The year is 1930 and the swinging, big band sounds of artists such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller are all the rage. Ice cream socials, community barbecues, and bake sales at the local church are standard entertainment for the locals.
A pound of Schilling’s Coffee at the Piggly Wiggly will put you back about 36 cents and an entire, wool, made-to-order suit with an extra pair of pants thrown in will cost you a hefty $37.50.
While the industrialized world reels beneath the fall of the stock market, sending consumer spending and investments into a steep decline during the Great Depression from 1929-1932, big things are happening in the Golden State and to a historic level, Oakdale itself creating pockets of hope for a brighter future.
A future made possible by the Oakdale Municipal Airport.
Under the most unlikely of circumstances, thanks to a handful of determined townsfolk, Oakdale was quickly gaining a reputation for being a progressive city with hungry ambition.
After two years of ardent campaigning and behind-the-scenes legwork, which included sending then-Mayor Dr. C.C. Wood up in the air with a Stockton Air Dome pilot for a quick trip from Stockton to Oakdale, it was finally going to happen — the official dedication of the Oakdale Airport, which at the time was nothing more than an airstrip with lofty aspirations and big dreams.
And the coordinators were going to do it up big.
This was ground-breaking news for the little cowboy town.
While surrounding cities, such as Tracy and Modesto were already enjoying the fanfare of having a “modern” airport at their disposal, Oakdale was eager to join the ranks of its valley neighbors but not everyone was on board with the aviation plan.
In 1929, a small group of townspeople organized a movement to block the airport proposal by circulating a petition asking that the purchase of the land for the proposed airport not come from city funds.
But their efforts to stop the motion died without enough support and the plans surged forward as overall community excitement for the project helped fuel one of the most impactful future decisions made by the city’s Founding Fathers.
In an editorialized piece published by The Oakdale Leader, March 14, 1929, the reporter’s unbridled enthusiasm for the future airport was almost palpable as they gushed, “…We believe in aviation. We believe it will rank as high in importance in our transportation system within the next few years, as any other method of transportation now in use. The fact that we are not on a regular air transportation line does not matter. The airlines as at present established, will not remain the same forever. New air routes are being established from time to time…”
With starry-eyed hope, the coordinators felt aviation was the way of the future, which was echoed by the same editorialized article, further stating, “…Aviation is not standing still. It is the purpose of aviation men to increase the use of airplanes as quickly as possible and to establish aircraft as an everyday mode of transportation…”
And thus, the plans to propel Oakdale into the future were firmly on track.
Once given the official greenlight for the Oakdale Airport, the coordinators wanted to put Oakdale on the map with a party worth talking about from here to San Francisco — and they spared no expense to make it happen.
Billed as the American Legion Airport Dedication, the two-day event May 3-4, 1930, was filled with activities geared toward drawing locals and out-of-towners to the city that included an air show, parachute jumps at 8,000-feet, and a rousing “Aviation Ball” at the Oakdale Ballroom with music by the “Famous KPO’s North Americans.”
The community was a-flutter with anticipation as the list of events continued to grow. Following the dedication that Saturday, plans for a “death-defying” dead-stick landing where the pilot had to glide onto the runway without any propulsive power, were guaranteed to wow the crowd as well as stunting contests, and an 18-mile race for 90-horse power stock model planes.
Sunday’s plans would include more of the same events.
Coordinators planned for 20,000 people to flock to Oakdale for the event as they stacked the weekend’s extravaganza with even bigger draws, such as the $30,000 Lockheed “Sirius,” a sister ship to the one Charles A. Lindbergh used to create the record-breaking coast-to-coast speed record.
The Keystone-Loening amphibian promised to carry passengers up to one of the reservoirs to land and take off but coordinators boasted no less than 75 ships, ranging from stock and racing models, would be on display and in service.
An article in The Oakdale Leader prior to the event, stated, “The exhibition will be an education in itself and the maneuvers, parachute jumps and races will leave nothing to be desired in the way of thrills.”
As it turned out, 20,000 projected attendees may have been ambitious, as only 5,000 people turned out for the event. The smaller attendance was blamed on technical issues facing the air show which prevented the use of the huge Standard Oil plane after an accident affecting the landing gear curtailed use of the big vessel.
Months later, as the excitement died down, people were invited to get their wings with private flying instruction, guaranteeing a private license for those who completed the course and airshows continued to be a community event as planes from around the country staged exciting air stunts for the crowds.
While having the distinction of a local airport was a source of pride for the city, maintaining the facility took cold, hard cash — which was still hard to come by in a struggling economy.
Improvements to the airport had to wait until 1934 when the potential injection of federal funds totaling $3,500 would enable the city to hire teams to level and construct 2,000-feet of runway.
But trouble plagued the fledgling airport as the funds never appeared, preventing the necessary improvements to make the airport runaway viable for business use.
In fact, work began but was abruptly stopped as the city was unable to pay workers for their labor, many of whom were needed to work the fields to feed their families.
The mayor of Coalinga and two members of their city council were scheduled to fly into the Oakdale Airport on a business trip to inspect a fire engine being built by P.E. Van Pelt but the runway, half-finished, was too muddy and the plane had to land in Modesto instead.
By 1937, it seemed the bloom had fallen off the rose, as disillusionment over the usefulness of the airport created friction within the community.
While airshows and dances were fun, it certainly didn’t pay the bills, which was something the city sorely needed in order to make the purchase worthwhile.
Not to mention, the vision of a thriving airport had all but crumbled beneath the reality of maintaining the airstrip without a sustainable income source. Federal funds, which were used to improve the runway, were slow in coming and often, unreliable.
Discussions at City Council began in earnest how to monetize their investment, which included talk of creating a golf course and renting the land out to farmers for agricultural purposes.
And then, in 1938, frustrated City Council members voted to sell the 79 acres comprising the Oakdale Municipal Airport in the hopes of recouping the city’s investment.
Hope Springs Eternal
However impractical, a stoic love for what-could-be continued to buoy the Oakdale Airport. In 1941, a new grassroots campaign was born through the Oakdale Merchants Association, opposing the proposed sale of the airport, a sentiment shared by the Chamber of Commerce and the Oakdale 20-30 Club.
Change was in the air and, once again, the future seemed headed for the skies. As reported by The Oakdale Leader in the Jan. 16, 1941 edition, “…With the government teaching many young men to fly, as well as many people taking private instruction, it is thought that in the near future there will be many light planes owned by private persons.”
With the United States heavily embroiled in the fighting against Germany in WWII, the need for more pilots became more pressing.
Suddenly, the Oakdale Airport seemed potentially useful again.
New Life, New Purpose
WWII changed the landscape of the world as well as the trajectory of the Oakdale Airport’s future. Sadly, despite its hopes to the contrary, the original airstrip that started with high hopes and dreams of becoming a thriving aerial hub was not going to happen. The area tended to get boggy during the rainy season and money to continually improve the modest runway never materialized.
However, when one door closes, another opens.
Dan Donnelly, a 1933 Oakdale High School graduate and maverick Navy pilot, was making a name for himself within the US government, flying top-secret, classified missions around the world and would later become an integral part of the Oakdale Airport’s rebirth.
“They say he flew everything the Navy had, but mostly off aircraft carriers,” shared son Corky Donnelly of his father’s time in the cockpit.
Donnelly returned to Oakdale in 1946 and started a flight school at the airport. According to another Oakdale Leader article, Donnelly received a government contract to give flight lessons to former G.I.s for pleasure-related flying.
“Everybody wanted to learn to fly but couldn’t afford it,” said Leroy Giovannani, 72, of those early aviation days. “It ended up the government would pay for it with the GI bill. Instead of going to college, they’d use the money to learn to fly.”
Corky shared, “You have to understand, in those days, people didn’t have a lot to do. You worked. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment. If you could learn to fly, that was pretty cool entertainment.”
One day, Donnelly was giving Vernon Rodden flying lessons. The Rodden family was big in the cattle business with ranches in the area and Vernon wanted to fly over to get a look at the cattle.
Located within the Rodden property was a hill that they couldn’t irrigate and thus, couldn’t grow clover.
According to Corky, Vernon told Dan as they flew over the pasture, “Well, Dan, how about if I donate this piece of the ranch, the barley field, to the City of Oakdale and if they would put some money in, build an airstrip and a hangar, you could run it.”
Donnelly thought it was a swell idea and ran with it.
The new airfield, located on Laughlin Road where it remains today, was christened with an air show and the fresh location breathed new life into the Oakdale Airport.
And in that time, Corky said with pride, “My dad taught a lot of people how to fly.”
The Legacy Continues
In 1993, the Oakdale City Council unanimously voted to rename the Oakdale Municipal Airport, Dan Donnelly Field, honoring Donnelly’s contribution to the airport’s growth and continued presence within the community.
Touted as the airport founder, Donnelly created a legacy within the community that many still remember as a source of pride.
The then-77-year-old Donnelly expressed his humble gratitude for the honor with a thank you printed in The Leader, stating, “…I was truly honored and touched by the attendance of friends, family, business associates and dignitaries. I will forever be grateful.”
Reminiscing about that moment, Corky shared, “Our family was so honored. He told me that day, ‘Corky, if I die tomorrow, my life is complete.’ He said, dedicating that airport to him was one of the greatest things. So, yeah, our family … we’re very, very proud.”
Donnelly Field is about to experience another renaissance with new opportunities reminiscent of its humble beginnings that started with a dream and a vision for the future.
If Dan Donnelly were alive today, he’d no doubt smile with approval as opportunities to introduce the next generation to the joys and wonder of aviation are starting to form under the direction of airport manager and Oakdale City Senior Engineering Technician Michael Renfrow.
“If the city would put some money into it, improve it, make it bigger and better, you would attract more people and more business. That would be a dream come true for our family,” Corky said.
If Renfrow has his way, Donnelly’s dream is about to become a reality.
And that’s definitely something to smile about.
Watch for Part II of the Oakdale Airport three-part series featuring the current plans for Dan Donnelly Field coming soon.