The 1919 Aeromania Epidemic

By on March 30, 2016
Back in 1919, Roy Musselman was known to give locals rides in his airplane, taking off from a field north of town. The photo was most likely taken on the property of the Spruce Villa Dairy. (Photo from the Robert “Sketch” Mearig collection)

Back in 1919, Roy Musselman was known to give locals rides in his airplane, taking off from a field north of town. The photo was most likely taken on the property of the Spruce Villa Dairy. (Photo from the Robert “Sketch” Mearig collection)

Ever since the first successful airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, N.C., by the Wright Brothers in 1903, Americans, as well as the entire world, have been fascinated with the magic of flying.

And Lititz residents are no exception.

In September 1918, locals had an opportunity to see an airplane for the very first time when it passed over the southern part of town at approximately 5:45 p.m. on a Monday. The “immense” plane flew about a mile-high in the air, heading east. Despite the great height at which it flew, the motor could be plainly heard from the ground.

“Did you see the aeroplane?” was the question asked by many that evening, and those who did not see it expressed deep regret for missing it.

This was most likely the first documented sighting of an airplane flying over Lititz, but it was just a mere taste of what was yet to come.

Thirteen months later, in October 1919, it was reported in the Lititz Express that our quaint town had “Aeromania,” the result of an airplane flying over the skies over a period of five days in late September of that year.

“Are you going up?” and “Were you up?” were the words frequently overheard around town, and Spruce Villa dairy farm served as the headquarters for the plane, piloted by one Roy K. Musselman.

Naturally, word spread of the spectacle happening just north of downtown, and soon this location became the hotspot for spectators from all over Lancaster County. Cars, as well as teams of horse and buggies, could be seen lined up along the roads followed by a steady stream of human traffic on foot, all wanting to get a closer glimpse of this mysterious yet wonderful object.

And some were even lucky enough to take a ride.

Imagine the feeling of both excitement and fear as 40 Lititz residents braved the skies that week, taking turns riding the open-air vessel.

For most, it was the very first time that they saw an airplane in person, let alone ever flying in one.

Esther Buch was one of those who was fortunate enough to take the trip, and described her experience in detail in the October 2, 1919 edition of the Lititz Record:

“The more I thought about it the more desire I had to go up. Thinking of it scared me for a day and a night. But when the actual time came, it was so grand I didn’t even think of being scared,” Buch said. “You must have felt like a bird, said one of my friends. I don’t know how a bird feels, but at 2,000 feet I wished it would never end.”

“You’re in a different world,” she continued. “You don’t seem to be the same person. The roads look like ribbons. The town looks flat. The standpipe looks puny. Then you see an auto moving along. It all seems unnatural, more like a dream. You don’t seem to be moving fast. Yet if you lean over to the side too far the wind is so strong you think it would blow off an arm. The machine keeps up a constant purring, until the pilot shuts off the power and then you feel yourself gliding down with a gentle motion. You realize your trip is at an end. You step out. No sooner out than you wish you were going up again. You promise yourself you are going to repeat it the first time you get a chance.”

Three years later, in 1922, local resident Robert Behmer would hold the distinction of taking the longest airplane flight to date by any person living in Lititz at that time. Traveling from Lancaster to Philadelphia and piloted by a gentleman named “Dare Devil Dusty,” Behmer’s trip took just one hour and five minutes from the time he stepped onto the plane until the time it landed.

Behmer stated in a newspaper interview that he could hardly believe he was up there an hour, and was so interested that he lost all track of time. But it wasn’t a smooth ride the entire way &tstr; a defective wheel broke during landing, turning the machine on its side and breaking the propeller. Although nobody was harmed during the incident, Behmer came home via the railroad so repairs could be made to the damaged plane.

Flash forward many years later to West Lincoln Avenue in Lititz.

Several readers may remember local farmer Amos Shenk, who lived near where Johnson & Johnson is now located. Shenk possessed and piloted his own airplane, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to take friends up in the air for rides. During this time in history, many farmers and rural residents had their own personal aircraft, as FAA regulations were not as strict as they are today.

But his jaunts weren’t all for fun and pleasure &tstr;Lester Bingeman, who owned Bingy’s restaurant on North Broad Street, would frequently take trips via the “Shenk Airport” to Bower’s Beach in Delaware, returning later in the day with bushels and bushels of fresh oysters to feed his many customers.

These days, traveling by air is very common, affordable, and convenient; but for the residents of Lititz nearly a century ago, flight was a thing of imagination and wonder.

Cory Van Brookhoven is president of the Lititz Historical Foundation and has authored several books on topics involving Lancaster County history, including Lititz. He welcomes your comments at coryvb@hotmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *