Founder Wilfred Berube’s grassroots effort paved the way for the airport we know today
Imagine that you and some friends decide to spend the day surfcasting off Monomoy. Rather than navigate the channels from Stage Harbor by boat, you decide to fly. You head to Chatham Airport, pay $3 to its owner, Wilfred J. Berube, and hand him your rods and tackle.
With a broad smile, Berube lashes the gear to the struts of his airplane. You climb aboard, and soon you’re flying low over Monomoy, scanning the bars and rips for schools of striped bass. Berube sets the plane down on the beach, and you disembark with your gear and a picnic lunch. He tells you he will return before dark; then you watch him taxi up the sand and take flight. When you return to the mainland, Berube arranges a photo shoot with all of your fish hanging, balanced, from the propeller of his plane. The year is 1935, and the country is slowly crawling out from the Great Depression; $3 goes a long way.
In today’s economy, those $3 from 1935 would be worth just over $52, but even that sum would seem a bargain for most fishing outings. A fly-in fishing trip up in Alaska might cost about $400, each way, but it’s unlikely any amount would allow you to hop on a plane in Chatham and land directly on the Cape’s outer beaches anymore. It may be easy to spot fish from a plane, but it is likely a challenge to notice piping plover chicks beneath the wheels of the landing gear, and it’s a good bet neither Mass Audubon nor the National Park Service would appreciate their beaches being used as runways.
Though the days of drop-in fishermen deliveries may be relegated to the Cape’s past, Chatham Municipal Airport still operates out of the same hangar today that Berube completed back in 1937. And while Stick ‘N Rudder Aero Tours, the company owned by current airport manager Tim Howard, does not touch down on local beaches, the pilots will happily fly customers up to “See Cape Cod By Air” from an open cockpit bi-plane. Today, the airport also offers flight instruction and aircraft rentals.
In recent years, the airport at 240 George Ryder Road has also been emerging as a center for community activity, a development that harkens back to its beginnings. In June, the airport held its second annual open house, which drew more than 800 visitors who came to see the planes and a variety of exhibits, including antique cars and hotrods.
Howard, who has been at the reins since the year 2000, is pleased to see that the open house event has grown. “The first year was good but this second year was better,” he says. “The police and fire departments gave truck rides, boatyards brought out some yachts, and the airplane owners let us drive their planes out.” Berube was legendary for his gregarious nature and would likely be delighted to see such activity at the airport he built nearly 80 years ago almost entirely with his own two hands.
To understand Chatham Airport, one must understand Berube. In a 1992 book about the airport and its founder, titled Mon Rêve, author and pilot Bob Whittier wrote that the airport “is one of the few airfields now in existence whose origin can be traced to the initiative and energy of just one man—Wilfred Berube.” And in an Air Facts magazine article from 1952, W.H. Champlin Jr., who summered at the Chatham Bars Inn, reported that “[Berube’s] dream first took shape when, in 1929, he bought a 72-acre tract of unimproved land—now the site of the present airport—and began to hack out a strip.” From 1929 through 1951, when Berube sold the airport to the town of Chatham for $1, he was constantly at work on his ever-evolving labor of love. “By the late 1940s,” Champlin writes, “he had a sod field, good in three directions, of which he was proud.” A man of humble beginnings, Berube saw his individual vision come to fruition; he made his American dream come true.
In 1885, Berube was born near Montreal, in St. Alexandre, Quebec. Whittier writes that the Berube family immigrated to Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1900, to work the cotton mills. In Lawrence, a teenaged Wilfred acquired carpentry and mechanical skills. Although it is unclear whether he ever enrolled in school, he also learned to read and write. Because of Berube’s aptitude as a mechanic, Joseph Shattuck, who had married the daughter of Lawrence mill owner Bradford Lewis, hired him to work as his chauffeur. Both the Shattuck and Lewis families had built summer homes in Chatham, so Berube soon found himself in the Cape Cod town he would eventually call home for more than 30 years.
Whittier reports that Berube’s interest in flying was first kindled at the end of World War I, when he served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Though he did not serve overseas, he attended the army’s aviation mechanics school at Carlstrom Field in Arcadia, Florida, and later serviced airplanes at the nearby Dorr Field. In 1928, while Berube was still working for the Shattuck family, he learned to fly in his spare time. “By the summer of 1929,” Whittier writes, “he had accumulated the 50 flying hours required to obtain a private pilot license, and bought his first airplane.”
