Unusual Attitudes: Turkey Bottoms, Lunkenheimers and Embry-Riddle

Lunken Airport
Edmund H. Lunkenheimer deeded 204 acres of Turkey Bottom land to Cincinnati with the stipulation that it forever be called the Lunken Airport.Lunken Airport

I was surprised when Flying celebrated its 90th birthday last August. Could the magazine really be that old? Heck, am I really this old? And then I realized that dare­devil aviators — followed by legions of prudent and prosaic corporate airplane drivers — have been launching themselves into the air from the Turkey Bottoms, aka Cincinnati's Lunken Airport, for even longer than 90 years.

It’s a special place to me, but then, who doesn’t feel that way about their “home field?” Mine’s older than most, with a rich history that mirrors what was happening across the country when the air age was new. In the early 1920s, I’m told, the federal government realized that flying was probably here to stay — but there were few airports. So, the government began pressuring (if you can imagine the feds pressuring anybody) cities to build their own aerodromes for defense, commerce and the carriage of mail. I can just hear those cautious, conservative Cincinnati city fathers: “Build a (harrumph) … a what? They want us to buy land for those kites, those contraptions, those (sputter) so-called flying machines?”

Enter the owner of Cincinnati’s Lunkenheimer Co. (“the one great name in valves”), who had lots of money, civic pride and an adult son who was crazy about airplanes. The son, Eshelby Lunken, convinced his old man, Edmund H., that it would be a splendid, philanthropic gesture if he’d buy some land for an airport and deed it to the city.

Among an assortment of small strips and pastures, two sites in this area were particularly popular with flyers, many of whom had learned to fly in the Great War. The one called Grisard sat on high ground northeast of the city; the other was a large tract of land on the river, just east of town. Known as the Turkey Bottoms, for its population of wild turkeys (actual birds, not pilots — at least not yet), it was home to a polo club, farmers raising corn and soybeans, and a growing number of aviators who’d try any aerial escapade they thought might turn a buck. Grisard was seen as the better site until postal authorities announced it was too far from town for the airmail. So, Edmund purchased 204 acres of Turkey Bottom land and, in 1928, deeded it to the city with the stipulation that it forever be called the Lunken Airport.

Ask me, and they should have stuck with “Turkey Bottom International” or something mellifluous like the “Lunkenheimer Landing Field.” But they didn’t — and they still don’t ask me about much of anything. The city gratefully accepted the gift but realized a respectable airport would require more land. So, they floated a bond issue and stoked enthusiasm by parking a Waco biplane on the steps of the main post office downtown. And another Waco flying over the city one night wowed everybody by “magically” turning on a bright beacon atop the Carew Tower. The stunts worked, the bond issue was a success and Lunken Airport suddenly grew to encompass about 2,000 acres. It was, for a time, the world’s largest municipal airport.

So, Edmund purchased 204 acres of Turkey Bottom land and, in 1928, deeded it to the city with the stipulation that it forever be called the Lunken Airport.

About Lunkenheimer morphing into “Lunken”? Well, Lunken certainly sounded more tony, and the family reinforced the British Upstairs, Downstairs flavor by bestowing names like Eshelby and Edmund and Pattison on their progeny. When we were married, my husband Ebby (actually Edmund Pattison Lunken — Edmund H.’s grandson) told me the change happened shortly after his great-grandfather Frederick Lunkenheimer returned from a valve convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. When he tried to register for a hotel room, the desk clerk said there was nothing available. Old Frederick was understandably angry; he was a big player in the valve world, the convention was being held in that hotel and rooms had been reserved well in advance. But the impasse was, well, an impasse; there was “no room at the inn.”

Finally, in an embarrassed, hushed tone, the clerk said he was sorry but the hotel “served a Christian clientele only.”

No, I don’t know if or how Frederick Lunkenheimer convinced (demonstrated?) he wasn’t Jewish, but I do know the name was legally changed in 1892.

