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Chapter 6 - Hendricks Field After the War

Altvater Library > Sebring Air Terminal

Hendricks Field After the War

    In retrospect, it seems that the entire City of Sebring breathed a concerned sign of relief when the War Department closed Hendricks Field and ordered it abandoned.  For the preceding four years, everyone had been under tremendous strain.  Families with members in the military service were never certain what tomorrow might bring  (r.e., that dreaded message); businessmen were caught up in shortages of stock items, rationed materials and lack of staff help. Property owners were bedeviled with rent ceiling limitations and high repair costs, and renters had to live under the most primitive conditions (some actually living in converted chicken houses).

    Now, (January 1946) that was past.  The war was over.  The boys were not being shot at so they were being dismissed from the service and were coming home.  Rationing was not being enforced and business was coming back to normal.  Reaction had set in so the movement was to get as far as possible since all the military and most of the nonmilitary personnel had left, leaving a feeling of great peace and quiet.

    As a result, there was widespread skepticism among the citizens of Sebring,  as to the wisdom of the City accepting the cancellation of the lease of Hendricks Field and the acquisition of some of the buildings and facilities on the property.  Only a few members of the Chamber of Commerce and the City Administration had any vision of the potentials offered by accepting responsibility for the maintenance of the property.

    The City Council was caught in the middle of the arguments.  They were pressured by some to accept the facilities as the foundation for expanding opportunities for manufacturing, new industries and trade potentials.  Here were good, solid buildings just waiting for tenants and many of the service men returning home with visions of going into business for themselves needed the building space that would be available.  And, by installing business in the area, jobs would be provided for returning veterans.  Space for such commercial expansion was not available in the area except at the abandoned airport.

    At the same time, the aviation facilities would eliminate any demands for financial outlay for decades in the future, for airport needs and aviation was certain to become an important part of the future American way of life.

    On the other hand, a popular notion was that “it would take no less than $50,000 a year to maintain the property and the City could not afford to include that amount in the budget.  The City had made its profit on the investment and should turn the land back into a cow pasture.”  There were only a half dozen small planes in the community and the little sod field on the west side of the lake would accommodate them and the foreseeable increase.  These arguments were offered by several well-respected citizens.

    How could the City Council please both groups?  Both sides had valid arguments and included levelheaded and respected businessmen and taxpayers.  And both sides were very vocal in expressing their opinions; a few in favor and many opposed.

    It so happened that the choice came before an administration that could not be stampeded into ANY position either for or against and hence, finally offered a decision that the City would accept the property if the proponents would agree to guarantee that the City would be responsible for no expense above the proceeds that could be generated by the airport property.

    The Administration also struck a favorable bargain with the War Assets Administration that was eager to get the property off its hands.  By agreement, the City was given (without cost) all the buildings and equipment necessary to operate an airport (including water works, sewers, etc.), but bay warehouses or similar structures, not essential to an airport, would be available only by purchase at very reasonable figures.  And the City was to be high on any priority list in the choice of buildings.

    With the City Administration, the Chamber of Commerce and the objectors all in agreement, the prospects of success seemed rosy until the actual mechanics of putting the agreement into operation began.

    The Chamber of Commerce had applications for space with firms that wanted to get into business but the wheels of government turned very, very slowly.  A “caretaker crew” of the War Assets Administration took over.  It was the duty of this crew to dispose of everything that was not conveyed to the City, and they did a definitely thorough job of it.  There were dozens of buildings with furnishings such as: fans, lighting fixtures, boilers, refrigerators, motors, and every other removable item... even down to the fuses in the switch boxes, disposed of.  In fact, such a thorough job was done that it included everything that could be clandestinely removed from the buildings to be conveyed to the City.

    Although the City was given a “right of entry,” there was no way in which any funds could be made available for months and yet, the City was at some expense in merely protecting what would later become city property.  The War Assets Administration was selling many buildings and private contractors were removing them and, at the same time, removing anything else they could get away with.  But the “right of entry” did not permit the City to occupy or rent out any of the buildings.  This condition existed for almost a year and, as there was no income but some expense, the funds came from the pocket of the manager.  Before the City enjoyed any income, the figure had reached $1,500 which was never recovered.

