By Carol Lee Anderson
NEW HAMPSHIRE – Two significant histories in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire came together for the month of September at the Belknap Mill, a fully restored, early American textile mill located in Laconia.
The mill once played a part in the development of the Industrial Revolution and is the nation’s oldest unaltered textile mill. Today it serves the community as a cultural arts center and museum, hosting monthly exhibits throughout the year.
The latest exhibit at the mill showcases the history and present-day activities of Laconia Municipal Airport (KLCI) and is titled, “Laconia Airport’s Rich History & Bright Future.”
The display, planned by the Laconia Airport Authority, was the result of months of planning. The numerous organizations that call the airport home set up displays of their own, which give visitors a complete understanding of the development of the airport — from its humble beginnings and its expansions to the airport environment as it is today.
The first airport in the area was located in Laconia just a few miles from the Belknap Mill. A grass strip was created in 1935, and it quickly outgrew the location. In 1941, at the height of World War II, the airport relocated to its present location in Gilford. The mission was to create an emergency landing field and military training center.
Many of the facts and stories of the history of aviation in the Lakes Region and New Hampshire are chronicled in a popular book, “Bob Fogg and New Hampshire’s Golden Age of Aviation: Flying Over Winnipesaukee and Beyond.” Fogg, a local aviation pioneer, opened Winnipesaukee Seaplane Service in 1923, and in 1925, he was awarded the first RFD aero-marine mail service in the United States. The author of the book, Jane Rice, hosted a presentation and book signing at the mill during the exhibit.
Other Lakes Region residents placed in the spotlight included Alma Gallagher Smith, the first person to solo at the newly-constructed airport in 1942. She was also the first woman in the state to earn a pilot’s license. The late Les Hibbert, a former resident of Laconia, was a World War II flying ace and took his last flight from the airport at age 92. During an interview prior to that flight, he proudly stated, “I’d rather fly than eat.”
Laconia Airport has experienced several expansions and renovations throughout the years and has always kept pace with the demands of the aviation community. For over 40 years, the airport provided airline flights beginning with the first scheduled airline flight by Northwest Airlines in June 1950. The last scheduled flight was by Atlantic North Airlines in August 1993. Today, the airport maintains a strong position in the community and boasts over a mile of paved and lighted runway and an ILS.
Laconia Airport Manager Diane Terrill said during the exhibit’s opening reception, “We’re grateful to the Belknap Mill for giving us the opportunity to share with the community the many facets of aviation in the Lakes Region. The Laconia Airport has a rich history as a transportation center supporting governmental, commercial, private, recreational, and tourist travel; a center and asset for other commercial activity which directly supports the airport and the region; and an educational center and resource. We’ll continue to carry out this mission as we move into the future.”