Sherman has its municipal airport and Grayson County has its North Texas Regional Airport where Perrin Air Force Base once was located. Today, there is no municipal airport in Denison, but between about 1928 and the mid 1940s, a small air field east of Denison was a popular place.
Gray Field was located just south of Highway 120 east — between there and what we now know as Ambrose Road. All that is left of the field is a road appropriately named Airport Road.
An undated and much yellowed clipping from The Denison Herald proclaimed “Reopening of “Gray Field Brings Head Start for Denison’s Post-War Aviation Activities.”
At that time, the article says, aviation was a big item in Denison’s post-war hopes, and a few enthusiastic pilots and would-be pilots were doing something about it at Gray Field. The field was little more than a cow pasture until Flier Tom McBee (as he was identified in the article) cleaned out the hay-filled hangar there and started operations anew.
A number of men and women of various ages and occupations began taking their “primary” training under McBee. At least a dozen of them had already experienced the thrill that the article said came one to every airman – the solo hop.
Among those earning their wings there, where it was hoped would become a big thing in flying, were four women, none of whom had so much as been a passenger in an airplane before that first lesson.
Lorene Duane from Denison normally spent her days in the cashier’s window at the Rialto Theater. The 19-year-old had recently soloed and was thinking about entering aviation professionally.
Zoe Rutherford of Denison was the first girl to solo on the reopening of Gray Field on Aug. 17 (year unknown). Flying to her was a hobby because she recently had left for New York to join an all-girl band with a year’s contract and the hope of starting a career in professional music. She loved airplanes but wouldn’t trade her trumpet for a B-29, the article said.
Anita Doyle, who will be remembered by many as the Denison High School physical education teacher, was the second girl to make her solo hop at the field. She enjoyed flying but wasn’t worried about a future in aviation.
An employee of the Denison District U.S. Engineers, Mrs. Ouida Self soloed late in the month, but said she would be staying with her typewriter in the engineer office and relegating her flying to the “extra-curricular” field.
It would be interesting to know the career path these four young women followed. McBee said the girls were “wonderful,” explaining that each qualified for the solo hop in normal training time. I probably shouldn’t put the rest of McGee’s quote in the column, but he is no longer around to be harassed, so I will. He said that “Girl students are more relaxed at the controls than male fledglings and handle them more smoothly,” but out of their earshot he said, “Just to keep the record straight, women students don’t have the control and judgment in tight spots that men have.”
McBee said that women weren’t hogging the show at Gray Field because a number of men also had achieved solo flights and others had taken refresher courses, while still others were putting in many hours as learners.
Among the converts was Dr. Don Freeman, then a youthful pediatrician who through the years was the “baby doctor” for many Denison youngsters, including this writer. George Linskie of the U.S. Engineers was already a licensed pilot. He joined McBee in buying two three-place Cub cruisers. McBee had a Cub trainer and a Taylorcraft and a light monoplane to round out the field’s flying equipment.
The picture that accompanied the article showed Neal Hayes, Dr. Freeman, Linskie, McBee, W.W. Shelley and Ed Briggs. The four women, Lorene Doane, Zoe Rutherford, Ouida Self and Anita Doyle were standing behind the men. A second clipping only of a photo of a group, also undated, shows members of Air Scout quadroon Number 204 in front of a plane at Gray Field, where they were learning to fly as part of the Boy Scout senior program designed for older youths. Pictured are Donald McBee, Leonard Isom, Epifanio Villarreal Jr., Tom McKee, squadron leader and operator of Gray Field, Raymond Myers, Vittie Corthron, Bradford Mott, Ralph Mullikin, O. M. Pearson, Eugene Barnes, Glenn Neidert and Ed Briggs.
While looking for information on Gray Field I came across a Texas GenWeb Page with contributions from my friends Mavis Anne Bryant and Jim Sears, who has provided fodder for columns in the past. According to Airport Construction and Management magazine in 1929, C.L. Letot had taken over management of the field that was to be used by the Dallas Aviation School of Dallas that had a one-year lease with an option to renew it for five years. Spare parts, gasoline and oil were to be kept at the airport.
Here’s where the name of the airfield manager is suspect. In 1932 Cpt. W.F. Long, then head of the school, said that Don Bigbee would manage the field with the help of a mechanic. I have a feeling that Bigbee and McBee were one and the same. That same year in July, in an article in the San Antonio Express was a story about Don Bigbee of Dallas and J.A. Gulchar of Lafayette, La., both 30 years old, being killed in an airplane crash a mile from the Lafayette Municipal Airport while they were stunt flying. The plane had been purchased only a few days before and the wing was seen to crumble.
One young Denison man who learned to fly at Gray Field went on to be known as an outstanding aviator. Raymond Willard Hayes was born May 18, 1916, in Bonham and came to Denison as a young boy with his family in 1934. He was a brother to Mack Hayes, now a Denison resident.
During Willard’s senior year in Denison High School he began taking flying lessons, and after five years he went on to earn both his pilot certification and his commercial pilot’s license.
Through the years I’ve heard many of what now are old timers — and mostly have passed away — talk about the thrills they had flying at Gray Field. I seem to remember my late grandmother Anna Vaughan talking about her first airplane ride there as a young woman.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.