The historic marker at the former location of Payne Field in West Point has been restored to its rightful place.
Payne Field was a large World War I-era training field that operated from May 1918 until March 1920. About 1,500 pilots passed through the 533-acre site, which cost $891,340, or approximately $12 million in today’s money and featured two Bermuda grass airstrips. One hundred twenty five Curtis JN-4 aircraft were stationed there. Affectionately known as the “Jenny,” the JN-4 was a biplane originally purchased for flight training by the Army. It saw widespread civilian use after the war, and gained notoriety as the primary vehicle of the barnstorming era.
Today the site is primarily farmland, with no sign of its rich past in aviation.
In April, aviation archaeologist Dave Trojan donated the historic marker to the city. It had gone missing five years ago, and was believed lost until Trojan learned it was on farmer Stanley Scott’s property. Scott had apparently found the sign after it had been knocked down by vandals.
Scott restored the marker, which was covered with graffiti and pocked with bullet holes, himself and at no cost to the city. In April he presented it to the board of selectmen. Since then, it has sat in the boardroom.
On October 31 a group of citizens, including Dr. Bill East and Howlin’ Wolf historian Richard Ramsey, installed the marker on a new post alongside Hazelwood Road on property owned by Kenny Hinshaw.
“Payne Field was founded after President Woodrow Wilson promised Britain and France that the US would supply 5,000 pilots for the war effort,” East said. “He didn’t check his numbers first, and 23 fields were quickly established across the country to train new pilots. West Point had to compete to get this airfield here, and it’s the only one of those 23 sites that is undeveloped today.”
Payne Field played a role in the first transcontinental flight, East said.
“In about 1922 the US Army undertook the first transcontinental flight,” he said. “They flew from Texas to California, and from there to the East Coast. On the way back, a storm damaged the plane’s wooden propeller and it landed at Payne Field for repairs. The grass field was too muddy for the plane to take off again, and so it sat there for two weeks before the Army came back and finished the flight.”
According to Ramsay, the site was later used as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp.
“This placement of the sign is in a more visible area and gets a lot more traffic than where it was before,” East said. “Hopefully nobody will knock it down this time.”0