With the celebration of Kenyon’s 200th anniversary, an obscure part of the school’s history has surfaced in the recently compiled Bicentennial Timeline: From 1934 to 1972, some of today’s athletic fields were previously an airport. Known as Port Kenyon, the airport started as a way to store alumni aircrafts, but quickly expanded to include a flight school where students could learn to fly and even earn civilian pilot’s licenses.
Port Kenyon started with Wilbur Cummings (Class of 1902) and his wife, Marian. The first woman in the United States to earn a commercial pilot’s license, Marian worked as a corporate pilot for her husband. In 1933, she was set to fly her husband to Gambier for a Board of Trustees meeting. Despite the lack of a landing strip, Marian landed her Stinson Reliant airplane on an empty field on campus. This is when inspiration struck Wilbur: Kenyon College needed an airport.
In 1934, Port Kenyon became the first officially recognized airport at a liberal arts college in the United States. Wilbur’s generous gift included a landing field, hangar and two training planes. After noticing students’ excitement about aeronautics, Wilbur expanded Port Kenyon to include an aeronautical school. At the school, students studied aviation, learning important aeronautics principles such as flight theory and aerodynamics as well as in-air instruction.
Over the next few years, students happily took advantage of the airport on campus and established a flying club in 1935. The Kenyon Flying Club won the Intercollegiate Air Meet in 1937 and 1939 and tied with Stanford in 1938. These were the glory days of Port Kenyon.
When the U.S. entered WWII in 1941, the school of aeronautics shut down completely so that the U.S. Air Force could use the port as a training center. After the war, the Kenyon Flying Club lived on despite the aeronautics school remaining closed. Flying at Kenyon became less common when in 1956 two students were tragically killed in a crash while flying in Gambier.
Thomas Stamp ’73, retired college historian and keeper of Kenyoniana, graduated from Kenyon a year after Port Kenyon was shut down completely. During its final years, Stamp recalled that Port Kenyon was still being used by some students. “I had one friend who had a plane here, a couple of friends who had learned to fly while they were here, not from instruction supported by the [College]…, but just from local people who knew how to fly,” Stamp said. Port Kenyon was decommissioned in 1972 due to budgeting, as well as to create more space for athletic fields. Stamp remembers there being no major outcry at this decision, as most students at the time barely acknowledged its existence in the first place.
Now, Port Kenyon and its aviation program are a mostly forgotten part of Kenyon’s history. But, next time you pass the lacrosse field, take a moment to imagine what once resided in that same space a little more than 50 years ago.