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Voyageur's Best Features of 2003

Orvis Nelson

His dreams took flight
Nothing would keep Orvis Nelson’s feet on the ground
by Cynthia Brekke |  May 6, 2003

It was a long time coming, but on April 12, 2003, at the Thunderbird Hotel in Bloomington, Minn., Tamarack’s son, Orvis Marcus Nelson, was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. Inductees are honored for their contributions to the progress and development of aviation, and Orvis was nominated by his nephew, Robert O. Harder, who published a four-volume history of the Nelson family called A Minnesota Remembrance*.

Orvis was born on March 18, 1907, and grew up with his father, Marcus, his mother, Mamie, and his sister, Myrtle, on a farm that was nestled in the eastern side of Tamarack. There were no telephones, and no electricity, only telegraph, and mail delivery by train. But Orvis Nelson would slip from the bonds of his humble beginnings, spread his wings, and take flight on the ride of his life.
The Nelson family was truly among the early pioneers of the Tamarack area. Marcus was president of the bank in Tamarack, involved in a real estate corporation, and had a logging operation throughout the Savanna area. Life was good for the family, who even had a cabin and resort at the mouth of the Prairie River (by the Prairie River Bridge).

Among Marcus Nelson’s business associates and acquaintances was Martin Tingdale, who was responsible for renaming Rice Lake to Lake Minnewawa (The Water of the Wild Goose) and Wiberg Point to Sheshebe. Another acquaintance of the Nelson family was Charles Lindbergh, and it was he who would ultimately have an impact on young Orvis.

Meanwhile, Orvis attended the Tamarack School, (now the Community Center) and graduated from the eighth grade. However, in 1918, the big fire swept through and inflicted heavy, financial losses to the Nelson family. Despite the setback, Marcus still managed to establish a general mercantile store in Tamarack: Nelson-Heller Company. However, with the struggle becoming more difficult, he moved his family to Minneapolis, and from there, tried to keep his real estate interests and logging operation afloat.

The move to Minneapolis was an opportunity for Orvis to further his education. He enrolled and attended West High School, graduating in 1925. He also studied for one semester at Hamline University in St. Paul. Afterward, he spent the next couple of years in northern Minnesota as a logger, working for his father. It was during this time that Charles Lindbergh would make a huge impression on Orvis, forever changing his direction. Lindbergh made his successful, Atlantic flight in May of 1927, and Orvis was bitten by the bug. However, without a college education, flight school would be out of the question. The only way around this was to enlist in the Army Air Corps, and in August of 1927, his father signed the consent for Orvis to enter for three years.

Private Orvis Nelson found himself at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Ill. He had requested training in the ground and aerial photography course, but his first service was as a prison guard. It wasn’t long, at the end of Sept. 1927, that Orvis was moved into the photo course and began taking classes. By March of 1928, he received his first assignment to the Philippines (Rizal, Philippine Islands) with the fourth Composite Group. He was one of a handful of photographers involved in the initial, aerial survey of those islands. But Orvis tired of the service, and in May of 1929, (at the rank of sergeant) he bought himself out of the Air Corps. By September of that same year, he had been accepted, and began attending, Franklin College in Indiana.

Orvis flew home, and when he did, he’d take aerial photos of the area, including the City of Aitkin. He then offered the photos for sale. Some time during the 1930’s, a makeshift air strip was conceived in Tamarack. Located on the south and west side of town, there were two runways: 090 and 270, numbered according to their compass direction in degrees. According to Robert Harder, nephew of Orvis, it wasn’t much to look at, but usable. “It was really nothing more than a cleared off, level stretch of the soggy sod,” Bob commented by email from his home in Chicago, Ill. “And it probably wasn’t called an airport until after Orvis landed there one day, which is what I suspect.”

