A History of an Air Field in East Omaha

A history of the Pulitzer Air Field aka Steele Air Field aka Olson Air Field in East Omaha from 1921 to 1928.

The history of aviation in Omaha is long and mostly unwritten. Ranging from rinky dink operations to bigger efforts, it took a little while for air flight in the city to get off the ground. This is a history of the Spanggaard Dairy Farm and the Olson Air Field, aka Steele Air Field, aka Pultizer Air Field located in East Omaha.

Starting as “Spanggaard Town”

This is from a feature article about dairy farm owner and operator Chris Spangaard. The Olson Air Field was on his property. This was published on December 9, 1928 in the Omaha World-Herald.
This is from a feature article about dairy farm owner and operator Chris Spanggaard. The Olson Air Field was on his property. This was published on December 9, 1928 in the Omaha World-Herald.

According to Wikipedia, the Wright Brothers “made the first airplane flight in the United States.” made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft with the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903, 4 mi (6 km) south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina…” That was the same era when a Danish dairyman arrived as a new immigrant in Omaha, following the trail of his long lost brother John (1870-1915) who he found running a dairy farm near North 34th and Lake Streets.

Chris Spanggaard (1881-1961) was a dairy farmer who lived at 1724 Read Street starting around 1904. He and his wife Petra Spanggaard (1893-1971) had two children, Emily and Russell. The kids went to Minne Lusa School, a mile away from their farm. The Spanggaard farm was 126-acres, and located between the end of North 16th Street, “where the Florence Boulevard ends” and at the end of North 24th Street. The farm’s north boundary was Minne Lusa Creek on the north, from the cliff east of Florence Boulevard to the river. The southern boundary might have been Read Street.

A long-time member of the Omaha Milk Producers Association, Spanggaard gladly put up his cows to the Douglas County Cow Testing Association, ran by agents from the county extension office. He regularly participated in dairy farmer meetings and more.

Surrounded by the truck farms of East Omaha and located near the old Florence Lake, the Spanggaard farm was a large operation that drew tourists from the nearby railroad line and more. With an operation big enough to be referred to as “Spanggaard Town,” he had more than 120 Holstien cows in his herd. There were buildings, feed, wagons, cars and trucks, and several barns in his operation. One of his barns was made from the old Riverview Road House, which originally sat on Florence Lake. Spanggaard bought that building for $5,000, moved it, and rebuilt it himself.

A champion farmer, Spanggaard was an award winner who took the Holstein competitions at the Douglas County Fair and at the Ak-Sar-Ben Stock Show in the 1920s. In 1924, he also won the grand champion award at the county fair. Throughout the years, he had several cows named to the official Nebraska State Herd. Spanggaard also won awards for his milk production, including a diploma from the National Dairy Association, as well as recognitions for becoming the first 300-gallon dairy farmer in Nebraska, which meant that his cows were the first-ever in the state to be certified as producing 300 pounds of milk annually.

Becoming Pulitzer Field

This is Rev. Charles W. Savidge, pastor at the People's Church, giving a sermon to a pilot at Pulitzer Field in East Omaha, Nebraska
This is Rev. Charles W. Savidge, pastor at the People’s Church, giving a sermon to a pilot at Pulitzer Field in East Omaha, in 1924.

In the late 1910s, airplanes started landing at the Spanggaard farm.

In 1921, Omaha played host to the International Aero Congress, a gathering of aviators and advocates. The event was held in Omaha from November 3 to 5, 1921. Advertised as “the biggest, most spectacular air event ever held,” there were balloon rides, parachuting demonstrations, and flying tricks. There was a reeenactment of the bombing of a French village during World War I, as well as a parade, dances, banquets, and an “immense exhibit of last aircraft creations.” There were also “air derbies, air races, altitude tests, more than $10,000 in cash prizes.”

Right after, a real estate committee was formed to make the location of the congress permanent. That was Spanggaard’s 120-acre pasture. The committee wanted it to become the permanent Omaha Municipal Air Field, a home for a new airplane factory in Omaha, and an international airplane center. Sometimes called East Omaha, Spanggaard’s address was in the City of Florence at this point. From 1921 to 1925, the East Omaha farm strip was called Pulitzer Field for the sponsor of a race that happened there.

In 1922, the world-famous record-setting pilot Charles “Lindy” Lindberg (1902-1974) went to flight school in Lincoln. According to a story in the World-Herald, that year Lindy was stranded in Omaha and needed to get back to Lincoln. Finding an old airplane in Spanggaard’s pasture, he asked if he could fix it and use it. Spanggaard, who could care less, gave it to Lindy, who spent a few days repairing the plane. During that time he stayed in Spanggaard’s barn and drank coffee in his kitchen. Taking off from the pasture, Lindy reminded Spanggaard of the use of his field.

