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Balloons Over Battle Creek

by Mary G. Butler


For more than twenty years residents of Battle Creek have watched the majestic colorful hot air balloons float silently among the clouds every summer. But the story of ballooning in Battle Creek began many years before the World Hot-Air Balloon Championships were first hosted here in 1981.


Battle Creek’s fascination with hot air balloons began as early as 1859. On June 7th Professor William Bannister (all balloonists were called “professor”) made an ascension from Bronson Park in Kalamazoo. According to the Battle Creek Journal, “many of our citizens went down to witness the sight” and were among the crowd of 10,000 who saw Bannister lift off. After a flight of over an hour, the professor came safely back to earth near Fentonville. Unfortunately, the balloon broke loose during the descent and continued on its voyage, unattended. When the professor returned to Kalamazoo he mourned the “calamity” of the loss of his balloon, “not only on account of the intrinsic value of the thing itself, but for the business of which it will deprive me.”


The financial loss was considerable, since the lost balloon cost $1600 to build (approximately $42,000 in current dollars). Bannister’s massive balloon was “66 feet in length, 40 feet in diameter and having a capacity of 36,000 cubic feet.” Remnants of the colorful striped silk were later found as far away as London, Ontario.


Bannister was a nationally known professional balloonist who made a number of widely reported ascensions around Michigan and the Midwest during the 1850s. In 1854 he and a partner had made an epic flight from Adrian, Michigan, to Clarion, Pennsylvania, covering the distance of 350 miles in only four hours. When the pilot and passenger were rescued, they were unconscious, still anchored to the tree which snagged the balloon as it descended after running out of fuel.


Ballooning was a dangerous sport, or profession, for both participants and spectators. Contemporary newspapers are full of descriptions of “runaway” flights, unpredictable winds, violent landings, fires, collisions with man made or natural obstructions and faulty equipment. However ascensions were increasingly popular during the next decades, as part of the entertainment and sporting events scheduled on special events and major holidays.


The events at Battle Creek’s Driving Park (a horse race track in the west side Flats along the Kalamazoo River) on October 6, 1883, was typical. The program included a series of foot and horse races along with a balloon demonstration by Professor B. F. Joselyn. In a comical precursor for the events of the day, during the race for slowest horse, “all the horses stopped and the race was declared off.”


Undeterred by this fiasco, “the distinguished aeronaut” added a new feature to his program when he invited “a gentleman and lady to accompany him in his flight to the aerial regions.” There is no record that anyone took him up on his invitation, and, given the results of this ascension, this was probably fortunate.


The Battle Creek Journal gives this account of the day’s misadventures, as witnessed by more than 2,000 spectators. As he initially rose through the air, “Prof. Joslyn forgot to throw out sufficient ballast and ascended about 100 feet and came down against a fence, without damage, however. He then threw out two bags of ballast and ascended rapidly, bearing toward the southeast. When he had ascended about 800 feet, he emptied another bag of sand and at once ascended to the clouds where he disappeared, followed by the cheers of the assembled spectators and the straining eyes of a host of people on the streets. He went up waving his hat and when last seen, as he entered the clouds, he was making the same demonstration.”


The tale continues in The Citizen newspaper. “Ceresco … was the scene of great excitement. About the middle of the afternoon the residents were aroused by a great shouting and screaming, and on looking out to discover the cause saw a man sailing over in a balloon. By shouts and signs the man made them understand that he wished to land, and in the outskirts of the village they managed to catch a rope which was dangling from the car, and pulled it to earth.”


“The aeronaut was terribly frightened, and the sweat poured from his face like rain. ‘I tell you, gentlemen,’ he remarked after he had recovered somewhat, ‘if you had been where I was the last hour it would have made you think of God…’ It seems that … having lost control of the balloon had begun to fear that he could not effect a landing.”


The appearance of Professor Edward Hogan of Jackson for the Labor Day festivities of 1888 was far less dramatic. The day’s schedule included a series of horse and bicycle races, followed by a baseball game between Battle Creek and Jackson. While the local nine were trouncing the visitors 20 to 0, Hogan “made a successful ascension in his balloon, raising to a very high altitude, and descending … on Champion Street.”


Unfortunately the 34-year old Hogan was killed the next year while piloting an experimental “dirigicycle” off Long Island Sound in New York.


