Looking Back at a Rhinelander Air Show in 1931

Jun 8, 2018

This week on A Northwoods Moment in History, local historian Gary Entz takes us back to 1931, when an air show was held in Rhinelander.

Air shows where aircraft are exhibited, air races are run, and acrobatic demonstrations take place are still staged in many venues around the world, but they used to be a common occurrence in small towns across America.  In the early days of flying, fixed base operators and aviators would use air shows to bring people out to the local airfield and drum up business for the fledgling aviation industry.

In 1931, Steve Shalbreck and C.P. Schmitt of Rhinelander Airways, in conjunction with the Oneida Count Fair Association, organized one of these early air shows for the people of the Northwoods.  In September over 1000 invitations were sent out to airfields across the country in the hope of enticing pilots to come to the Northwoods, show off their skills and compete for some of the cash prizes being offered.  There was concern that the airfield would not be ready as earlier in the summer the Barnes’ Circus had performed on the field and left it quite badly cut up.  Neverthelss, Shalbreck assured everyone that the holes would be filled and the field leveled off in time.

The event was held on October 11, 1931, but unfortunately bad weather prevented many pilots and aircraft from reaching the Rhinelander Air Show.  Still, sixteen aircraft did make it, with the largest being a Trimotor and the smallest a glider.  A much anticipated Autogyro was unable to appear due to the inclement weather.  The weather did not dampen the spirits of local residents, and large crowds showed up to thrill to the display of aeronautical skills.  Paul Snick of the Fleet Aircraft Company of Buffalo, New York, traveled the greatest distance to participate, but it was Steve J. Wittman of Oshkosh, one of the greatest race pilots and aircraft designers of the era, who won the free for all race by an easy margin as his personally-built Wittman Midwing lapped all other contestants.  Another star of the show that day was Virginia Whittlesey of Wisconsin Rapids.  She easily kept pace with all the male pilots and thrilled the viewing crowd as the featured acrobatic stunt pilot.

Fortunately for the football fans in attendance, event organizers refrained from holding many featured events between the hours of 2 and 4 pm and handed out “Pass Out Checks” to paid attendees so they could leave to watch the Rhinelander vs Tomahawk football  game, which was also scheduled for that day.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. Some sound effects for this commentary came from FreesoundThe photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.