Written by Jack Garland Thursday, 29 May 2014 00:00
Years ago, a huge swath of flat prairie known as the Hempstead Plains stretched across what is now central Nassau County. Just a few years after Kitty Hawk, aviators from all over the country saw the area as an ideal location to conduct their early adventures aloft.
In 1909, motorcycle racer Glen Curtiss joined forces with inventor Alexander Graham Bell and began experimenting with aircraft designs. He visited Mineola, declared it to be “a nice flat place”, and set up operations east of Washington Avenue and south of Old Country Road. The early airport was known as the Washington Avenue Field or, more often, the Mineola Flying Field. Following Curtiss’ leadership, pilots and manufacturers were drawn to this and neighboring fields, setting and breaking speed, distance and altitude records practically on a weekly basis. In 1910, Bessica Raiche, a Mineola resident, became the first American woman to pilot an airplane.
When each day’s flying adventures were over, Glen Curtiss and his colleagues would engage in some “hangar flying” by stepping across the street to The Gold Bug Hotel, located at the northeast corner of Main Street and Old Country Road. It was named not after the story by
Edgar Allen Poe, but after one of Curtiss’ airplanes. No doubt the food and drinks were reasonably priced; the proprietor, Peter McLaughlin, was Curtiss’ father-in-law. Apparently, the beers were so refreshing that Curtiss designated the inn as his “Aeronautical Headquarters.”
Today, motorists on Hempstead Turnpike see signs directing them to Earle Ovington Boulevard. The road is named after the pilot who made the first airmail flight ever. In 1911, Ovington took off with a sack full of mail from a field just west of Nassau Boulevard in Garden City and headed northeast. At the time, the Mineola Post Office was located a couple of blocks south of its present location. Ovington flew overhead and made his “delivery.” The mail sack did not survive the abrupt ending to its journey, but its contents remained intact and were delivered to the proper addresses. By today’s standards, the short distance and the air-drop may appear to have been somewhat of a stunt, but it marked the beginning of airmail service which, within the next seven years, became a nationwide operation.
The popularity of the little Mineola Flying Field turned out to be its downfall. In two short years, it was found to be too congested and operations moved to a more spacious area east of Clinton Road. After several consolidations and name changes, the new airport ultimately assumed the name that the site bears to this day - Roosevelt Field. In 1917, “Field Number Two”, a military facility just to the south, was renamed Mitchel Field.
By the mid 1950s, the shopping center and the new Meadowbrook Parkway pretty much covered up any traces of an airport. In 1958, Al Hodge, the actor who portrayed TV’s Captain Video, acquired one of the large abandoned hangars, had it painted many vivid colors, and opened Spaceland, a small-scale, short-lived amusement center.
The anecdotes I have related here are only a brief sampling of a complete historical account. The list of aviation icons and their record-breaking flights in and around Mineola could fill a book—and they do. My source for much of this article is Joshua Stoff’s, “The Aerospace
Heritage of Long Island,” published by Heart of the Lakes Publishing for the Long Island Studies Institute. This work, available at the Mineola Library, is a fascinating, enjoyable read and I recommend it highly.
Of course, the 95 square miles of Hempstead Plains are now occupied by homes, businesses, and fast-food establishments. However, at Nassau Community College (formerly Mitchel Field), Eisenhower Park and other locations, there are small parcels of land that have been allowed to return to their natural state or have remained impervious to centuries of progress. If you visit one of these preserves, you can see what much of Mineola looked like in 1909. Perhaps you will recall the sentiments of Glen Curtiss and see it as “a nice flat place.”