First Airmail Flight in The South
By Phil Cate, Shreveport Times
July 14, 1968
Although on any given day the Shreveport Post Office would think little of dispatching as much as 7,000 pounds of mail via air, there was a day when 25 pounds was a big load.
Almost 50 years ago, Wednesday, July 21, 1920, Shreveport and Homer were the host cities for what was hailed as the first air mail flight in the South. The flight was held about two years after the nation's first air mail flight May 15,1918 between Washington D C and New York City. That flights takeoff was witnessed by President Woodrow Wilson and the pilot that took off from Washington flew in the wrong direction and crashed in a field in Maryland. A New York to Washinton flight on the same day was successful, however.
The announcement of the Shreveport-Homer flight came on July 1, 1920, when Shreveport Postmaster Nathan Ratcliffe said that the city would be the first in the South to have authorized air mail service. The flight would be made at no cost to the post office in a Curtiss plane.
According to a news story in The Times, Postmaster Ratcliffe requested "everyone interested to find it necessary to write someone in Homer Wednesday. He wants the first trip to carry at least 4,000 pieces of mail."
A special stamp was offered and all envelopes were stamped as a souvenir of the first Southern delivery of mail by airplane.
It is not known what people wrote in the letters, but they could have mentioned that Palm Beach suits were selling for $16.50 in Shreveport.
Also Douglas Fairbanks was starring in "A Good Bad Man" at the Queen Theater and the Saenger was featuring the Harold Lloyd comedy, "Haunted Spooks," and as an extra was showing the latest edition of Pathe News. The flight was promoted by the Gulf States Aircraft Corp. of Shreveport. Gulf States had written the Shreveport postmaster stating the firm's intentions to put on regular mail service between Shreveport and Homer and also to Dallas, Fort Worth and other points. The letter promised to "put on more planes and aviators just as fast as the business will justify." In one advertisement, Gulf States addressed itself "To pleasure lovers everywhere: Take a flight. See your town and the earth from the Sky! It is worth while. It will be the most wonderful experience of your life. Lieutenant Henry F. Toncray offers you this opportunity." Toncray was also president of Gulf States.
The Times reported that Homer was chosen because of the "heavy volume of mail handled between the two towns due to the oil husiness," but adding weight to the decision for the fact that Homer had provided a landing field. Air fields were apparently somewhat rare since The Times reported that Alexandria, Monroe, Marshall, Tex., El Dorado and other Arkansas points "are figuring on landing fields or have them under construction."
On the day of the flight, 25 pounds of mail was taken to the Fair Grounds. It included ordinary, first class, registered and special delivery letters. The temperature at the time was close to 90 degrees. Postmaster Ratcliffe said a number of Shreveport citizens witnessed the exciting takeoff, and after the flight he wrote a letter of thanks to W.H. Smith of Shreveport thanking Smith for making "moving pictures" of the historic event.
The Times reported that the flight left at 2:45 p.m. piloted by Lin G. Pittman and carried A. E. Ford, Shreveport Post Office Superintendent of Mails. The report said that 'shortly afterward many (if the addressees in Homer were reading their letters." The return flight left the Homer Fair Grounds at 5:25 p.m. Mail was back in the Shreveport Post Office and was being distributed at 6:25 p.m. The return flight reportedly carried 35 pounds of mail.
The Times said, "Homer was very much excited over the flight. Postmaster Fulmer, chamber of commerce and city officials and a great crowd of citizens being at the landing field to watch the arrival and departure of the plane." Postal officials figured the two-way delivery time at about six hours and said that by train the very quickest service "is a full day or day and a half."
The flight attracted the attention of the "Oil World," an independent weekly newspaper devoted to the oil industry, puhlished in Shreveport and Lexington, Ky. The Oil World sent numerous copies of its latest edition on the flight and in reporting on the trip said, "Several motion pictures were taken. No stops were made by the airship either going or coming." The flight also attracted the attention of the DeSoto Parish Chamber of Commerce at Mansfield, and soon after the flight Ratcliffe received a letter from F. W. DeCroix, Chamber secretary-treasurer.
DeCroix challenged a reference "that Mansfield has a sort of piece of land that could be used for a landing place" calling this an indifferent description. He wrote, "We have the best field in any part of Louisiana and can prove so." He said there were no holes, stumps, trees or any foreign debris to mar a perfect landing. He said Mansfield had "an excellent flying aviation field, carpeted with grass, enlarged to land from any compass point and take off in any direction."
Also at that time Mansfield boasted a female college of over 50 years standing, 100 per cent graveled roads thoughout the parish on the Jefferson Highway and the cheapest fuel for industries in the world.
Contrasting with the first flight in 1920 is the current air mail volume on a typical day from the Shreveport Post Office. A recent check showed that in one day there were 42 air mail flights leaving Shreveport. They carried 293 sacks of air mail weighing 2,579 pounds. On the same day the post office also dispatched via air 251 sacks of first class mail weighing 4,315 pounds.
In the 1920's Chubby Watson, "King of the Air," performed on the wings, and on a trapeze under an airplane. The plane would travel at 100 mph in a circle 1000 to 1500 feet above the fair grounds while Watson walked the wings and did handstands. He hung from a trapeze under the plane, hanging by his feet, hands and teeth. Later the pilot, Lt. Toncray, would give a show of stunt flying.
From The Early Birds of Aviation ROSTER, 1996