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Chatham Airport: One Man’s Field of Dreams

Chatham airport

Photo Courtesy: Chatham Airport

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.

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