    At last, it was learned that a warehouse could be made available to be rented to a man who was clamoring for space.  A building of 9,000 square feet, on the railroad siding seemed ideal for his distribution business (beer).  The government was asked to set a rental figure for a period pending transfer of the building to the City.  They stipulated “the going rate in the area.”  Three local realtors agreed that one cent a square foot per month would be fair to all, to which the client agreed.  But, when payment was made to the government, they insisted that the City should furnish adequate fire, storm and liability insurance, as well as some assurance of police protection.  The client did not agree to an increase to cover the additional costs.

    The Eighth Air Depot, Inc., inspected the field and found exactly what they needed to inaugurate an aviation-related business that would use buildings to which the City had been given title but the government chose these buildings in which to transact their business because they could hold these places as long as they were needed, whereas the others were subject to sale at which times their operations would be forced to move out.

    This maneuvering continued for so many months that it appeared that the government was doing everything to delay transfer and, had there been some graceful way to “throw in the towel,” those who had made such rosy predictions would have gladly conceded defeat.  But, several prospective tenants had been assured of locations, so the only thing to do was to continue to struggle.

    And even before the government withdrew, the struggle became more bitter.  At the time the facilities were built, some materials were in short supply and certain substitutions had to be made, which could only be considered as temporary, so some malfunctions began even before the government “caretaking crew” was withdrawn.  But the repairs that this crew made were makeshift or “bandaids.”

    Some failures were not even given attention.  One such condition was the failure of roofing materials.  Literally acres of roll roofing of a rather unique specification had been used.  Instead of a half-lap over flint coated material, the half that was covered did not have a flint coating.  As result, after a few years in the hot Florida sun, the expansion and contraction caused the material to split at the division point.  The caretaking crew ignored these failures and the first revenues coming in after the City took over went to the roofs.  Tenants could not be expected to pay rent on a building with a leaking roof.

    Another and more pestiferous failure occurred in the water lines.  The mains were of asbestos pipe with cast iron fittings.  The joints in the pipe were sealed with rubber rings which remained satisfactory as long as they remained wet, but where the pipes joined the fittings - these were caulked.  At the time the system was installed, lead for the caulking was almost impossible to find.  (This may have been caused by the tremendous demand for lead at the Oak Ridge plant where the atomic bomb was being made.)

    A substitute, known as “leadite,” was used.  This was a brittle substance that would tend to flake off.  A pinpoint leak would develop and the swirling action with the surrounding sand would cut a bigger hole in the pipe.  The cure was to dig out the leadite and replace it with lead and to repair the hole in the pipe.  There are hundreds of these joints on the property and, in the first ten years of the City occupancy, probably 95% of all the joints were replaced with lead.  It became the standard practice to re-caulk with lead, all the joints in a group, when the hole was open to repair a leak.

    One such leak presented a problem worthy of special note.  This occurred in the middle of the street adjacent to the base of the water tower.  Nothing in the blueprints showed how far below the surface the pipe was located but after digging for three feet with no pipe in sight, it became evident that it was necessary to “sheet” the hole because the water table was high and the sides of the hole began caving in like so much granulated sugar.  When the hole was five feet down, the sheathing had to be moved out to accommodate a hole ten feet square.  (see photos)

    The ground water level was so high that two dewatering pumps were kept working continuously.  The pipe (16 inches in diameter) was found at something like six or seven feet and the repairs started.  Since this was the only connection to the elevated reservoir and since it was necessary to valve off the tank, the pumps from the wells had to be kept running 24 hours a day to supply water to the entire field.  And work on the repairs was carried on for nearly two weeks, day and night.  Had it not been for the high ground water level, this would have been a routine job but, as it was, it was like working in a swimming pool, underwater.  And the job couldn’t wait for the water to recede.

