Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – February, 2013
By Jim Ignasher
There was a time when the sound of an airplane motor buzzing overhead automatically caused one to look skyward, and Arthur Gould did just that whenever one passed over his farm on Ridge Road. Not only would he study the aircraft for signs of needed repairs, but he would listen for indications the engine might be in need of fixing, or perhaps was low on fuel. His hopes rose one afternoon when a small plane circled several times at low altitude as if it might land, but disappointment set in when it veered away.
“Well,’ Gould likely thought, ‘Maybe he didn’t need anything today, but now that he knows I’m here, perhaps he’ll be back.”
Sometimes it takes awhile for an idea to catch on. At the dawn of the 20th Century, there were some who felt the automobile was nothing more than a passing fad for rich people, but Henry Ford predicted a time when it would become an indispensable means of travel. When the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in 1903, few saw its practical applications, but the brothers believed a day would come when airplanes would travel sixty-miles per hour! Where would we be today if not for forward thinkers?
Arthur C. Gould of Smithfield was a forward thinker who possessed an entrepreneurial spirit. Born in 1865, he was a successful farmer, blacksmith, and wood worker; owned a prosperous ice business, and even dabbled in real estate.
However, of all his economic ventures, the most innovative was his idea to open a business called “Flyers Haven” in August of 1926.
Flyers Haven was an “aircraft repair and service station”; perhaps the first and only business of its kind in New England; or at least in Rhode Island. Basically, it was a place for passing airplanes to land for fuel or repairs much like a service station for automobiles. Gould wasn’t trying to establish an airport, just a place for aircraft to make a quick stop if need be.
It was a novel idea for the time for the airplane was still relatively new, but Gould envisioned a day when they would dot the skies, and establishments such as his would be a welcome sight for those low on fuel much like a gas station along a highway is for a motorist.
The 1920s was an exciting decade for aviation development. Newspapers constantly ran stories of aircraft altitude, speed, and distance records being set and broken. It was also the era of a new breed of pilots known as “Barnstormers”; mostly ex World War I military pilots who found themselves out of work, and missing the action when war ended. They would travel the countryside giving daring aerial exhibitions and offer rides to those willing to pay. It was also a time when the first commercial airlines were being developed, and an international race was on to see who would be the first to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.
Yet just because they flew, didn’t mean that airplanes were any more mechanically reliable than the automobiles of the day. Although configured differently, both car and aircraft utilized oil-dripping, temperamental engines that required frequent maintenance and adjustments. Gould knew first-hand about automobiles, for many years earlier he owned what he claimed to be the first car in Smithfield; a one cylinder Knox, produced by the long defunct Knox Automobile Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. The Knox engine was dubbed the “porcupine” or “hedgehog” by many mechanics due to the many wires and other projections poking out of it. While owning the only car in town, Gould discovered that it was difficult for a motorist who found himself stranded to locate things like gasoline and tires. Recalling his experiences, he considered what it must be like for a modern aviator.
Thus an idea was born as Gould realized that airplanes, like cars, needed to re-fuel and be repaired. An automobile with mechanical trouble could just coast to a stop at the side of the road, but the problem for an aviator in trouble was finding a safe place to land. In the 1920s, airports, or more accurately, airfields, were few and far between, leaving many pilots to their own devices when it came to emergency landings. Grassy fields could conceal hidden hazards such as logs, holes, or barbed wire fences, and landing on a tree lined road, or worse, one lined with telephone poles, carried even more risks. Even if the pilot negotiated a safe landing, there was the formidable task of locating the high octane gas necessary for flight. What Gould offered the troubled flyer was a full-service safe-haven.
Opening such a business required lots of elbow room, and Gould had it on his twenty-seven acre farm located between Douglas Pike and Ridge Road, behind present-day La Perche Elementary School. The site was relatively flat and open. It already had had an ice pond that could accommodate seaplane landings, and a barn that contained a blacksmith forge, a machine shop, and a wood-working shop. All he needed to do was install a tank for aviation fuel.
To let passing airplanes know that he was open for business, Gould painted a large sign on the roof of his ice house that read, “Airplanes welcome to my farm, A.C. Gould”. Although the letters were three feet tall, Gould realized they might be hard to read from high altitudes, so he created even larger signs in his meadow using white lime. In lettering that was fifteen feet long Gould wrote, “A.C. Gould Farm Landing Field”, and “Aviation Gas”. He also laid out a four-hundred foot long compass that pointed due north to aid any pilots who were just looking for directions.
Gould received further advertising when a reporter from the Providence Journal went to his farm to interview him about his new enterprise. He hadn’t had any customers as of yet, but he remained hopeful as he recalled the small plane which had circled his farm several times at a low altitude before flying off. It was his hope that the pilot would tell others, who would then mark the location on their Department of Commerce maps.
Flyer’s Haven was not an airport, nor was it meant to be. It was simply a place for a pilot to stop, re-fuel, check the oil, and be on his way. Gould’s idea was a good one, and unique enough to be written about in the New York Times, but it seems he didn’t make much money from it. Perhaps as a man who looked towards the future, he was just a little too ahead of his time. He passed away less that three years later on March 12, 1929 at the age of 63.