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CAROLA LILLIE HARTLEY
Publisher and Contributing Writer

Photograph:  A large crowd gathered at Comeau Field in Opelousas on Monday, April 29, 1912 to see the Moisant monoplane. (Carola Lillie Hartley Collection.)

Newspaper headlines at the start of the year 1912 were dominated by news of the state election held on January 22nd that resulted in a second primary on February 27th. The trial of Mrs. Zee Runge McRee, who was charged with murder in the death of young Allen Garland, made headlines and was the talk of the town for several weeks in March and April. The 1912 Louisiana flood, that devastated the lower areas of the parish, was also in the headlines.

Then on Saturday, April 13th, a front-page headline about an exciting upcoming event created quite a stir in the community — “The Moisant Airbirds Will Fly For Opelousas People.”  A flying machine was coming to town for the very first time!

The article announced the arrival of the Moisant monoplane to the town on Saturday, April 27, with performances set for that day and on Sunday the 28th at the Haas Track. The Elks Lodge was promoting the event. The article went on to say the Moisants aviators were famed throughout the world for their role in conquering the air as a means of traveling.

For the next two weeks, the people of Opelousas anxiously awaited the arrival of the monoplane and the aviators. The weekend before the big event the St. Landry Clarion ran a report with quotes from L. H. Mornhinveg, the event chairman.

According to Mornhinveg the preparation for the flight of the Moisant airship was progressing in a timely fashion. He said since local railroads were giving special excursions rates to those from other areas wanting to attend, the organization was expecting a large crowd of locals as well as out of town visitors. He assured everyone that the Elks Lodge was confident they had secured an attraction that would prove both highly interesting and instructive.

Finally, the day arrived, as did the plane and the aviator, Harold Kantner, a pioneer aviator. Born on February 23, 1886, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, he attended the John Bevins Moisant aviation school and was taught to fly by Andre Haupert. Kantner built a Bleriot monoplane with a 50 horsepower Gnome engine in which he soloed on June 30, 1911, and earned an aviation certificate on October 14, 1911, in Mineola, New York.  After that he went around the country with his plane giving performances in towns like Opelousas. He was well known and the people of Opelousas were thrilled to have such a celebrity in their town.

A large crowd of excited local and area citizens gathered at Haas Track on the first day of the Aviation Meet. As the wide-eyed spectators watched, Kantner stepped into his speed machine. With a “sang-froid” telling of nerve and determination, seemingly unmindful of the fact that those early aviators had an average lifespan of only two years, he turned the key, and the flight was on.

The machine was a great canvassed, butterfly shaped thing, and gave the spectators the “two best flights that the knowing ones had ever seen,” according to expressed opinions. Those daring fellows were called “Bird Men.”  Since a buzzard is a bird, the application was perhaps appropriate.  But they should have been called “Men Buzzards” since the machine started like a buzzard. “It lights like the buzzard, hopping and skipping over the ground before coming to a stop,” said the report in the local paper.

Although the schedule called for a flight on Saturday and Sunday, the wind was so strong on Sunday that Kantner could not go up. So, to the disappointment of the large crowd, it was agreed the Sunday’s flight would be held on Monday instead, at 3PM at Comeau Ball Park. Every prominent business place in the city was asked to close for the occasion.

A huge crowd gathered for the final flight of Kantner’s monoplane on Monday. It was successful as the newspapers reported the following Saturday.  The Elks announced the group was satisfied, even though they did not make much of a profit.  L. H. Mornhinveg reported “Our idea was to give the people of this section an opportunity to see a flying machine without having to go away to see one, and we are gratified at the result, and at the interest taken in the performances.”

Opelousas was not the same after those amazing flights. Although most of the townspeople knew of the flying machine, no one had ever seen one “in person.”

Other events in 1912, including the disappearance of young Bobby Dunbar in August, dominated the newspaper headlines for some time following the airplane show. And other stories would drive local and area news reports and town talk over the years.  But the story of the first airplane in Opelousas was told and retold to anyone who would listen. All in attendance on those two April days in 1912 agreed the flight of the monoplane was a sight to behold in the old village, and one that was never forgotten.