New Drew book grounds Great Barrington in aviation history

Bernard A. Drew with his new book, Runway 29: A History of Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington, Mass.

Ruby Citrin

New Drew book grounds Great Barrington in aviation history

GREAT BARRINGTON — Far from any commercial airport, travel can be an ordeal for residents of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. But this little town has historically been a hub for aviation.

Before airplanes, there were balloons. The first recorded balloon flight in Southern Berkshire County took off from Park Square in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on June 14, 1859. In two hours, the balloon traveled 35 miles before landing in Otis, Massachusetts, about 12 miles from Great Barrington.

With advancements in technology, new innovators entered the scene. In November 1910, Elson Barnum, Merritt Ives Wheeler, and Emmon Sutton (ages 15, 16, and 17 respectively) built the town’s first real airplane. Wheeler flew the plane a quarter of a mile, landing at Lake Mansfield.

As airplanes became more popular, landing strips materialized in Great Barrington. Free of surrounding mountains, a farm owned by Jacob Rossi was soon recognized as the best location for touchdown. Though locals knew where to find these landing strips, they were poorly marked and somewhat inaccessible to visitors. In February 1929, the Great Barrington Chamber of Commerce publicized plans to buy 80 acres from Rossi and establish a permanent airfield.

The airport’s grand opening came in late summer of 1931. Over three days, thousands of people congregated to spectate an array of flying competitions.

While numerous nearby towns – including North Canaan, Connecticut – already had their own airports, most did not withstand the test of time. Great Barrington’s airfield, however, has served the community for almost a century.

Bernard A. Drew, an author based in Great Barrington, recently published a complete history of the airport titled, “Runway 29: A History of Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.” Announced June 22, the project originated at the suggestion of Great Barrington Historical Society Archivist Gary T. Leveille. Drew, impressed by the wealth of available information, agreed to take it on.

He began his research by combing through old photos, digging up articles and conducting interviews to assemble a detailed timeline of sources and stories. When Drew sits down to write, his work as an editor and columnist at The Berkshire Courier, The Lakeville Journal, and The Berkshire Eagle enables him to churn out volumes in as little as six months.

Drew’s 58 books include numerous histories of Berkshire County. He moved to Great Barrington in 1978, and over four decades later, almost every business in town has changed ownership. “New people come in and have no sense of place or what went on before,” he said. He documents local history to connect newcomers to the past and root them in their environment.

All proceeds from sales of “Runway 29” will support Walter J. Koladza Airport’s scholarship fund for student pilots and the Great Barrington Historical Society. Copies can be found at the airport, Wheeler House, The Bookloft, and Shaker Mill Books. Keep an eye out for future publications.

Though allegedly retired, Drew already has two more books in the works.

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