Lambert: Memorialized on Canvas — An Artist’s Tribute to Turk Bird

The third and final installment in the series on the Plainfield pilot and the village's ties to the beginnings of the U.S. Post Office's air mail service.

The Inquiry

Is it true that the establishment of the United States Post Office’s air mail service is tied to Plainfield, Illinois? 

The Facts

The possibility of regularly-scheduled cross-country air mail delivery was advanced following experimental “path-finding” flights in September 1918.  The goal of the trial flights was to deliver mail from New York to Chicago within a single day, a faster alternative to mail delivery by train.

Return Flight to New York

In spite of not completing their cross-country flights in a single day, pilots Max Miller and Eddie Gardner, a Plainfield native, had proven that the New York to Chicago flight was possible…even if the east-to-west attempt was deemed only moderately successful. 

However, the air mail race continued with the return flights from Chicago to New York a few days later.

Miller returned to New York early in the morning on Sept. 9, 1918, but aborted the trip when his plane developed engine trouble near Cleveland, Ohio.  With Miller grounded, Eddie Gardner was the post office department’s only hope for accomplishing a single-day flight as part of the inaugural path-finding experiment.

On Sept 10, 1918, Eddie Gardner took off in weather that went from bad to worse.  By the time Gardner lifted off from Grant Park, the Chicago lakefront was being pelted by a driving rain. Landing in Cleveland for gas and oil, Gardner found that the keys to the fuel pumps had been misplaced. The lost keys resulted in a two hour delay, the interruption meant that Gardner would need to fly part of his route in the dark.  Navigating through the darkness, Gardner and his mechanic, Ed Radel, found their way to the glow of New York City, but could not locate the bonfires which were to have been blazing to identify the designated landing field.  In the darkness, Gardner confused 3 foot tall shrubs for 30 foot tall pine trees and crashed his plane about 10 miles short of the designated airstrip.

This flight, which brought the pilot and his mechanic close to death, marked the first time that mail had been carried between Chicago and New York in less than 24 hours. Gardner’s actual flying time was 9 hours and 18 minutes. Gardner had beaten the best record of the fastest mail train by well over ten hours.

Eight months later, Eddie Gardner, took off from Cleveland with the west-bound mail, landing in Chicago three hours and 50 minutes later.

Air mail service west of the Allegheny Mountains had been established!

Career Cut Short

Escaping several crashes, Eddie Gardner left the U. S. post office flight service a few weeks later.  During the summer of 1919, Gardner entertained New York area residents with stunt flying demonstrations.  After a brief stint in Texas, Gardner took a job as a “demonstrator” with the Nebraska Aircraft Corp. in December 1919.

While performing stunt flying demonstrations at an air show in tiny Holdredge, Nebraska, Gardner crashed his plane on May 5, 1921.  Although he was conscious following the crash, Gardner was transported 165 miles to a Lincoln, Nebraska hospital.  There, he fell into a coma and died, unexpectedly, early the following morning.

Eddie V. Gardner was buried, with full military honors, at Plainfield on Monday, May 9, 1921.  As part of the graveside service, several of Gardner’s former army pilots flew over the gravesite as a token of respect.

Memorialized On Canvas

Nearly 26 years later, ground was broken for the construction of a new post office building on Des Plaines Street, immediately north of Lockport Street.  Built for Roy Graver by Herb Mauer and Allan Mauer, the new building was erected on land leased from the Flagg family. 

While construction was under way, more than 85 Plainfield businessmen and other residents donated money to honor Eddie Gardner’s remarkable role in the establishment of national air mail service.  The drive, led by Carlton F. Steigle, raised the funds needed for a mural that would be hung in the lobby of Plainfield’s new post office building.  

Harold S. Hewlett, Plainfield resident and accomplished artist was commissioned to paint the mural, depicting Gardner’s accomplishments.  Hewlett—according to grandson Bob Coleman and his wife, Linda—was born in 1893 at Joliet and, later, attended the Art Institute at Chicago.  

In 1918, Harold Hewlett and his wife, Mary, returned to Joliet, where he gained work as a commercial artist.  Eight years later, the Hewlett family moved to Plainfield, residing in a home on Joliet Road across from the Plainfield Township Cemetery.   

Hewlett was a sought-after artist with the Gerlach-Barklow Company, serving as its art director between 1933 and 1958.  During that time, Hewlett painted the 5 foot by 24 foot mural that was hung in the lobby of the Plainfield Post Office.

When the Plainfield post office building was dedicated on Saturday, August 3, 1957, Eddie Gardner’s sister, Nellie Gardner Spangler, unveiled Hewlett’s work that honored Gardner and his noteworthy contributions to the establishment of air mail service in the United States.

The original mural of Plainfield’s pioneering pilot—commissioned by the Plainfield business community as a gift to Plainfield’s residents—has been moved twice as the local post office has relocated and expanded.  Today—55 years after its dedication, the important mural of a Plainfield aviation legend by a renowned Plainfield artist is hung high in the mail sorting room of the Plainfield post office facility. 

Although many residents—including the Plainfield Historical Society have inquired about having the mural on public display once again, the mural remains out of public view.

Next Column:  The Sennitt’s Curious Dairy Barns

Have a question about Plainfield’s history?  Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch. 

© 2012 Michael A. Lambert.  All Rights Reserved

S H November 15, 2012 at 03:21 PM
Thanks for your article, Michael, and thanks for including a mention of my grandfather's mural. It's a shame that my grandpa's work cannot be viewed as intended- as a tribute to Gardner and enjoyed by all who visit the post office. I'm glad it has at least been saved and is hanging in the back in the sorting room. It's a beautiful mural and I I wish more people could see it. Sally Hewlett
Michael Lambert November 15, 2012 at 07:51 PM
Sally: I am happy that you liked the column and the inclusion of information about your grandfather. As a child, I spent as much time (as any visit to the post office would allow) looking at the details of the mural. I remember all sorts of details and was intrigued by the history! Most of all, I remember the details vividly: bright colors, the turning prop of the airborne plane, the multi-colored state map...even the artistic signature of your grandfather where the horizonatal line of the "HSH" led into the horizontal of the "e" in "Hewlett." I have heard from several local artists who recall your grandfather's mural as one of the first pieces of civic art to which they were exposed...and the impact it had on their artistry through the years. It would be great if we could get the mural displayed in a protected, public venue once again. After all, the research clearly identifies that the mural was paid for with private funds and suggests that it was presented for the residents of Plainfield. The list of benefactors is interesting because many contributing individuals knew Eddie Gardner, personally, and some lived near the sites where he landed his lane for improptu and frequent visits to Plainfield between his delivery schedules. The business donors is a virtual "Who's Who" of the mid-1950s business community of Plainfield. Apparently, the mural never was and, likely, is not the property of the United States Post Office, officially.
Joel Craig November 16, 2012 at 07:06 PM
I'm curious if Eddie Gardner's funeral was one of the first occurances of a "fly-over" at a military funeral. Deserves some further research.
Sue Hasenyager November 17, 2012 at 10:01 PM
Thank you, Michael, for another excellent article in your series. I remember as a girl going to the post office and always looking at the mural because it was so interesting. I never tired of finding new details each trip inside. This clearly has historic meaning to our long time residents but our newer community members would surely enjoy it as well. Preservation of such a treasure deserves more than a back room placement where few can view it. Let's hope the Post Office will cooperate in displaying such an artifact in a more productive place. Sue Hasenyager 11/17/12
Michael Lambert November 20, 2012 at 10:04 AM
Good question, Joel. I suspect it was not since some 40 or so pilots, most of them coming from the early Army Air Service Corps, died in the first years of the air mail experimental deliveries. Interesting to explore though.
Rhonda Richter November 29, 2012 at 08:50 PM
Does Plainfield have its own historical society? I just moved to Plainfield a year ago, but I have lived in the area for a long time. I have always been fascinated by local history.
Shannon Antinori (Editor) November 29, 2012 at 09:04 PM
Indeed it does, Rhonda: http://plainfield.patch.com/listings/plainfield-historical-society


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