Beacon shines historical light on Cosmo Park

Friday, June 17, 2011 | 8:15 p.m. CDT; updated 2:00 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The 50-foot tall beacon looks out over Columbia during Sunday's dedication of the site as the Columbia-Allton Memorial Airport by the Boone County Historical Society. The structure was first erected in 1934 at Columbia Municipal Airport.

CORRECTION: The plane J.D. Roberts heard as a child was a B-36 not a B6 as was reported in an earlier version of this story.

COLUMBIA — As a young boy, J.D. Roberts would lie in bed listening to the unmistakable sound of a B-36* bomber cruising above his parents' farm. Looking out his bedroom window, he could see a light on the horizon guiding the pilot through the starry country sky.

On those kinds of nights, he said, he would just dream, dream, dream.


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His parents' farm between Hallsville and Sturgeon was situated so that he could see the light beacon at the Columbia Municipal Airport throughout his childhood.

"I remember laying there at night watching that beacon flash," he said.

It has been 40 years since the 50-foot metal structure stood where Roberts, now a retired pilot living in Columbia, could see it from his childhood home. Roberts, though, has had a key role in restoring the beacon and bringing it back to the former municipal airport grounds, which now is Cosmo Park.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, the Boone County Historical Society will recognize the site as the Columbia-Allton Memorial Airport. The park will join 35 to 40 other properties designated as Boone County historic sites. It took a lot of quick work, but the beacon has been restored and relocated just in time for the ceremony.

The society's Historic Sites Committee chairwoman, Carolyn Doyle, said it will make a "wonderful addition" at the dedication.

Beacon on the move

The beacon was first erected in 1934 at Columbia Municipal Airport as a light to guide pilots flying at night.

Other beacons just like it were placed 10 miles apart between airports to indicate that pilots were flying in the right direction. The rotating light head also created characters in Morse code to identify an airport or nearby landmark.

Columbia's beacon was the 11th post between St. Louis and Kansas City. Its beam typically could be seen from 40 miles away.

David Sapp, a member of the Boone County Historic Sites Committee, nominated the old airport as an historical site. He offered to do the research and pulled together as much information as he could.

He estimates the final flights took place during 1970.

The beacon relocated to Cotton Woods Memorial Airport, which opened in the early '70s and operated as a small, private airport. That land became the Boone County Fairgrounds in 1992.

The beacon remained on the fairgrounds but became a decaying relic. Several groups have taken an interest in preserving it. Roberts said one group met in the early 1990s about keeping the beacon from becoming scrap metal, but the effort "died from lack of interest."

Another group worked on the project over the past 10 years. In 2008, the beacon was set to move to Columbia Regional Airport. That plan was contingent on private donations that never came, but Roberts said it helped him realize this year's project was possible. This time around, the process has been more informal, he said.

"We did just pretty much of this on a handshake."

"By golly, he's actually done it!"  That's what Sapp proclaims about Roberts' work.

Roberts, with the help of others, managed to get the beacon to its current location — outside the city's park maintenance building at Cosmo Park — with less than two months' notice about the dedication.

Sapp worked to connect Roberts with officials in the city Parks and Recreation Department, in addition to doing research.

"All I did was help put people in touch with each other and provide a little moral support," he said.

"It just turned out to be the right project with the right people at the right time," Roberts said.

He insists he had a very small part in the restoration and move. Roberts gives most of the credit to his friend and project partner Bill Eckhoff.

"I've apologized several times for getting him involved in this," Roberts said.

Eckhoff has no regrets. "I knew pretty well what we were getting into. (J.D.) didn't," he said.

Both Roberts and Eckhoff learned to fly at the old municipal airport. "A (lot of) my success came from being able to fly my own airplane," Eckhoff said.

On Monday, Roberts celebrated the 54th anniversary of his first solo flight. The beacon was still doing its job during his flights as a young man, and Roberts even changed the bulbs at the top of the structure.

"I climbed the old beacon many times," he said.

Restoring the beacon and returning it to the former airport is something Roberts has wanted to do for a long time.

"I'm just so proud and happy we got it done," he said. "It probably looks better than I've ever see it before."

Making it happen

Eckhoff owned a construction company and possessed the knowledge and expertise to complete the project, but he said Roberts did much of the leg work.

Many businesses were willing to donate or discount their services, including APAC, Central Concrete and Sherwin-Williams.

He also said the beacon was in "pretty good shape" before the move, but a number of repairs and improvements were needed. The base needed to be fixed, plus the tower was sandblasted and painted. Roberts even managed to contact the company that regularly serviced the lights, and he got original plans and parts for the beacon.

Eckhoff has been pleasantly surprised by the cooperation of businesses and the city. "It was really amazing that the city and county (came) together and got something done the old-fashion way," he said.

Eckhoff said the restoration has cost a "considerable sum," but he estimates it would have cost much more if the project had been contracted out.

He said having the beacon "about 100 feet from its original position" is a start toward preserving aviation history in Columbia, and the greatest worth comes from passing that history on to future generations.

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