The following piece originally appeared in the February 16, 2016 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
Sometimes, the greatest treasures are those that lie closest to home, often hidden in plain sight.
Take, for example, the antique metal slide projector in Ed Dalton’s basement, which he stored there after his father passed away over a decade ago. It was only recently, while planning for a family reunion, that Dalton’s thoughts turned again to Dad’s old projector. That’s when the retired educator unlatched the heavy black box and noticed — for the first time — the small compartment built into the end of the case.
“It was full of slides,” recalled Dalton as he ran his finger along the stack of 35mm photographic slides that had sat undisturbed in their accidental time capsule for nearly 70 years.
He left the projector alone for fear of damaging it, but eventually a light table would illuminate the tiny transparencies and trigger an avalanche of nostalgia. There was a row of single-engine planes against an Oquirrh Mountain backdrop, a group of men posing beside a plane with the words “Toolee Bell” painted proudly on its nose. Another slide depicted Dalton’s sister, Brenda, at age 5 or 6, perched on the wing of their father’s plane.
Some of the slides were scenes from family trips. A few revealed Tooele City from the air. Most, however, captured the golden age of aviation in Tooele Valley — the lively postwar days when pilots flocked to the narrow airstrip southwest of downtown Tooele, hungry for air.
“It was a little treasure trove,” said Dalton.
Specifically, Dalton’s slides focus on the Tooele Flying Service and the non-commercial Tooele Flying Club, which were organized shortly after World War II by a group of pilots, businessmen and community leaders in Tooele. The most detailed account of their history comes from the journal of Tooele businessman LaVar Tate. According to Tate’s journal, the idea for a local aviation hub sprung from a dilemma: he loved to fly, but the closest airstrip was in Salt Lake City.
Tate purchased 80 acres of land in southwest Tooele City in the early 1940s to create Tooele Valley’s first airstrip. According to Tate, the dirt runway was graded with equipment from the Tooele Ordnance Depot by prisoners of war who were employed there. A hangar large enough to house two small planes was built with financing help from local physician Herb Milburn and Buck Inglesby.
After the conclusion of World War II, Tate and Milburn organized the Tooele Flying Service and purchased their first plane, an Aeronca Chief, which they christened the “Toolee Bell.” By the mid-1940s, the fledgling airport boasted a flight school, several trainer aircraft, flight instructors and a mechanic.
Private and aspiring pilots flocked to the airstrip, their numbers bolstered by returning war veterans. Among those veterans was Dalton’s father, Edward Dalton III, who had served in the U.S. Army.
Another member of the Tooele Flying Club, Frank Eastman, was the company pilot for McFarland and Hullinger, a Tooele-based mining contractor that leased hangar space at the airstrip for its planes until 1987. Eastman often flew company founders Fayette McFarland and Sidney R. Hullinger to meetings in the region and return in storied fashion.
“He’d fly in and buzz the town so everybody knew they were coming in,” said Sid Hullinger, the latter founder’s son. “He’d get above the houses and rev the engines so we knew to go down and pick them up. If it was night, we’d drive two or three cars down there and light (the airstrip) with our headlights.”
It is unknown exactly when the Flying Club itself was formed or what specific events it might have held (Tate makes no mention in his journal entry), but Dalton said it provided a unique pastime for many local pilots.
The airstrip was deeded to Tooele City around 1948 so the Army Air Corps could pave the runway, but even then, takeoffs and landings could still get rocky. Former Tooele City Councilman Dave Faddis recalls driving the length of the runway to remove rocks and debris.
“Technically, it was not an airport,” said Faddis. “To be an airport, you have to have services and communications, and we never had those.”
Regardless, the airstrip eventually became known as the Tooele City Municipal Airport. It saw continued use until concerns about westward residential growth halted plans to develop it further. It closed in 1989 when Bolinder Field (now Tooele Valley Airport) opened in Erda. According to Faddis, the airstrip’s five hangars still stood at least into the late 1990s. Today the area is known colloquially as Tooele’s Education Corridor and is home to the Tooele Applied Technology College, the Tooele Community Learning Center and the new Utah State University Science Building.
There’s not much left of Tate’s aviation hub today, but as with Dalton’s slides, glimpses of the past can still be had. Most of the old airstrip still exists behind walls of brush and long grass, extending southward from the new USU building toward the Stockton Bar.
Dalton doesn’t know how or when the Tooele Flying Services and club officially disbanded. He said his father’s involvement largely ended when a stiff wind flipped his plane upside down on the flight apron. But that didn’t stop the elder Dalton from flying when he had the opportunity, and it didn’t curb the younger Dalton’s affection for the old airstrip.
Dalton, who serves as Executive Director of the Tooele County Education Foundation, reflected on the old days as he gazed down the airstrip during the grand opening ceremony of the USU Science Building last month:
“The view brought to mind a number of those stories told by my dad of those early flying days. I could visualize small planes coming and going, flying around town, buzzing the business district and returning to land and take off again. It must have been a busy airport 65-70 years ago.”