Museum of Northwest Colorado: A fanciful flight
August 14, 2015
Skepticism ran high among visitors to the first Routt County Fair in September 1914, when it was announced there would be an exhibition featuring "aeroplane ascensions.” The aviation industry was still in its infancy just 11 years after the Wright brothers' first flight. The politically savvy Routt County Fair Association was confident the promise of such an outrageous entertainment would ensure successful attendance for the area's first-ever fair.
The fair board chose prominent young aviation pioneer Weldon B. Cooke to demonstrate his biplane's capabilities with three scheduled flights. Cooke, from Oakland, California, built his own airplanes and was continually striving to enlarge on the promising future of aviation. Cooke had to transport his lightweight contraption in crates over the mountains because early airplanes were not capable of flying long distances.
The first fair was held near the current fairgrounds in Hayden, in large tents that had been rented in Denver and sent over the mountains via railroad. When fairgoers arrived at the fairgrounds and went to view the airplane, they were met by a flimsy wooden framework that appeared to be covered with light muslin and held together by baling wire. This was the first airplane seen in the Yampa Valley, and the newspapers reported spectators were largely contemptuous of this contraption and equally vociferous in their opinion that it wouldn't be able to take off.
Cooke had contracted with the Fair Association to make three flights for a payment of $650. The weather was excellent that Thursday evening as Cooke strapped into his seat facing forward, with the propeller at the plane's rear. A flight, in those days, could technically consist of a simple brief space of time when the rubber wheels would actually leave the ground. Cooke, however, with his several years of experience, was able to provide the crowds with a true aeronautic feat. He bounced along the ground for a bit, rising enough to barely clear a barbed-wire fence and just missing a telephone pole in the process. Then, suddenly, he soared up and was seen skimming above the cottonwood trees along the Yampa River. He made a wide circle, and after maybe four minutes of being airborne, he approached the fairgrounds again, managing a rough landing that included a rather significant bump, maneuvering his craft to a safe halt.
The crowd's cynical attitude immediately changed to one of incredulous enthusiasm. People gathered around the young Cooke to marvel at his machine and his ability to pilot it. Meanwhile, some of the fair's rodeo stock, and even horses in adjoining fields, were equally wrought to wild excitement by the unprecedented presence of a strange object above their peaceful pastures.
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Cooke's second flight the following morning was not nearly as long or as successful as the first, and later in the day, he was unable to conduct a third flight as called for in his contract. The Fair Association, a little displeased by this, cut his pay to $500. But the effects of the daring exhibition remained, and the Routt County Fair was off to an auspicious beginning.
The Routt County Fair is celebrating its 101st anniversary this year, and though amazing feats such as that first aeroplane exhibition aren't always part of the fair program, there are significant achievements still to be seen. Local produce — hard won in this challenging climate, carefully crafted handiwork and fine examples of animal husbandry highlight the endeavors of Routt County residents. Perhaps best of all, the skepticism of those early fairgoers has been replaced with a warm feeling of camaraderie and a sense of place and the goodness of living in our northwest corner of Colorado.
Cooke's future was not as auspicious as that of the Routt County Fair, where he performed that September of 1914. Less than two weeks later, the 30-year-old pilot was exhibiting at the Colorado State Fair when a main strut came loose from a wing, causing Cooke and his ingenious machine to plummet 2,000 feet to the ground. But his untimely death did not deter other flight pioneers to continue on the path that eventually led to the successful engineering of the airworthy craft that ply our skies today.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado has three photos of Weldon Cooke with his airplane at the fairgrounds that year. The museum, located in downtown Craig, loves to share stories of our beautiful valley and the history that has made us what we are today. Indeed, our valley is rich in museums, including Steamboat's own Tread of Pioneers, the Oak Creek Tracks and Trails Museum, Hayden's Heritage Center and the Wyman Museum, also located in Craig. Include one of these awesome venues in your summer itinerary, and revel in the incredible tapestry of lives and events that shaped our lovely Yampa Valley. The Museum of Northwest Colorado is open Monday through Saturday, and, as always, admission is free.