Over the years just watching a “professor” rise up in the air was not enough to satisfy the public thirst for spectacle. By the 1890s a trapeze bar was usually attached to the bottom of the balloon and the aeronauts performed gymnastic tricks as they rose slowly into the clouds.


The more daring aeronauts began adding parachutes to their balloons. When they reached sufficient height, the aeronauts “cut loose” from the balloon and fell toward earth. Waiting until the last possible moment, they opened their parachutes and drifted slowly to the ground. Of course, this did not always work as planned and tragic accidents were not uncommon.


Professor Stackhouse of Marshall gave a demonstration at Charlotte in 1890, which was almost his last. As the Battle Creek Journal described his “Fateful Fall,” Stackhouse took his balloon up and then “attempted to drop with his parachute, but it failed to work, and to the horror of the people who witnessed his ascension, they saw him drop 500 or 600 feet, striking into a plowed field. Everyone supposed him dead, but he is still alive, and some hopes of his recovery are entertained by the doctors.” There is no record of whether or not these hopes were actually realized.


Occasionally demonstrations were cancelled, much to the disappointment of the assembled crowd. At an 1895 celebration at Gull Lake the “entire affair was a success except the balloon ascension. A young man from [Battle Creek] was to make the attempt. It was his first trial and he did not have the courage to carry it out. The balloon has scarcely left the ground when he jumped out.”


Ascensions were also postponed because equipment failed, or did not arrive on time. Fred Pate, “only colored aeronaut in the world,” had to delay a much-publicized Goguac Lake program in 1893 because his parachute had not been packed along with his balloon.


A popular figure on the Michigan circuit, Pate was a Battle Creek resident. He had learned his trade from Edward Hogan, traveling as his assistant for three years before making his first solo ascension in 1889. For the next six years he toured the Midwest and New York state, making almost 200 solo appearances. He performed locally several times, including a night ascension over Goguac Lake in 1892, which may have been Battle Creek’s first “balloon allume.”


Pate had many narrow escapes from disaster, including becoming entangled in a “network of telegraph wires.” He told of one experience in Ohio when his balloon caught on fire while he was performing. After cutting loose from the flaming silk, he discovered that his parachute was also burning. Descending rapidly from 150 feet above the ground, Pate remembered that he “struck a tree, which broke my fall and bounded me off like a ball. I struck a large stone and was knocked insensible. …I was unconscious for two days.”


But more frequently Pate made dramatically beautiful ascensions, like this one on June 10, 1895, at the dedication of the new, expanded Driving Park. Pate’s performance was the highlight of the program, which also included bicycle and horse races, a Germania band concert, a carrier pigeon release and a fox chase (with a real fox and dogs). “The air was clear and still, and the balloon ascended into azure space for a mile, … drifting northwest. So high was it that the drop was distinctly discernable from all parts of the city, and it was, by far, the best ascension ever made here.”


Just two days later, Pate made his final flight, at a racing meet in Marcellus, Michigan. The erratic winds made the initial ascension tricky and Pate ran into difficulty when he was only 300 feet up in the air. Blown toward a grove of trees, Pate tried to escape the floundering balloon by grabbing a large tree limb. As he “released himself from the [trapeze] bar, the balloon shot upward and went out of sight.” The tree limb broke, Pate fell to the ground, breaking four ribs which punctured a lung. He died two hours later. Pate was a popular local celebrity and his funeral at Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church was “largely attended” before he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.


During the 1890s it was no longer just the male “professors” who were the fearless aeronauts. Women began to make solo balloon ascensions, appearing at holiday entertainments, dropping “from the clouds” on parachutes while clad in daring bejeweled costumes.


Miss Elsie Vandell appeared in Battle Creek on Labor Day 1890, sponsored by the Trades Council (a labor union coalition). She “sailed gracefully up about 5,000 feet and dropped majestically to the ground,” making “one of the prettiest balloon ascensions and parachute drops” ever seen locally, according to the Daily Moon. The newspaper was clearly fascinated by the “young woman, small of stature, but full of business. Her real name … is Isabelle Acker. Miss Acker made her first ascension four years ago and since that time has made 150 successful drops.”


The fascination with balloonists, male or female, peaked during the 1890s and the first decade of the new century. As the motor powered airplanes began to catch the public fancy, interest in hot air ballooning waned. Daredevil aeronauts were relegated to the side shows at traveling circuses or appearances promoting real estate developments.


It took another six decades before the beauty and majesty of hot air ballooning was once again fully appreciated by the public.