The post office’s concern about the distance from town was understandable since airmail was the main reason for having an airport. But you have to wonder what they were smoking when they settled on the Turkey Bottoms site. OK, the land was flat and close to the city, but it would take dams, flood walls and pumps to try (not always successfully) to keep it above water in the spring and fall floods. Right at the confluence of two rivers, it’s on the centerline of a natural flyway and home to a gazillion birds. Nestled picturesquely in a valley, it’s so hard to find — especially at night — that the airport beacon sits 2 miles away on a hilltop water tower. And, more often than not, morning fog enshrouds the airport while the rest of the world is ceiling and visibility unlimited.

When things would, uh, “heat up” during our long courtship and eventual marriage, I would occasionally toss out these observations about the family’s gift of “Sunken Lunken” and, for good measure, add a few comments about those miserable Lunkenheimer primers that dribbled fuel on your knees. No wonder it was doomed (the marriage, not the airport or the primers).

Anyway, the Army moved its two observation-squadron hangars to Lunken from Grisard, and the city built three large brick hangars for a flying school and full-service aviation operation owned by a flyer from Pikeville, Kentucky, named Paul Riddle and financed by a local rich kid he’d taught to fly named T. Higbee Embry.

Sound familiar?

Paul and I became friends in the 1980s when I was involved in a history project for Lunken’s 60th anniversary. We’d spoken often by phone but didn’t meet until the city and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University brought him to Cincinnati for the three-day celebration. What a charmer! Well into his 80s, he was still handsome and sharp as a tack and just fun to be around. Paul, Ebby and I had a memorable dinner at a posh restaurant downtown, where the two old flyers — both deaf as doornails — shouted across the table at each other to the dismay of nearby diners and anguished looks from the maitre d’. When I drove him home that night, he wanted to stop at the airport. Standing on that dark ramp in the rain in front of those old Embry-Riddle hangars with John Paul Riddle — it was one of those magical moments you never forget.

Although he’d been gone for more than 50 years, he was full of memories and stories and told me how “Hig” Embry’s mother kept them afloat with infusions of cash and by buying airplanes. But after struggling for about five years, in 1930 they accepted a buyout from the conglomerate Aviation Corp. (Avco), and Higbee moved permanently to California. Ten years later, Paul was back in business in Florida, with a government contract for Embry-Riddle schools that trained thousands of pilots for the military. After the war, he sold his share to a partner, so while the name remains, today’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is really the brainchild of Mr. and Mrs. John McKay. Paul was off to other aviation adventures — training pilots in Brazil and then a worldwide freight airline and heaven only knows what else.

Standing on that dark ramp in the rain in front of those old Embry-Riddle hangars with John Paul Riddle — it was one of those magical moments you never forget.

It’s funny how things sometimes come around full circle. We were sitting on the sofa in my living room, looking at a large photo of the 1928 Embry-Riddle graduating class. Paul had meticulously penned in the name of each new pilot, and he even knew what happened to most of them. Except one. He said he couldn’t remember that short man in the first row. And I began to laugh.

“That’s Ed Sohngen.”

“Who?”

I told him about some friends of my mom and dad — nice, quiet, unremarkable people who lived near us on the west side of Cincinnati. I was just a kid, but even then I was crazy about airplanes, and Mr. Sohngen used to tell me stories about going to aviation school at Lunken Airport and learning to fly. It seemed unlikely, even to this 9-year-old girl. Mr. Sohngen, a pilot? No, certainly not this nice, kind-of-short, quiet-spoken man who owned a neighborhood jewelry store in Pleasant Ridge.

But there he was, in the front row of the 1928 Embry-Riddle graduating class. So many of those men had gone on to careers with the airlines or the military, and I found myself wishing I could ask Mr. Sohngen why. Anyway, Paul smiled and carefully penned in his name on the photograph.

He died about a year later, and I’ve always felt blessed to have known John Paul Riddle, and privileged to call him a friend.