For many years, Berube would fly his Aeromarine-Klemm, a light craft ideally suited to the Chatham area due to its versatility and capability to operate from short landing strips. Initially, his plane’s landing gear was fitted with pontoons, so Berube would take off and land from Oyster Pond or Mill Pond in Chatham, but he soon noticed that other pilots were flying from a clearing near George Ryder Road in West Chatham. When he saw this, Berube began investigating the land and understood its potential. “He took all of his money (so the story goes) out of the bank and bought the 72-acre tract,” Whittier writes. “One account, however, has it that Mrs. Shattuck helped on the purchase. Although not a pilot herself, she greatly enjoyed riding along as passenger when Wilfred went flying in the Klemm.”
Berube soon realized that Nauset Beach was an easy place to land, too. According to Whittier, “[Berube] was soon ferrying delighted members of the Shattuck family and their friends three miles from his airfield to this beach for memorable picnics.”
Employed by the Shattuck family until the late 1950s, Berube devoted his spare time from 1930-1937 to clearing and improving his airport. In 1935, he converted a Model A Ford truck into a tree-clearing machine with a large circular saw mounted in the front, just a few inches from the ground. A resident of Methuen, Guy Berube, the airport founder’s great-nephew, jokes that one could say Wilfred was lazy, “inventing a machine to do the work so he didn’t have to chop down the trees himself.” By all accounts, though, it appears the man worked around the clock for the entirety of his career.
By 1936, Wilfred Berube began to envision Chatham as a destination for sportsmen, especially during Cape Cod’s off-season. Private planes had already begun to visit, so he decided to build a hangar large enough to garage five to six planes. For the roof, Whittier reports that Berube built 30 arches of seven-layered wood, and only when it came time to raise the arches did he require additional hands to assist his efforts. Amazingly, the hangar has weathered every nor’easter and hurricane since its completion in 1937. “Those are the same bows that are up there today,” Howard says. “The rest of the airport’s structures were added in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.”
Guy Berube, who owns a summer home in Brewster, has been keeping his great-uncle’s torch lit for decades. His father, Alcide Berube, was a pilot who flew with Wilfred and spent time helping out at the airport. A retired aerospace/defense engineer, Guy has contributed memorabilia to the Chatham Historical Society as well as the Chatham Airport, where Howard has set up a display case in the foyer that is open to the public. The exhibit features photographs, flight logs and other mementos. Guy also provided information to Whittier when the author was researching his book.
“Wilfred was known to many as the flying fisherman,” Guy Berube says, adding that the worst accident his great-uncle ever experienced occurred not in the sky, but in a boat. “When World War II broke out, all the small airports within 50 miles of the coast were shut down, so Wilfred took up fishing,” Guy recalls. “One time, he got broadsided [by a wave] and the boat flipped, knocking him out.” Fortunately, Wilfred awoke in an air pocket formed by the boat’s cabin; he was able to breathe until the boat ran aground at low tide, where he was then rescued. “He was never hurt flying,” Guy says, “but he takes up fishing and nearly dies.”
By the time Berube sold the airport to the town, he had flown hundreds of local and summer residents around the area, transported numerous fishermen to the beaches, and delivered mail. He even provided his airport as a staging field for U.S. Air Force pilots out of Otis Air Force Base, who used the field as a jumping off point to access Texas Tower No. 2, an offshore radar station that monitored Soviet activity. In his book, Whittier writes that Berube received commendations from both the Air Force base commander and then-governor, John A. Volpe.
In April of 1966, only a week before Berube passed away at the age of 81, Volpe wrote to him: “It was your foresight, your energy, and your dedication that brought into being the strategically located airport at Chatham. Your fellow citizens are mindful of the fact that you literally cleared the ground for this airport which has brought pleasure and security to countless citizens of the Commonwealth and visitors to Cape Cod.”
Today, Berube’s legacy lives on at Chatham Airport. In addition to Stick ‘N Rudder’s aerial tours, which continue Berube’s love for sharing the Cape’s aerial splendor with visitors, the airport is once again active in various town events, including Chatham’s annual Fourth of July celebration, the annual airport open house, and aviation-themed “Movie Nights Under the Stars.” In 2015, the lineup of summer films included Airplane and Top Gun! Further, the airport’s Hangar B restaurant serves breakfast and lunch, and garnered accolades from Boston magazine for the “Best Brunch—Cape Cod and Islands” in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
According to Whittier, who enjoyed a long friendship with the aviation pioneer, “Wilfred Berube was not a rich man in the monetary sense, [but] he was a very rich one indeed in terms of the things that make life worthwhile.” Indeed, Berube mounted a sign outside the hangar written in rope lettering that read “mon rêve,” or “my dream” in French. Whittier reports that Berube once said, “I’d rather work around an airport, airplanes, and aviators just for the fun of it than get a million dollars a year for doing something I did not like!”
To learn more about the airport, visit chathamairport.com.