'Doane's Airport' ... Built in 1930

From Essex Events, Spring 1998

    "When driving in Centerbrook from "Spencer's Corner" to the Bokum Center on Plains Road, one might not even notice an oddly shaped building about half way between these two areas, on the left hand side of the road.  If one did see it, a question would probably arise -- what was this structure all about?
    "The answer is easy, and does not go into what is considered "ancient" history, by any means.  In 1930, William "Bill" Doane built an airplane hangar on his father's farmland.  Bill was only 22 years old at the time, but the "flying bug" had apparently gotten to him.  Thus was born Doane's Field or Airport.  An addition was built in 1935.  Rides were given and an occasional "Aerial Circus" or show would be presented.  One of the interesting people to land here in the mid 1960s was the famous Howard Hughes, then a Hollywood celebrity.  This business was operated up to World War II by the Doane family, when Bill went west to become a flight instructor for the Army Air Force.
    "During the war and shortly thereafter, Bob Harrison from the New Haven area ran the airport, before moving to Deep River and operating a De Soto car agency.  After a short return to Essex immediately after the war, the Doanes removed to Arizona on a permanent basis.  Mr. Doane died shortly thereafter in a tragic air accident.
    "In 1952, Charles Savard leased the Airport from Everitt W. Doane (the father of Bill Doane) for $90.00 per month, for 5 years, but specified that the lease could be discontinued at any time, if it was not profitable.  In 1956, Everitt Doane sold 23.9 acres and the hangar to the R. W. Cramer Co. for $27,500.  At that time, this company was located directly across the street from the Doane's Pharmacy complex on Main Street in Centerbrook.  A provision of this deed stated that "the grantee (R. W. Cramer) shall not use the land herein for a public or commercial airport.  This restriction shall not prevent such use for the airport by the grantee in connection with its corporate business.  This restriction shall be null and void upon the death of the grantor (Everitt Doane)."  Everitt Doane died April 7, 1970.
    "Whether the Cramer Company wanted this land to use as a corporate landing field is questionable.  They were probably thinking in terms of physical expansion, and this property was literally, "in their backyard."  This was more or less confirmed by the decision to build a new factory, but in Old Saybrook, off Mill Rock Road.  The new parent company of R. W. Cramer Co., Giannini Controls, sold the Airport property in 1966.
    "The very reason this land was ideal for an airport (or for factory expansion), was a reason Centerbrook was the initial center of Essex -- the flat land, that was ideal for farming.  Originally, this whole area (roughly paralleling Route 153) was known as Scotch Plains, and most early Essex settlers owned parcels here, for agriculture was the main factor of life from 1650 to 1770.  Indeed, Mr. Justus E. Doane had willed tracts of land in this area to his son Everitt in April, 1919, including this one, with a grand total of 48 acres and buildings.  The Everitt Doane homestead itself is still standing, on the north side of the Westbrook Road (technically West Avenue in 1929), close to the Bokum Road intersection.  This house was originally built by Josiah Nott circa 1844.
    "Justus himself had purchased land here from the heirs of Seldon Mather Pratt in 1903.  One of these heirs, James Pratt lived in Ohio, while the other, Jane Pratt, was a resident of New Mexico territory.  One of the parcels purchased was 14 acres, "land, being part of the farm of Seldon Mather Pratt, deceased."  The total price was $800.  Seldon Mather Pratt's homestead stood where the Cumberland Farms Store is currently located.  This house location dramatically indicates how large this particular farm was, encompassing most of the land on the east side of Westbrook Road to the corner of Bokum.  The Central Burying Ground was cut from this area.  Going back further prior to Pratt ownership, this airport land was controlled by members of both the Williams and Nott families.
    "Interestingly enough, the Town of Essex used aerial photography in 1929/1930 to formulate its tax maps.  These are an incredibly valuable resource, and fortunately have been kept in excellent condition by our Town Clerks and Assessors.  One of the maps, #63, shows the E. E. Dickinson "Tank Building," which was 78' by 159' and was/is located relatively close to the airport, with a name painted full size on its essentially flat roof, ESSEX -- this was surely a sign that the age of flying had come to the lower valley.
    "Some of the information used herein was garnered from a fine article in "The Gazette," in the January 18, 1979 issue, which featured an interview with Mrs. Louise Doane, the widow of William Doane."

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