Robert also recalled a cancellation stamp, used by the Postmaster at the time, Frank Clarine. It was a commemoration stamp for air mail week, which was May 15 to 21, 1938. On it, it clearly states: Snader Airport, Tamarack, Minn. In Bob Harder’s book, Minnesota Remembrances, vol. 4, a letter written to Mamie, by Cora Musselman, makes reference to the landing there. She wrote: “Well, Orvis came in his ‘Stinson’ and picked up Dilla and Johnny, and flew to Chicago to pick up Orvis’ friend, Floyd Cyrus... They landed after dark, on Sat., in a field south of Tamarack. Dilla could not see a thing and said Orvis must have cat eyes, scared her some I think...”

Another Robert, Bob Johnson, whose family has a long history in the Tamarack area, recalled the stories he’d been told of the comings and goings at the airport, as relayed to him by his uncle, George Johnson. “Snader’s owned one half of the air field and King’s owned the other,” Bobby recalled. “It was called ‘Snader-King’ Airport. They could get fuel here, (Bob’s Small Engines was a gas station years ago) and right next door you could have a baby!” Snader’s wife was a midwife, and local resident, Bob Kelley, was the last person born there.

“Then, Snader and King had a dispute of some kind, about the airport,” Bobby explained. “They dug a ditch through the center of it and put up a fence.” That, as they say, was that. “Made for a tricky landing,” Bobby joked.

Orvis went on to graduate from college, after only three years, and won a coveted appointment to an army flying school at Randloph Field in San Antonio, Tex., and graduated as a Cadet Captain from Kelly Field. He checked out in a Martin and Keystone twin engine, bi-wing bomber, and was assigned to March Field in Calif., only to find himself engaged in the ill-fated, army mail episode. On a run from Salt Lake City to Oakland, a dozen pilots were killed or crashed during the first week. Lt. Nelson resigned from the Army Air Corps after realizing that the Corps was completely underfunded, and there was little chance to gain further flying experience. He took a position as a copilot with United Airlines and, in 1937, checked out as a captain on a DC-3, remaining with United until 1946, when he broke out on his own and began Transocean Airlines, an air transport company. The airline flew refugees, dignitaries and humanitarian support missions throughout Asia, Alaska and the middle east. It set records, and achieved prestige throughout the world, but struggled with the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board to achieve rights to foreign routes. They were never granted, and the airline disappeared in 1960, after employing over 6,700 people at 57 bases worldwide.

Orvis operated a charter air service, and was an airline consultant assisting with the establishment of Airline Pilots Assoc., as well as setting up airlines in the Middle East. However, even with all the international travel, he didn’t forget his home town. His mother, Mamie, had already converted the old, brick, Koplen Hotel into the Marcus Theater, in honor of her husband who had mused that Tamarack should have a ‘show house’. Orvis began buying back some of the business interests that were lost when the family was bankrupted years before. He bought back the Nelson’s Store and the grocery store. He also started the Arrowhead Broom Factory, which operated a number of years, and he bought back the family farm. He also had a sawmill, made Camel Saddles and made and sold bird houses nationwide (in the early 60’s). He owned the old bank building, where his father had once been president, and started putting a museum in it, but it was never completed. The old Tamarack bank building was torn down in the late 1980’s.

In Robert O. Harder’s book, volume four of A Minnesota Remembrance, it states: “Orvis Nelson was possibly the greatest of all airline promoters who never reaped the just rewards of his enterprise, innovation and determination.” (R.E.G. Davis, Air Transport curator for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, 1989.)

Orvis passed away on Dec. 2, 1976, at age 69. Twenty-seven years later, his widow, Edith F. Nelson, accepted his plaque at the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame banquet in April. After all the ups and downs, Orvis is still flying high.

Note: Historical information obtained through Robert O. Harder’s series, ‘A Minnesota Remembrance’, excerpts reprinted by permission; Also from info. provided by R. Harder. Thank you Robert Harder and Bobby Johnson, for your input into this article.

This article first appeared in the May 6, 2003 issue of the Voyageur Press.