Repairing leaks in the water lines.

    One favorable condition resulted from the delays in the transfer of responsibilities to the City.  A backlog of applications for space indicated a demand which justified the Council to advance approximately $22,000 to finance the purchase of buildings and the railroad siding.  No definite articles of agreement were arranged at that time nor had any of the fiscal understandings been reduced to writing.  These conditions posed no immediate problems but as the personnel of the Council changed, so did the relations between the Administration and the airport.

    As had been anticipated, many returning veterans had had visions of starting their own enterprises.  Some, with savings made while in the armed forces, invested them in stock and equipment but found that the expected markets were just not materializing, so the majority of the hopefuls lasted only a few months and then gave up the race.  The turnover of renters on the field was rather great in the early years.

    One group found the location they considered ideal for their venture.  They named their new company “Veterans Air Lines,” which was descriptive of its components.  It was composed of ex-servicemen who had a dream of an airline in which all employees owned stock and each employee earned the same salary as every other employee, be he “grease monkey” or the general manager.

    As they were all veterans, they found that they had priorities that were not enjoyed by ordinary entrepreneurs.  They were in line for priorities in the purchase of Government surplus planes, parts, equipment and materials as well as having special privileges in government contracts.  So, from the very beginning, their success seemed assured.

    When they came to Sebring, they had acquired a couple DC-3 planes (the most efficient, at that time, for their purposes).  They had managed to obtain several very lucrative cargo contracts and were readying two more planes for cargo service.  It seemed that they would soon require more space than the one large hangar that they had rented and that they would need more men on their maintenance crew.  They paid their bills promptly and built a good reputation in all ways.  But, without prior indication, they announced that they were reorganizing their business structure and were moving from Sebring.  (No definite information was ever obtained but, from hints obtained from the principals, the impression was gained that the business had been so successful that the owners of stock in the corporation could not refuse the very profitable offers of merger with another airline in another location.)

    If any one group can be given credit for the continued existence of the Sebring Air Terminal it would be, without question, the Eighth Air Depot, Inc.  In brief, this company can be described as an organization of three young men who had been associated in World War II and who, in their leisure moments in camp, planned a corporation to repair large cargo and passenger planes and engines.  Their names should be definitely and permanently associated with the airport. For without them, in the beginning, the project would have failed and all the buildings and facilities would have been moved because there were other cities and airports who were clamoring for such things as hangars, water and sewer facilities and other equipment which Sebring acquired.  These three men were Art Dorman, George Dumont and Bob Kiel.  The story of their association and of the Eighth Air Depot, Inc., is worthy of a complete chapter of its own.

    Turning the property over to the City involved at least four bureaus of the government - the Army Corps of Engineers, the War Assets Administration (WAA), the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), and the Housing Authority.  With the exception of the Engineers, these bureaus were all new agencies and it appeared that they made the rules of the game as it progressed.  Of course, the City was new at the game, too, but it had a champion in its corner, who was a wizard at getting answers to problems - Congressman J. Hardin Peterson.  When the Housing Authority proposed to remove all the civilian housing units which the City felt it could use, a call to the congressman settled the question, quickly.

    It is almost unbelievable how many different complexities could develop unless it is considered that each of the agencies had their positions to defend, and that there were large numbers of properties in the state undergoing the same procedures as was Hendricks Field... and all this by what might be considered amateurs in a professional field.  The City had a disadvantage in that it was low in the list having priorities.  The State, the schools and other government agencies all had preferential positions.  Items of property and equipment which were not specifically set up on the transfer papers, could be requisitioned by those agencies having priority and requisitions of the City were eliminated.  One item of this nature (by way of illustration) was the bucket of a dragline.  The dragline was specified as being essential for the maintenance of the field but the bucket, which supposedly was a part of the machine, was not mentioned so when a state agency asked for the bucket, it was awarded to them even though the machine could not be considered as a dragline without a bucket.

