Down East 2013 ©
Photo courtesy Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library, University of Maine
The landscape dictates everything about life in northern Maine, so it only stood to reason that Paul and Lucy Arbo would open an airstrip beside their home north of Brownville. “We were the only ones who had a big field in that area,” explains their son, Edward Arbo. Beginning in the late 1920s, the Arbos’ “Prairie Airstrip” served barnstormers and a handful of commercial pilots every day, men who would bring thrill-seekers up from Bangor, Rockland, and Bar Harbor for a day of flying in the Katahdin region.
The Arbos’ homestead, at the confluence of the three branches of the Pleasant River, was a reliable rest stop for Canadian Airways pilots like the one shown here standing on the wing of his plane. Brownville was exactly the midpoint of the journey between Montreal and New Brunswick, and pilots could literally find their way by simply following the railroad tracks below them. The high-octane auto fuel dispensed from the pump, at far left, provided welcome reassurance that the men could make their daily journey safely and deliver the Royal Mail on time. Pilots stopping at the Arbos’ field could enjoy more than just a fresh fuel supply, though, as their “Pavilion,” located in the house visible at far left, served as a favorite dancehall and regularly hosted Boston bands.
But the delivery shown here, captured on film by the Arbos in the early 1930s, is no ordinary stop, as the pilot has arrived in a Fairchild 71 instead of his usual biplane. Edward Arbo says the well-dressed gent standing by the plane was either Medford “Med” Billings, head of the electric company in Milo, or Meth Herrick, a Ford dealer in Brownville. Canadian Airways officials had invited the two men and Paul Arbo to Montreal so that the three could be fêted as a token of the company’s appreciation for the service Brownville had provided to their pilots over the years.
In addition to commercial aviators, Prairie Airstrip served other notable airmen over its three decades of operation, perhaps most notably Doug “Wrong Way” Corrigan, who made headlines in 1938 by duping onlookers who thought he was headed from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Instead, Corrigan took a U-turn and made a twenty-eight-hour nonstop journey to Dublin, Ireland, on the same route Lindbergh had taken eleven years earlier, earning himself a parade that rivaled the “Lone Eagle’s” upon his return.
Prairie Airstrip is gone now, the runway having been cultivated as a potato field and the maple-floored dancehall made over into a roller-skating rink. And while the tracks that pilots like this one followed have been quiet for the past few decades, recently discussions have begun over restoring passenger service between Maine and Montreal. Crossroads like these may soon be coming back to life — though perhaps somewhat more full-service than they were eighty years ago.