operated by the family until 1959 and that several others operated it after that.

Detroit Willow Run Airport: Willow Run Airport is neither in Ypsilanti nor in Washtenaw County. The airport was built in 1941 just across the Wayne County line. The Willow Run bomber plant, where Ford Motor Company produced B-24 bombers for the war effort, sat at the eastern boundary of Washtenaw County, spilling its product onto the airfield of the county next door. After the war the Washtenaw County buildings served as a passenger terminal. Commercial passenger traffic was moved from Detroit City Airport on Detroit’s east side, making Willow Run Detroit's primary airport.

Warren Avis founded Avis Airlines Rent-a-Car Systems in 1946 at Willow Run Airport creating the first rental car operation at an airport location. The Government sold the airport to the University of Michigan in 1947 for $1 to be used as a research facility, and the Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (Willow Run Research Center) was founded. UofM students came to live in the same housing units built for the bomber plant workers.

Seven commercial passenger carriers flew out of Willow Run in 1956, eventually moving to nearby Detroit Metro Airport. In the 1950’s driving out to Willow Run to watch planes take off and land was a popular family pastime. By 1967, commercial passenger service had ended here. In 1977, UofM sold the airport to Wayne County for $1, not much appreciation in that real estate transaction. Today Willow Run Airport serves freight, corporate, and general aviation clients with no commercial passenger services available.

The Yankee Air Museum opened at Willow Run in 1981. A fire in October of 2004 destroyed the museum building and most of its artifacts. Museum artifacts like the B-52 and others that were too large to display inside the hangar were not damaged. The museum has been rebuilding their displays and gathering more WWII memorabilia since 2005.

Dreams are still flying: Contemporary plans for an “aerotropolis” - a new urban form comprising aviation-intensive businesses and related enterprises - are coming into the news headlines once more. Like a traditional metropolis made up of a city core and commuter suburbs, an aerotropolis has an airport city at its core, encircled by related businesses and services.
Dr. John D. Kasarda, an American academic, has redefined the aerotropolis. Kasarda points out that aerotropoli (pl.) “typically attract industries related to time-sensitive manufacturing, e-commerce fulfillment, telecommunications and logistics; hotels, retail outlets, entertainment complexes and exhibition centers; and offices for business people who travel frequently by air or engage in global commerce.”

Ypsilanti could soon see the development of a new kind of air park system with “clusters of business parks, logistics parks, industrial parks, distribution centers, information technology complexes and wholesale merchandise marts locate around the airport and along the transportation corridors radiating from them,” says Karsarda.

Plans are up in the air: The dream of a futuristic aerotropolis has not crashed and burned. In May of 2008, Gary Gosselin reported in Michigan Business Review a contemporary vision to “create a business development hub between and around Detroit Metro and Willow Run Airports. The 25,000 acres in seven communities would become home to logistics companies, international headquarters, mixed-use developments and spin-off services.” Gosselin predicts participants would create “a potential streamlined process,” but there were not any accompanying futuristic illustrations of personal helicopters swarming in an airborne traffic jam in his projections.

Photo Captions:
Photo 1: The Ypsilanti Aerotropolis began in 1919 and continues today.
Photo 2: All hailed modernity in the shadow of the Trylon & Perisphere at the New York World’s Fair of 1939.
Photo 3: “Regards sur l’avenir: Gratte-ciel cylindrique avec gare aerienne” proposed high-rise modern structures in France’s future.
Photo 4: (No Caption)
Photo 5: Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh.
Photo 6: Lindberghs refueling that same year, but in Minneapolis. No pictures were taken of their landing in Ypsilanti.
Photo 7: Gridley Airport at Carpenter and Morgan Roads was the last incarnation of the Ypsilanti City Airport. Looking northeast, an inflatable tennis court and a beer distribution company occupy this land today next to US-23. (Photo by Lucy Gridley. Mary Campbell, Pittsfield Township Historical Society Board member, donated the photo to Meijer’s Thrifty Acres who greatly enlarged it to post on the north wall of the store’s coffee shop.)
Photo 8: McEnnan Airport with Stony Creek Road at the bottom and Textile Road going west at right; Pine Grove Golf Course today.
Photo 9: Detroit Willow Run Airport turned out bombers in World War II and today hosts private airfreight companies.
Photo 10: Future City art of the 1950s a’ la Popular Mechanics magazine: Could a Buck Rogers aerotropolis still be in our future?