The War Assets Administration sold surplus pipe that was dug up adjacent to runways…
leaving a mess for the airport administration to fill.

    A somewhat similar case was narrowly averted by an accident.  The air traffic control tower was not one of the specified structures but it was considered as essential to the operation of an airport, especially inasmuch as all of the equipment in the tower was on the personal property list.  Several months went by after agreements had been reached, without any reference to the tower so it was assumed that it was City property.  One Friday afternoon, a plane left Jacksonville with several government representatives aboard but it crashed in Polk County, killing the occupants.  On the following Monday, it was learned that the destination had been Sebring, for the purpose of notifying Sebring that Palm Beach had requisitioned the tower and it had been awarded to them.  The visit was to have been a surprise at a time when it would be too late to stop the action by a call to Washington.  But, the delay was enough to make it possible to get the wheels turning.  The tower stayed in Sebring.

Headquarters building & control tower, ca. 1955

    It seemed that the first couple of years were spent in fighting to keep possession of the properties the City thought it had been granted.  While it was successful in some cases, many skirmishes were lost - machine tools, emergency power plant, trucks, and other equipment went to others.  The inexperience of the City in negotiations of this nature cannot be overemphasized.  Starting with the origin of the installation, the City found itself in an area with which it had no previous experience.  It must be remembered that 1941 was a year of intense emotions as everyone knew we were standing on the brink of war and everyone was willing to agree to anything that would favor the position of the United States, and Sebring so notified Washington.  To fulfill this commitment, the City purchased something over 9,000 acres of land for the main installation and three other parcels for a bivouac area, a recreation park and a homing station.  In the pressure of the situation, it was agreed that even though the full price was paid for these minor areas, they would be returned to the sellers without any repayment when they were no longer needed for defense purposes.

    The stipulations had no effect on the operation and management after the City took over, but one other innocent-appearing clause did have a devastating effect.  This was known as the “recapture clause” and for twenty years was the major impediment to progress on the field.

    The City had title to the land and negotiated a lease to the government for the consideration of a dollar a year with no definitely specified number of years.  In the cancellation of the lease was a clause that, in the event of a national emergency, the government could reoccupy the property under the previous conditions.  No provision was made for reimbursing any tenants on the property for any damages resulting from their ouster.  For “nickel-and-dime” businesses, this offered little threat, but for a firm with any considerable investment, the hazard made location on the Air Terminal out of the question.  Many promising prospects were turned away by this clause.

    As an alternative to this problem, there appeared to be possibilities that the area could become a government installation - first for a bomber base, then for a helicopter training base and for other unspecified uses.  It was understood that the competition for the bomber base laid between Ft. Myers, Florida; Smyrna, Tennessee; Chilacthee, Ohio and Sebring.  After months of indecision, Smyrna won (the chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee was from Tennessee).

    Columbus, Georgia won the race for the rotary wing plane school.  And, as time went by, inspection teams visited the field amid rumors that the government was searching for a site as a location for one program after another.  Linking these visits with the continued refusal to eliminate the “recapture clause” from the City’s contract, the effect was enough to discourage several promising endeavors.

    The funds that were advanced for the purchase of the warehouses, the railroad siding and other facilities, came from the proceeds of the sale of several blocks of airport land on the outskirts of the field and, although these sales returned several times the investment, it was agreed that there were some materials which were not essential to the airport but which could be used by the City to advantage.  One example of this was the clay in the “hardstands” which the Army had built on which to park the giant bombers.  The City could use this clay for paving alleys and secondary streets in town and the airport had the equipment for loading, spreading and leveling the materials.  So this was one other method of repaying the advanced funds.

    But the implementing of this policy established a new relationship between the administration of the City and the airport.  The view became general that, as the airport belonged to the City, so also were the components of the airport, the property of the City.  After a few years, it became common practice for the various departments of the City to “requisition” equipment and material without regard to the needs of the airport - the utilities, at times, needed transformers; the sanitary department “borrowed” the bulldozer and road grader for several years; the former for continuous use at the City dump and the latter for general maintenance.  These and other airport assets came to be considered as general city property to be used without credit to the airport, but they were always returned to the airport when repairs were needed to keep them in operation (the repairs to be made at the airports expense).

    One policy, however, was remembered and strictly adhered to - NO CITY FUNDS WERE EVER USED TO MAINTAIN AND/OR OPERATE THE AIRPORT OR ITS PROPERTIES.

    There was really no tangible basis for the estimated $50,000 annual maintenance cost and it was found that, had the funds been available, twice that amount could have been spent wisely or, as was the case in the first few years, half that figure would keep the area in operation but would not keep pace with depreciation.  Experience was a good teacher.  On one occasion, Sebring was on the outside edge of a hurricane which played havoc with some of the roofs of the warehouses at the very time when there were no reserve funds.  By juggling credit, the crisis was met and a policy was adopted at that time.  Each month, a portion of the income would be set aside in an emergency fund.  No matter how hard pressed, SOME money went into this fund.

    At the same time, it was decided to make repairs at every possible point where it could be done in the most permanent manner.  The idea of replacing roll roofing was discarded and in its place, metal roofing was substituted.  As buildings having wooden siding would require repainting, it was estimated that there was such a great area that a painting crew would never finish so, as rapidly as possible, asbestos siding which required no painting, replaced the wood.  At the period when the City acquired the buildings, it was already passed the time when repainting should have been started and many were in need of roof repairs, but gradually progress began to become evident.
   The emergency fund, which was so painfully accumulated, also began to show some promise but, by this time, the membership of the City Administration had almost completely changed and the original understandings were fading, if not entirely forgotten.  At one council meeting, the chairman of the City committee, suggested that the airport emergency funds be used on a city project.  The following day, some airport projects which had been put on “the back burner,” were given immediate action.  This move did not improve relations between the two administrations - neither did it damage them - it merely brought them to the surface.

    A majority of the City Administration sough to find points where criticism could be leveled at the operation of the airport and it seemed that no operational policy could meet with council approval.  An example of this attitude appeared when one councilman expressed his opinion that any prospective executive would be discouraged if he discussed bringing his business to the Air Terminal in offices that had never been made attractive but were as bare and dreary as they had been ten or twelve years previously when they were first acquired.  So, to counter this criticism, the offices were “dolled up” and given a modern appearance.  This drew a response from another councilman, in open meeting, that “the money spent to beautify the offices could better be used to upgrade other facilities on the property.”

Office in headquarters building, refinished by the City.

    Except for the influences of the Eighth Air Depot, Inc., it is questionable if the Air Terminal would ever have gotten off the ground.  This was not only the first firm on the field but it was also the most reliable.  In every instance, their check was in the mail on time while in many other cases, much time and pressure were expended to collect past due accounts.  The “Eighth” also brought other accounts to the Air Terminal.  They bid on a government contract and were awarded a project that required a couple hundred mechanics and a great deal of material to overhaul the planes in the contract.  Their search for replacement parts revealed a possibility of a profitable dealing in materials available in government surplus channels.  To engage in this venture, they brought in two firms (the Miami Aircraft Supply Co., and the American Industrial Sales Corp.).  These firms soon found heavy financial backing and began to bring in railroad boxcar loads of all manner of industrial materials.  So great was the volume that they rented seventeen buildings at one time and had large quantities on the grounds outside the buildings, waiting for space and cataloging.

    The action of moving these stores into buildings caused the Air Terminal quite some grief.  While the original design of the warehouses provided for protection against termites, it could not prevent them from being carried into the buildings when the materials were taken in after having been exposed for some weeks.  This lesson learned was very expensive.

    In the negotiations of the provisions of the cancellation of the lease with the government in 1946, the “recapture clause” seemed innocent enough and was not viewed as a negative factor in the establishment of commercial enterprises on the airport property.  In conversations with prospective tenants however, it was found to be the greatest stumbling block in the struggle to entice substantial firms to consider the Air Terminal as a base for their organization.

