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Clyde M. Johnson and Johnson Field/Spanish Peaks Airport

by Nancy Christofferson
WALSENBURG — Last week’s issue of the Huerfano World Journal included an article by Eric Mullens about the Walsenburg airport being approved for a grant of about $2.1 million for upgrades.
Although it is now called the Spanish Peaks Airfield, it was originally named Johnson Field in honor of the county commissioner most responsible for its creation, Clyde M. Johnson.
Johnson homesteaded in the Turkey Ridge area east of Walsenburg back in the ‘teens. He taught at the community’s district school. In 1923, he was appointed chief of police for Walsenburg, and in 1934 he was appointed county commissioner to fill the vacancy left by George Niebuhr when he was named Walsenburg postmaster. Johnson served as commissioner until his death in August 1951 at age 66. He was credited not only for establishing the airport, but also Fiesta Park.
Ever since the first “aeroplanes” began crossing the skies above Walsenburg, the local visionaries had been imagining the great good that would come to the city if only it had an airport.
The first effort to build one resulted in a landing field being graded near Mayne station south of the city on the Colorado and Southern Railroad in 1932. This was for air mail, they said, and it was an official “stopping place on the Inter-Mountain Airway, Inc., route.” It was used for a decade or so, and in 1939 one Jack Feeney was giving flying lessons there.
Coincidentally, Edwin Carl Johnson was governor of Colorado about the time our Johnson was active. “Big Ed” Johnson was in the Colorado legislature from 1923-1931 when he was elected lieutenant governor. In 1932, he was elected governor and in 1937, U.S. Senator, a position he held until 1954. He again, was elected governor in 1955 for one two-year term.
While a senator, Big Ed in 1942 told Walsenburg Mayor Gavin Mallett that the city had been approved to get an airstrip to be used by government and military airplanes. Now all the city had to do was find a suitable location.
Several sites were considered, but the old field near Mayne seemed to suffice. In early August 1944, there was an announcement that service from Pueblo would begin on the 7th at that field.
However, the very next week it was decided to move the facilities, such as they were, to the Fruth and Autrey ranch three miles NORTH of Walsenburg.
Then Johnson (Clyde) became interested in another site, about three miles north of Walsenburg again, but west of the ranch then in use. The location was on a school section, so no one would lose his or her home or land. This site was approved quickly by the Civil Aeronautics Association in November 1947, and work began.
The airport was named Johnson Field. The landing strip was the first concern, and the dirt runway was done in 1948. Next to be addressed was the placement of a wind stock, fencing, and an all weather road to reach the field. After this was a 14 by 24 foot cinder block building to be used by an airport manager and those landing at or departing from the field. This was completed in the fall of 1949 at the west end of the field. By November of that year the strip was ready to receive airplanes.
In 1950, the office for administrative use was completed and the big news was its getting a telephone. Oh, that and the installation of an eight-foot tall sign reading “Johnson Field”.
The CAA stepped in again in 1953 when it leveled the runway and extended it to 60 feet wide and 5,100 feet long.
Private users were mainly Carl Price, Bill Thach, Ernie Bard and Bill Curtis in the early days of Johnson Field. These men built their own large hangar, though it was later abandoned and razed. In 1959 Monsignor Howard L. Delaney saw to it a new hangar was put in for the still-dirt landing strip.
After a 1958 project saw the runway again leveled and smoothed, in the 1960s the strip was paved and lights were installed.
A new runway was built in 1970, and it was 4,000 feet of pavement. Again in 1980, the runway required updating and repair, and new asphalting was laid for $35,112. More work was done to improve the strip and by the summer of 1981 it was 4,600 feet long.
Johnson Field had a down year in 1985. The airport manager resigned in May, and quickly disappeared. In September, it was learned he’d been charged with smuggling marijuana from Mexico into the airport. His tracks had been traced all the way from Washington, DC.
To add insult to injury, some of the principals of the Cuchara Valley Resort – the ski area – piloted their own planes to La Veta, and were none too happy with the little airfield there. A $500,000 project was planned and financed by them to install a 5,800 foot long, 60 foot wide runway, with lights, and it was completed in the fall of 1984. With the coming of the new year, the consortium was demanding the county commissioners name the new Cuchara Valley Airport the airport of choice and official air field of Huerfano County, which would make it eligible for federal funding. This was discussed for several months, until the commissioners learned in November 1985 that neither airport was likely to be funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. This is life in the orphan county. The CVR owners did not stick around (due to the small matter of foreclosure suits filed against the corporation), and the La Veta Airport slid back into obscurity. However, in 1989 the commissioners voted to name the Cuchara Valley Airport as “Airport of Choice” but retained Johnson Field as the official county airfield.
In October 1992, the Johnson Field airport advisory board put on an air show with aerobatics, demonstrations and displays. The local pilots organized the Crosswinders, and in September 1994 hosted a fly-in breakfast and open house.
The 1995 event was Sunday, Sept. 17, with the breakfast served from 8 am until noon, aerobatics. There were plane and glider rides available for a cost of $15 for a 15-minute flight. The airport was at the time, undergoing upgrades by the county. And by the bye, back in those days one could charter a flight with airport manager and pilot Mike Mann.
The big attraction of the day, however, was the official renaming of Johnson Field as Spanish Peaks Airfield.