COLUMBIA — A piece of history stands in the middle of a field at the Boone County Fairgrounds, an almost forgotten relic perched atop the rusted lattice of a windmill that serves not only as its stand but also as a trellis for weeds.
The relic is a beacon that stood for years at Columbia Municipal Airport - now Cosmopolitan Park - where it was light No. 11 in an aerial highway that guided airmail pilots from Kansas City to St. Louis. In the 1960s, when the municipal airport closed, the beacon was relocated to what was then Cotton Woods Memorial Airport. And that's where it has remained, largely unnoticed and in disrepair, for the past 40-plus years.
But it hasn't gone completely unnoticed. In 2001, retired TWA pilot Bob Taylor of Columbia began to search for more desirable locations for the beacon and for local government support to save it. Boone County has agreed to give control of the beacon to the city of Columbia, but the cost of renovating and moving it will be covered by donations. The Airport Advisory Board earlier this month voted unanimously to move the beacon to Columbia Regional Airport.
"The significance is to preserve a piece of history that is virtually forgotten already," Taylor said. "The idea is to move it to a location and restore it as a piece of history, not as an operational facility, and to document its role in the late 1920s, '30s - whenever it was put up, we're not quite sure."
Taylor, who learned to fly at Columbia Municipal Airport, got a lot of help with his beacon rescue mission from other locals connected to the aeronautical field, including Don Miles, who holds the Boone County seat on the Airport Advisory Board; Dan Adams, who has his commercial pilot's license and is head of the city's monthly nonprofit aviation history roundtable; and Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin, who flies helicopters and worked in aviation for both the National Guard and the Marines.
In addition to saving a piece of history from decay, the purpose of relocating the beacon is to create a display that educates the public about the airmail system, the role the city of Columbia played and its airport history.
During the 1930s, the U.S. government and the Department of Commerce installed 14,000 miles of aerial highway across the country, the lighted infrastructure that guided airmail pilots who flew at night from airport to airport. When the municipal airport closed during the 1960s, the beacon was moved to Cotton Woods Memorial Airport, which later became the fairgrounds. By that time, advances in aviation technology had rendered the beacon's navigational components - lights on either side; one white, the other green - obsolete. However the third bulb, located at the top of the beacon, maintained its role as an airport identifier.
The process of preserving the beacon has been nearly as complicated as its history.
"A number of different people and agencies had to be contacted to see if it was possible to move it and also to determine where it could be placed," Adams said.
Taylor's initial idea was to give the beacon to the Boone County Historical Society, but the society didn't think it was a good fit for its historical village at Nifong Park.
"Their long-range vision and plan is to create an Old West 18th century village," Elkin said. "They thought an airport beacon might stick out a bit because we didn't have airports in the 1800s. And we understand that."
Although Columbia Regional Airport seems a more appropriate destination, there are challenges there as well. To keep the airspace free from obstructions, there are restrictions on the height of structures. So only the beacon and the top few tiers of the windmill it sits on will be transferred to the airport.
Its precise location hasn't been decided, but it probably will sit on a 10-by-10 foot base and be 6 feet to 8 feet tall. At Boone County Fairgrounds, by contrast, the beacon is about 40 feet tall.
Miles said he would have preferred not to alter the structure.
"I would like to see the whole thing remain intact, personally," he said.
Now that a location for the beacon has been found, project leaders are ready to move on to questions of specifics of the restoration, the display and funding.
"We've gone through the hoops to get it approved, so now the next step is to get others who are willing to volunteer in the moving and the restoration and the placement of it," Adams said.
Miles is optimistic about the project.
"I think we can find donations to do it," Miles said. "I've had people offer money, offer donations, offer cranes to pick it up. I think the interested citizens will pick it up; the city won't have to pay anything."
Elkin said the project will contribute to the community's awareness of early aviation.
"I think the general public probably doesn't know about the general history and where the airports were," Elkin said. "But I think there's a keen interest in learning more about the community, whether it's about aviation or pioneers or the university. People are always interested in history and why things are the way they are and how they came about."