    The government was adamant in its refusal to eliminate this clause and, at the same time, it continued to send parties to inspect the property with respect to its possible use as a point of military operations, in whole or in part.  Such parties attracted much notice in the news media and this had a negative effect as did the fact that the frustration that the publicity generated inspired the Sebring public to court government occupancy as an answer to the problem of obtaining reliable and continuing users of the facilities.

    Several prospective tenants found difficulty in obtaining adequate financial backing for ventures that gave promise of stability because of these restrictions and so, the Air Terminal, in its efforts to acquire tenants, had to resort to rates below value in some cases and in others, it was found that as costs of labor and materials advanced, rental rates could not be increased to meet conditions.

    Many factors contributed to the difficulties of the Sebring Air Terminal in adequately maintaining the buildings and facilities in the first ten years of operation by the City, but the greatest impairment was the “recapture clause.”  It can be imagined why the government was hesitant to remove restrictions while the nation was in a “state of emergency” because of the Korean conflict.  One inspection after another kept the issue in the headlines and depressed the market for the facilities offered by the airport.

    In the late 1950’s, the fortunes of the airport took a turn for the better.  The sequence of events was, in general, as follows:

    1)  The State signed a contract for the use of several buildings at prices and conditions favorable to the City.  This permitted the airport to borrow money to improve facilities and increase rental rates as well as to improve cash flow.

    2)  The City administration entered into the action by modifying its position and advancing monies for operation.

    3)  The government modified its position on the “recapture clause.”  The threat of war in the Korean area abated and the constant flow of inspections and rumors of government use subsided.

    4)  Several different offers were made to take over the field by private interests who would pay the City a royalty for the privileges.  This stirred up controversy and public interest.

     5)  Nationwide, money seemed to be more readily available, and locally it appeared that business had settled down and the businesses which had been established on an experimental basis had either failed and vanished or had succeeded and become stable.

    6)  The Council appointed an “Airport Advisory Committee” consisting of five “blue ribbon” civic leaders, then the Council proceeded to make important actions, hold meetings with prospects, and to make deals, all with relation to the airport but without any reference or consultation with the members of the Advisory Committee and on some matters, the Council acted contrary to the advice of the Committee.  So, the Committee resigned en masse, in protest.

    7)  The Council replaced all the airport personnel and sold many of the ancillary assets (power lines and franchise, machine tools, certain buildings, etc.) to obtain funds to upgrade maintenance.

   8)   By this time, the attitude of the City Council had changed 180 degrees.  Originally, the Council had adopted a “hands off” policy placing the entire responsibility on the appointed airport personnel with no city money involved.  By 1960, the policy changed; the airport management could not make even the least important decision without Council approval, and the restrictions which limited the operational costs to airport income were removed.

    9)  Almost suddenly, it appeared that EVERYONE in town became intensely interested.  By almost universal demand, and act was passed by the legislature creating an “airport authority.”  This removed all responsibility for maintenance and/or policy making from the City Council and vested it in the “Airport Authority.”

    The first fifteen years or so in the life of the Sebring Air Terminal, were stormy.  The first part of this era was very difficult because there was practically no interest or cooperation on the part of the local citizens and very little by the Council.  They seemed to want no part of the project.

    The next period suffered because the elected administration wanted absolute authority but was not sufficiently informed to act wisely.  The legislation creating the Airport Authority and separating the operation from the City Administration, together with the elimination of the recapture clause, changed everything and the airport entered into an entirely new chapter in its life.

Individuals who purchased buildings for off-site use, for the most part, complied with the provisions of their contracts which required them to clean up the debris… but in many instances, where the costs of such cleanup were greater than the $50 performance bond, they elected to forfeit the bond and leave the trash.

Even where a cleanup was performed satisfactory to the WAA, hundreds of hours of work remained in removing concrete piers and debris which made the property unsightly and made mowing and other work impossible.

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