In the mid-1920s, traveling businesses of flyers used the field to provide weekend rides for paying customers.

In 1923, a group of pilots formed a new airline with one plane. Initially focused on passengers, they planned to haul freight, carry passengers and operate a flight school at Pulitzer Field. Out of the four pilots involved, three were already working for the US Postal Service flying planes. For several years, these and other pilots held “aerial pageants” and “air carnivals” at the strip to perform stunts and interesting feats in their planes for paying audiences. In 1924, the field excitedly held an air carnival featuring US Army Major Lawrence S. Churchill, head of the Seventh Corps Area Army Air Service. Another one of the features of the carnival were flights in a five-passenger plane, and an attempt to land a plane with a rope “slung out from the gear of a flying plane.” There were also wing-walking exhibitions. The pastor of the People’s Church in North Omaha, Rev. Charles W. Savidge, got a headline in the Omaha Bee for being a “real ‘sky pilot'” after he yelled a sermon to fellow passengers on a 5-person plane while flying over Omaha during the event. He was quoted as saying, “I’ve been preaching for 42 years in Omaha and all this time I have been trying to get nearer heaven. Now I’m going to get a little nearer.”

According to a 1924 article, “Out at Pulitzer Field where’s Page’s Aerial Pageant has its headquarters, where everybody has a chance to ‘take a flyer’ with a flier up into the hazy blue of the Nebraska Indian summer, there was a mad scramble the entire afternoon.” The paper told of a 94-year-old man who preferred his prairie schooner over the airplane and a 3-year-old and her siblings who were “the proudest and happiest trio in Omaha.” The paper also said “The demand for a chance to fly kept far ahead of the capacity of the four planes…”

During these early years, Omaha had a few racing pilots who flew out of Pulitzer Air Field, including Floyd Adams and W.R. Shrock. Adams worked as the bell captain at the Hotel Fontenelle downtown and was called “The Flying Bellhop.” However, that pair ended up opening their flying school at the new Municipal Air Field a few years later.

In August 1924, two theater performers conducted a pioneering test by bringing a radio onboard a flight from Olson. Static prevented the test from working, but didn’t stop the World-Herald from being derisive. After a headline said, “Science is just wonderful,” the writer derided the performers for being attention-seeking. The young women collected photos too. In September, Walter and Arthur Meyers of Omaha flew their home-built all steel airplane from the field. Going around East Omaha, including Carter Lake, the Municipal Air Field and back, their flight was a success. Onlookers called it a “baby” airplane because it was a mono-wing and smaller than what they were used to.

That same year, in 1924, the Omaha Flying Club was advocating to establish air transportation facilities at Pulitzer Air Field, and “to make Omaha the ‘air port’ of the United States.” In the next year though, the strip was referred to as “the old Pulitzer Field” after the City of Omaha christened the American Legion Air Field in parkland east of Carter Lake. This land, originally slated to become part of Levi Carter Park, was handed over to the airplanes and today is known as Eppley Airfield.

Next It Was Steele Air Field

On May 13, 1928, the Omaha World-Herald ran a feature on C.E. Steele Airlines and its flight school at Pulitzer Field in East Omaha, Nebraska.
On May 13, 1928, the Omaha World-Herald ran a feature on C.E. Steele Airlines and its flight school at Pulitzer Field.

That didn’t shut down the strip at the end of Florence Boulevard near North 24th and Read Streets. In that time, planes intermittently flew in and out of the site with various hangers and a watchtower.

In 1925, there was a dispute over locating the Municipal Air Field elsewhere, especially since the city had an option to buy the Carter Lake land for just over $40,000. The Greater Omaha committee held an option on 103 acres of the old Pulitzer Field, which Spanggaard would sell for just $73,000. Cited as being near hills and woods, ultimately the committee wasn’t pleased with its location and passed on the site.

In July 1927, the South Omaha Merchants Association partnered with the Bellevue Men’s Club to promote a new US Postal Service air field at the Boeing Field outside of Fort Crook. Working for Denver’s Alexander Aircraft Corporation at the time, a man named Cloyd E. Steele (1886-1956) was an early promoter on board with the idea. Immediately responding, the chairman of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce promised to “fight any move to take the air mail field away from the Municipal Air Field site near Carter Lake.”

Steele became very important to the field shortly after this tussle.

