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Carl Ben Eielson, Early Years

7/20/2004:

Today is Carl Ben Eielson’s birthday. He was born 107 years ago in Hatton, and today we’re going to talk about his early days in aviation.

In September 1922, Eielson arrived in Fairbanks to teach high school math and general science, and to coach basketball. Mrs. Foster, his landlady at the old Alaska Hotel, took him for a polite, bookish type, but soon learned that he “liked to dress up nice in the evenings, had a way with the girls, (and) was great on going to all the dances.”

Like many of the miners and traders in those parts, Eielson was Scandinavian – “as stubborn a Norwegian as you could find,” said Mrs. Foster. “(But) everybody would crowd around him at a party, and kids followed him through the streets like hound-dogs.”

Eielson was quite frank about one thing. “I came up here to teach,” he’d say, “but what I really want to do is fly.”

Eilson went to college at UND in 1914, but three years later, he left to enlist in the air service, which had only 35 trained pilots at the time. He earned his wings, but just as he received his sailing orders, the Armistice was signed and his military flying days came to an end.

Back in Hatton, Eielson persuaded a group of businessmen to buy him a plane – a Jenny that he took to college with him and used for barnstorming around the Midwest during the summer. His father, Ole, was vehemently opposed to his flying, certain that his son would get killed. On one occasion, Ole even threatened to burn the plane, but before he could do it, his son misjudged a take-off in a pasture near Climax, MN, hooked a telephone wire, and crashed.

So it was back to school, this time at Georgetown, where he met Dan Sutherland, an Alaskan congressman. It was Sutherland who planted the idea of Eielson teaching up north.

Ole Eielson was relieved to have Ben say yes. “At least,” he said, “there are no airplanes up there.” Little did he know that Wrong Font Thompson, the editor of the News-Miner in Fairbanks, would very much warm to Eielson’s idea of bringing in an airplane to town; together, they persuaded the townspeople to buy one.

One Alaskan aviator later said, “When Ben come here, he didn’t know no more about flyin’ than a hog’s hip pocket.” Actually, there was general agreement that Eielson honestly wasn’t a natural when it came to flying. They called him a “sweet stunter” who had a poor sense of direction as well as landings and take-offs that left a lot to be desired.

Eielson’s new Jenny arrived in a crate at the Fairbanks depot on July 1st, 1923. It was towed to the ballpark, and three days later, Eielson took his place on the wicker seat inside the open cockpit. It was to be the first commercial flight in Alaska’s interior, and banker Dick Wood fortified himself with “Alaska Mule” before climbing into the back seat.

Wrong Font Thompson wrote, “Somebody HAD to go, so Dick decided it might as well be him.” The townspeople found it unsettling to see “two of the best men in town, everybody’s friends, settin’ one behind the other in a rig not much wider than a canoe.”

Their destination, Nenana, was only 50 miles away by air – just follow the railroad tracks below. But, somehow Eielson got lost, and it was an hour and a half before they finally spotted the town.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm