Leelanau County airport seeks historic designation

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By JOE DANDRON
Capital News Service

LANSING — Clinton F. Woolsey Memorial Airport wasn’t first in flight, but it may become the first former dairy-farm-turned airport to be designated a state historical site.

The Michigan Historical Commission has taken the first steps to approve designation of the site in Northport, Leelanau County.

“They approved that the site is worthy of being named a state historic site,” said Sandra Clarke, the director of the Michigan History Center. “This is a two-step process.”

Woolsey died in a plane crash near Buenos Aires in October 1927 at the age of 32 while piloting an aircraft named the Detroit. He served in World War I, was a renowned aviator and counted Charles Lindbergh among his former students.

The airport was named because of Woolsey’s heroic achievements as an aviator and the tragedy of his death. The pilot was supposed to become the first to fly over the Atlantic Ocean until he crashed while attempting to complete the 22,000-mile Pan American Goodwill flight from 1926-27.

Woolsey died, according to airport manager Tom Wetherbee, because he refused to leave his flight engineer who had no parachute after their plane collided with another while attempting to land.

Clarke said that the first step, which the commission decided, is that the site is significant to the state’s history.

Clarke said that the next move is approving the text of a historical marker for the commission’s final approval. The commission and historical center will also verify the facts in the application as part of finalizing the process.

Larry Wagenaar, the executive director of the Historical Society of Michigan, said he’s happy the county and people of Northport are getting recognition for their effort to honor the airport as a historic site.

Michigan has been preserving historical sites like the airport since the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 was enacted. Wagenaar said that there are nearly 2,000 sites in the state.

Now that the commission has decided the site is important to state history, it will take the final steps in recognizing it as a historical site.

From there, it should take two to three months for the marker to get sent to Leelanau County and Woolsey’s descendents who have been the leaders in pursuing the designation, according to Clarke.

Wetherbee said it’s not surprising that the family sought the designation as a historical site — the airport was built on the Woolsey family’s farmland. The stone terminal was the farm’s creamery for decades.

“Members of the family still live in the area,” Wetherbee said.

“It is important to honor the past,” he said. “It has a wonderful story, and history is all about stories.”

Historic view of the Clinton F. Woolsey Memorial Airport. Courtesy of Tom Wetherbee.
Former Woolsey farm creamery that became the airport terminal. Courtesy of Tom Wetherbee.