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Sand Canyon Airport – The Early Days

Sand Canyon Airport (now Chewelah Municipal Airport) is located approximately 5 miles north of Chewelah adjacent to Sand Canyon Road and Chewelah Golf & Country Club. It had its beginnings back in the days when President Roosevelt passed the National Recovery Act (NRA) of 1933. With the NRA came the Works Project Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and National Forests which were being defined. The Colville National Forest near Chewelah was one of those forests that came in to being.

As a part of developing National Forests, the government desired modern access for the public, and as a part of that access, a system of “wilderness airstrips” within the new National Forests was defined. These wilderness airstrips were to serve forest administrators and also act as emergency landing locations.

The site where Sand Canyon Airport sits today was chosen by the WPA to be a future wilderness airstrip serving the Colville National Forest. This was a little unusual, as the site was not exactly within the boundaries of the Colville National Forest, but it was seen as a viable site given the surrounding terrain. And after all, the site was very close to the southern boundary of the Colville Forest. So the WPA was put to work clearing the site for an airstrip. This was back in the mid 1930’s.

But there were other projects in the local area that were launched about the same time. Grand Coulee Dam and the formation of Lake Roosevelt were two of the largest. Jobs on the dam were much higher paying than the workers were getting trying to build a wilderness airport in Chewelah. The workers left the airport project for higher wages, and the airport project went dormant. What was left was the beginnings of an airport, trees down, and levelled somewhat, but not useable for airplane traffic.

About this time, Lee Holford moved to Chewelah with his mother and father. The Holford family had been “flooded out” of Inchelium, meaning that with Lake Roosevelt being flooded, many homes in the backwater had to be relocated for higher ground or just flooded. Lee, although only age 11 at the time, went on to become a strong advocate of the new airport in Sand Canyon. But before that, World War II got in the way, and Lee found himself in the Navy as a radio man practicing for the invasion of Japan. Fortunately, the war ended prior to the invasion, and Lee came home to Chewelah.

Once home, Lee served an apprenticeship at the Chewelah Funeral Home from 1946 to 1948. In 1947, Lee and five others having enthusiasm to fly and a passion for airplanes formed the Chewelah Flying Club. The founding fathers of the club were as follows:

  • President: Ken Hafer
  • Vice President: Lee Millay
  • Secretary/Treasurer: Lee Holford
  • Member: Ernie Smith
  • Member: P. A. Bryan
  • Member: Kenneth Gunter

But they needed an airplane, and they found one for sale in a farmer’s field near Wilbur. It was a 1942 L-2 Taylorcraft priced at $1200. Each of the flying club members paid $200 and the deal was done. The airplane had been used to shoot coyotes, and one of the wing struts was damaged when a shotgun blast hit it, but the airplane was still flyable. Ken Hafer and Lee flew it back to Chewelah and landed in Ken’s alfalfa field just south of Chewelah, where it was flown by Club Members. Lee says “they flew the pants off of it”.

Chewelah Municipal Airport
Charlotte Holford and Phillis Millay. Click image for larger size.

At the time it was unknown to Club Members that the beginnings of an airstrip existed on State land up on the sand canyon north of town. Ken Hafer in talking with a Forest Ranger learned of the spot, and the Forest Ranger said to go ahead an “improve on it” if you want. The land was only being used as a “lover’s lane” back then. It had a nice view, and still does.

With this word of mouth approval, the Flying Club set out to make improvements. In May/April 1947 they used Hafer’s D-4 Dozer Cat and his large farm tractor to remove small trees and brush. They levelled the cleared area with a borrowed antique tow-behind county grader. Then they rolled it with a heavy steel/concrete roller and a 20 foot terrain drag leveler borrowed from Colville Airport. Ernie Smith provided his two war surplus 6 x 6 trucks to transport this heavy equipment from Colville. The airport was declared flyable.

On May 25, 1947, Lee Holford flew the Club’s Taylorcraft from Ken Hafer’s alfalfa field up to the improved airstrip in the sand canyon and as such, became the first pilot to land there. It was a grand and historical event. The L-2 had found a new home for the flying season. In the winter months, it was taken to Deer Park and hangered there.

Chewelah Municipal Airport
Lee Holford fueling the L-2. Click image for larger size.

It’s appropriate to mention a little of the history of the Chewelah armory, which was in some way related to the airstrip at sand canyon. Lee Holford had a hunting friend named Graydon Kimball, who happened to be an officer in the Washington State Army Guard. In casual conversation one day, it was learned that the Guard was planning to build an armory centrally located in Stevens County to serve N.E. Washington State. The Guard preferred a city with an airplane landing strip close by.

The Commanding Officer of the Guard unit at the time was a gentleman by the name of R. Paul Anderson, who lived and worked at the Magnesite Quarry just west of Chewelah. Paul passed the word on to Washington State Guard Headquarters that Chewelah had an airstrip near to town, and convinced the Guard General to fly in and meet the City Administrators, the Flying Club Members, and visit the new airport. As a part of this process, if the armory was going to be built, the airport had to be published on existing aeronautical charts. So that was made to happen, and the armory was built in town. The Armory went on to be used as a commercial garment business, employing many people from Chewelah.

Lee Holford and the original Flying Club charter members eventually went their own ways. Lee went on to a successful career pioneering aviation at Felts Field and Geiger Field, during the initial days of NW Airlines and United flying to Spokane. Lee Millay moved to Alaska to work in FAA Communications, Kenneth Gunter moved away to a larger city in hotel employment, and Ken Hafer, because of poor vision, gave up flying. The two remaining members, P. A. Bryan and Ernie Smith apparently bartered the Taylorcraft L-2 away to help settle existing hangar fees and repair costs that were due.

The above history was documented from a recorded transcript of an interview with Lee Holford at the Pizza Factory in Deer Park on May 15, 2019. The interview was conducted by Al Volz and Dave Gilbert, both of Chewelah. Lee was 92 years old at the time. Lee currently lives with his wife in Colbert, Washington.