Looking Back: East Kansas City Airport
by Marcia Napier, Grain Valley Historical Society
One could say the East Kansas City Airport in Grain Valley began out of necessity. In the early 1950s a number of private airplane owners learned they would no longer have a home for their planes. The Heart of America Airport located on U. S. 40 Highway near the Little Blue River was closed and the property was turned into a trailer park.
At that time several of the private plane owners and pilots decided they would purchase land and construct their own airport. Some of the original 11 stockholders were Frank V. Mawby, lawyer; Walter Jennings, lawyer; Jack Barnhart, Barnhart Construction; Bill Perkins, Perkins Restaurants, Earl Wade, manufacturer, and Ruffs Wilson, electrical contractor, to name a few. Together, they formed an organization which resembled a well-run flying club, but instead of just owning airplanes, the group owned the airport.
Much work was done by the group to incorporate, draw up sound and workable rules for operation, find land, secure the title, layout the runways, line up local financing, bulldoze the runways, build the hangars and other facilities, and last but certainly not least, convince the townsfolks and the city fathers that the airport would be an asset to the community.
A parcel of 80 acres was found on the western edge of Grain Valley on Kirby Road at the end of Walnut Street. In the 1800s this land was owned by Britton Capelle. By the early 1900s it was part of the E. E. Kirby Orchards. The corporation purchased the land from Tom Cairns, owner of Cairns Flowers in Independence, Missouri.
The airport started with two runways, one running east to west and a second runway running northeast to southwest. Barnhart Construction Company did the grading for the runways and Jack Barnhart built the first small hangars. By 1978, the cooperative airport association included some 39 members.
Over the years many improvements have been made. Asphalt was installed in the older hangars; numerous new hangars were built, and runways lights were installed that can be turned on by the planes’ radios. In addition, an aircraft maintenance hangar, a radio communications area, and a radio repair service shop were added. The current airport has a business office, a main lobby, restrooms, and a pilot’s lounge.
Much of the information for this article was furnished by John Washburn of Grain Valley. Although not an original stockholder, he was one of the very early stockholders. He served on the Board of Directors for many years and served a term as its President.
The Grain Valley Airport Co-operative was officially incorporated in 1956. Its’ uniqueness is still relevant today. It is one of the very few in the nation that is a privately owned/public use airport and is a testament to the average American businessman. No government aid was forthcoming for this private enterprise—there is no city, county, state or federal money invested.
Mr. Robert Williams is one of the seventy-five to eight current owners. In visiting with Mr. Williams, I learned that the FAA has been involved with the airport over the years, mainly with antenna radio contact to ensure planes land at the proper angle. He also views the airport as “a large green space, like a park.” He pointed out another important feature. The airport is largely agricultural, noting the large hay crop that is cut each year.
The current manager, Robert Hackett, has been in his position for over a decade. He tells me the airport has planes available for flying lessons, rides, charters and field trips. The airport also boasts a team of mechanics known for their excellent work.
The Grain Valley Historical Society Museum is located at 506 South Main Street and online at www.grainvalleyhistory.com.
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