This is C.E. Steele, an aviation pioneer in Omaha.

C.E. Steele ran Steele Airlines, Inc. at the field over several years. For several years, Steele Airlines kept hangers and planes there and flew them himself and with other pilots. Incorporated in 1927 “to engage in the manufacture, buying and selling of airplanes and accessories,” the company also intended to “operate freight and passenger lines, and build and maintain flying fields.” Building a wooden hanger immediately, that year an official with the company said the field had two runways that were each 2,500 feet long and formed a V-shape. The company planned on building a reinforced concrete hanger in 1928 and to grow its flying school, which had 25 students.

Born in Minnesota, Steele learned to fly in Houston, Texas, began flying commercially in California, served in the US Army artilery during World War I, and moved to Omaha to build a business. In 1928, he secured a five-year lease on Pulitzer Field with plans to add almost 28 more acres to the field. Steele kept three Alexander Eaglerock planes at the field. With a top speed of 105 per hour, they sat three, had a steel fuselage and wood and wire wings, and cost around $2,750.

One of Steele’s most popular students was a salesman for Thomas Edison who was going to be the first to use an airplane to deliver Edison’s devices to buyers. The pilot, Hugo G. Heyn, was featured in the World-Herald in 1927. Steele Airlines kept its headquarters at the field that year, as well as an aerial passenger taxi and flying school with two hangers.

Other flying schools in Omaha in 1928 included the Omaha Airways, Inc. at the Municipal Field, Overland Airways at North 16th and Sprague Streets, as well as the Kenwood Air Transportation Company and the Missouri Airways, Inc. at the Municipal Airfield.

Near the end of 1928, C.E. Steele moved away from Omaha. From what I’ve found, Steele Airlines essentially quit functioning, either at the Steele Airfield or elsewhere.

Finally Olson Air Field

This is a 1929 ad for Frank J. Grace's Pioneer Aircraft Company in Omaha, Nebraska
This is a 1929 ad for Frank J. Grace’s Pioneer Aircraft Company.

In late 1927, the lease was sold to Al Olson, and the land was then referred to as Olson Field. The Pioneer Aircraft School, a subsidiary company of the Pioneer Tire Company, was operating there, and some other developments came around in short order.

In early 1928, the air field was advertised at just 10-acres. Al Olson had apparently bought Steele Airlines and signed a five-year contract for the field at $250 a month.

In June of that year, the Olson Field had an explosion of unknown origin. Al Olson speculated that it was either “airplane dope,” a varnish used on the airplane wings, or “that hoboes were responsible,” according to the World-Herald. The planes were valued at $6,000, and the airport was covered for $5,000 with insurance. “So intense was the blaze that parts of the airplane engines melted down to shapeless masses of metal. Only a few charred joists remained standing this morning. Gasoline tanks in both the burned machines had exploded, sending flames leaping 50 feet into the air.” A crowd gathered to watch, and when the Omaha Fire Department arrived they cheered them on. Working together, onlookers and firemen saved an old “johnny” airplane parked between hangers. The firemen later stopped the fires, saving a small hanger operated by the Pioneer Aircraft School, which also operated an “air taxi” service from the airport along with a deliveries. Soon after the fire, Pioneer closed. Field owner Al Olson said that he would rebuild hangers if he could get the funding.

Interstate Transit Airlines, a Nebraska corporation established in 1928, apparently planned to start flying one trip daily from the field to Kansas City in September 1928. The airline had two “sister ships to Lindy’s Spirit of St. Louis” that cost $12,200 each, and carrying four passengers made the flight in an hour and 45 minutes. The company also planned to run a flying school from Olson Field. That year, an official with the company told the Omaha Chamber of Commerce that in the future, all US Postal Service mail would be delivered by airplane.

However, by November 1928, Al Olson had moved his planes away from the Spanggaard farm, and hadn’t paid any rental fees. The Pioneer plane was still parked there though. The owner of that plane, F.J. Grace, was president of a company, the Overland Trail Rubber Company, that was tied up in problems of its own.

Closing the Air Field, and Then…

Early in 1923, Chris Spanggaard’s operation was valued at $100,000. He was the mark of a successful dairy farmer in Omaha, and doing extremely well.

