Piece of Atlanta’s past takes flight

Ron Alexander has a long and happy relationship with flight. It began when he was an Indiana boy who couldn’t keep his eyes off the sky, matured when the U.S. Air Force gave him wings, and became a livelihood when Delta Air Lines put him in the cockpit of long-range jets.

Ask him about airplanes and he’ll smile, get a wistful look on his face. The hands that gripped the controls of transports over Southeast Asia during Vietnam open, close. And the eyes of that long-ago boy flit skyward again.

But Alexander’s greatest testament to his love of the air is what he’s building on the ground. Fifty miles south of Atlanta, the 67-year-old Griffin resident is assembling a replica of Atlanta’s Candler Field. You may know it better as the airport that became Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

He has opened one building, with plans to erect more to replicate the cluster of structures where Atlantans became acquainted with flight. He’s doing it with a lot of his own money, the help of some other old guys and an unshakable belief that people will visit this quiet spot where peaches once grew.

And it’s not just a museum showcasing airplanes. This reborn Candler Field aims to highlight the era between the two world wars, on the ground as well as in the air. Visitors can get a look at the work in progress for free Wednesdays through Sundays, or at a fund-raiser called Vintage Day this coming Saturday.

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On a recent afternoon, school kids stood in a curious knot while a volunteer operated a player piano in the museum hangar. Around them were reminders of the era of running boards and barnstormers: two Model A Fords, a ’33 Chevrolet, a couple of Model T’s — some museum property, others on loan.

Sharing space with the cars: a sunburst yellow 1928 Curtiss Robin, a skinny thing that looked more like a bright-yellow dragonfly than an airplane; and a scarlet Waco biplane, propeller pointed toward the clouds. In an adjacent room, the canvas, steel and wooden guts of two old airplanes waited for mechanics to make them move again.

“I felt that just an airport museum wouldn’t be successful,” said Alexander, who owns a couple of Stearman biplanes and a 1940 DC-3 passenger plane. “This is focusing on a time period, a culture from the 1920s and ’30s.”

Wheels to wings

The original Candler Field had been a race track, established in the early 1900s by Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler as America became acquainted with that loud new curiosity, the automobile. In 1925, the city leased the site near Hapeville, declared it an airport and began wooing air-mail route contracts handed out the by U.S. Post Office Department. Thus did Atlantans become accustomed to the snarl of airplanes overhead.

In time, the complex included a flight school and hangars for American Airways (later American Airlines) and Eastern Air Transport (which evolved into Eastern Airlines), whose distinctive acronym, EAT, graced the roof of a hangar.

As World War II spread, Candler Field became a military installation in 1940. Called Atlanta Army Airfield, it closed at the end of the war and returned to civilian duties. In 1946, the site changed names again, to Atlanta Municipal Airport, and later was named after Mayor William Hartsfield. When former Mayor Maynard Jackson died, the city appended the airport’s name to include his, too. By then, Candler Field was gone, a historic footnote.

But forgotten?

A look at the past

Delta hired Capt. Ron Alexander right out of the U.S. Air Force, where he served from 1964 to 1969, including a year in Vietnam. In 1974, the carrier transferred him to Atlanta, where he flew national and international flights. In 2002, Alexander retired at 60, and turned his attention to an aged airport near his Griffin home.

The old Peach State Airport, founded by a Delta pilot 40 years earlier, was for sale. The deal included 125 acres that featured a 3,000-foot runway, a hangar and a few other buildings on the outskirts of Williamson, about six miles west of Griffin.

Alexander had the money. While a pilot, he had created and sold a few businesses that catered to the flight industry. In 2004, he bought the airport for about $500,000. He renamed it Peachstate Aerodrome, a place catering to classic airplanes. He also formed a nonprofit corporation, Candler Field Museum Inc.

He sold off most of the land to a developer, who carved out 29 lots as home sites. They’re designed primarily for people who keep airplanes at the nearby aerodrome. Ten lots have been sold, three houses built.

The first museum building, a replica of the American Airways hangar, opened in August 2008. It’s two stories and tan, taller than anything else around. In all that flatness, it looks out of place, like a cinderblock on a dining room table.

Its doors open to an earlier time, when air travel did not mean waiting in your stocking feet to get buzzed through an electric gate. The black-and-white tiled floors lead past heavy oak chairs, replicas of those travelers used while waiting for a Ford Trimotor, DC-3 or other propeller-driven craft to land on the grassy field. Double doors lead to the displays of old cars, airplanes, photos and other paraphernalia dug up from attics and barns.

One guy, said Alexander, gave the museum a calliope, a wheeled music machine originally steam-driven but converted to electricity years ago. It predates the 1920s and ’30s, but was just too interesting to decline, said Alexander. He made the same exception for one of the museum’s centerpiece autos, a 1909 Sears. It’s more carriage than car, mounted on pencil-thin tires, chain-driven and spindly. Yes, its two-cylinder engine runs.

Anything that doesn’t run, said Alexander, “will be hung from the ceiling.” In other words, some of the planes will be hoisted overhead.

The museum also contains the Barnstormer Grill. Alexander is pleasantly surprised at its popularity; weekends, he said, the place is busy until closing time.

‘Unique’ museum?

The new Candler Field is a “living history” museum that provides visitors with a comprehensive look at an era, said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums, a nonprofit group in Washington.

In Georgia, Callaway Plantation, a collection of 18th- and 19th-century buildings near Athens, fits the description of living history. So does the Georgia Agrirama, in Tifton, which focuses on rural life in the 1800s.

Blanton did not know of any museums focusing on the years between the two world wars. “That may be unique,” he said.

Museum volunteer Jim Friedline thinks so. A retired Delta pilot, Friedline, 81, said the museum reminds him of his childhood in Illinois, when pilots without radio or radar followed train tracks to reach their destinations. He recalls landing a biplane here 40 years ago. Back then, a farmer sold peaches from a shed near the runway.

“I’ve watched this whole thing [museum] happen,” he said.

‘Lot of resources’

The poster promoting Saturday’s Vintage Day is a study in old-fashioned marketing. “Step Back to the 1920s!” it declares, and features reminders of that era: biplanes and fat-fendered cars; pioneering Georgia barnstormer Doug Davis, goggles atop his fearless head.

There will be rides offered in old cars and equally old airplanes, and a chance to win a cash prize. It is a fund-raiser for the museum, which Anderson estimates won’t be finished for at least another decade. The complex may cost $10 million to finish, or perhaps more.

He’s confident the museum can attract grants. “We have a lot of resources here,” said Anderson. “When people realize what we’re doing, they’ll jump on board.”

Meantime, the sky is the limit. Maybe the complex should have a hotel? Maybe an apartment complex for retired pilots?

Maybe Alexander is slightly nuts?

“I’ve wondered about that myself,” he said.

Maybe he’s not. Anderson’s eyes may be in the clouds, but his feet are on the ground.

Candler Field Museum

Open 11 a.m-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday ; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. 3 p.m. Sunday. Vintage Day takes place 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sept. 12. 401 Jonathan’s Roost Road, Williamson. 770-467-9490; www.peachstateaero.com.

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