However, in late 1923, more than four years before the hanger fire, a blaze destroyed Spanggaard Town. According to the World-Herald, almost all of the dairy farmer’s buildings and equipment were destoryed—although he saved his entire herd. The fire did $20,000 in damage, which is worth $340,000 in 2022. The next year in 1924, the Spanggaard farm was bombarded by a hailstorm so bad it destroyed all of his corn and alfalfa, amounting to $10,000 in losses, which is $170,000 in 2022. Those losses didn’t flatten Spanggaard though. Instead, he doubled down on his efforts to raise award-winning Holsteins by increasing their size and production amounts. In a 1928 feature, the dairy farmer told the newspaper that his best cow that year would weigh 1,500 pounds and produce 11,000 pounds of milk. He bravely told the paper, “I can’t stop now! You can’t let things knock you out. We’re going to get better and better every day.”

Spanggaard got to reconnect with his old friend Charles Lindbergh when he came back to Omaha. Touring the country to promote aviation, he flew the Spirit of St. Louis into Omaha on August 30, 1927, proclaimed “Lindbergh Day” by the city. According to the World-Herald, the Spanggaard family were standing at the intersection of Florence Boulevard and Ames Avenue when the Lindbergh parade came through North Omaha. Lindbergh saw Chris Spanggaard and called out to him. Chris ran over, the men shook hands and had a brief conversation. According to the newspaper, these “good friends” were “Both Americans, friends, and of the same hardy stock.”

Three months later in November 1927, federal “Prohibition Raiders” arrested Chris Spanggaard on his farm. Seizing an alcohol still from a dairy shed, they also found “two big concrete vats for sugar mash.” This moonshining operation might have been related to the tunnels on Florence Boulevard. A few days later Spanggaard was released after he was found to not be linked to the moonshining operation. Arriving at the site four hours after the raid, Spanggaard had rented the building a week earlier as a storage shed for sweet potatoes. Two men on the site at the time of the raid were held though, and the man who rented and financed the operation was sought for questioning.

That winter, Spanggaard lost a herd of 35 calves to pneumonia.

With all of the troubles in 1928 at the Olson Air Field, formerly known as the Steele Air Field, originally known as the Pulitzer Air Field, it is no surprise that it was never operated again after that year.

In 1928, the World-Herald ran a feature on Chris Spanggaard to highlight his resilience. In 1929, the Spanggaard family extended their winning dairy cattle shows when Chris won another Ak-Sar-Ben championship, and his 14-year-old daughter Emily did too.

In 1931, the Pulitzer Air Field was attributed with being essential to the growth of interest in flying in Omaha.

A sewer at North 24th and Read Streets overflowed in June 1932 and spilled onto Spanggaard’s fields, wrecking at least 35 acres with sewage at least six inches deep. Apparently the section of the Minne Lusa Creek that had been repurposed as a sewer broke during a massive rainstorm. Suing the City of Omaha for $3,000, the City settled with Spanggaard out of court. In 1933, the Metropolitan Utilities District paid for a $750,000 job to reroute the Missouri River into an old riverbed that started at the Spanggaard Dairy and extended to the East Omaha Illinois Central Bridge. Spanggaard was involved in a legal spat with the City of Omaha land commissioner in November 1934. That year, Spanggaard took possession of 19 tons of alfalfa from the city, but didn’t pay. Directed to collect, the City’s lawyers began court proceedings, but I haven’t found a follow-up article. They probably settled out of court.

Spanggaard was still farming in 1937. At some point though, probably when he retired, he and Petra moved to Blair. Chris Spanggaard died in 1961, and Petra Spanggaard died in 1971.

In 1929, C.E. Steele was back in the Omaha newspapers after he and another pilot set a record by flying for 291 straight hours in Chicago. In May 1938, he formally resigned the presidency of Steele Airlines, Inc. and was succeeded by C.T. Skarolid. That year, Steele and his wife were living in Nebraska City. They lost their son, a major in the Army Air Corps, during World War II. In the next years, C.E. Steele was mentioned a few times in the newspaper, but never again for his flying exploits or endeavors. He died in 1956 and is buried in Nebraska City.

Today there is no acknowledgment of any kind that this field ever existed.

Special thanks to Cheryl for her contribution to this article!

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This was an ad in the October 18, 1924 Omaha Bee for an "aerial pageant" at the Pulitzer Field in East Omaha, Nebraska
This was an ad in the October 18, 1924 Omaha Bee for an “aerial pageant” at the Pulitzer Field in East Omaha.
This is pilot Hugo G. Heyn as featured in the Omaha World-Herald on November 27, 1927.
This is pilot Hugo G. Heyn as featured in the Omaha World-Herald on November 27, 1927.
Chris Spanggaard's dairy was a longtime member of the Omaha Milk Producers Association.
Chris Spanggaard’s dairy was a longtime member of the Omaha Milk Producers Association.


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