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Airborne after
52 years on the road

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Before consenting to her husband taking the trip he had in mind, Mrs. Howard W. Peak insisted that he have their family doctor check his blood pressure, listen to his heart and X-ray his chest. Oh, and take out more life insurance.

That may have seemed a bit dramatic to Peak, who spent more than a half-century of his life on the road as a traveling salesman. The popular term for that vocation was "drummer," but Peak liked to think of himself as a "ranger of commerce." He made his first trip in 1876, representing a wholesaler in his native Fort Worth.

On that first commercial trek, he had traveled by wagon, selling his wares at the early day equivalent of post exchanges adjacent to the military garrisons established to protect the state's western frontier from hostile Indians. When Peak took to the road, Comanches and vast herds of North American bison still roamed the western part of the state, particularly the Panhandle.

Joining three friendly competitors on his initial sales trip, he wrote, "We paired off and set out on our 1,000-mile overland trip when scarcely a dozen towns were embraced in our itinerary. At the time there was no Abilene, Colorado City, Wichita Falls or Amarillo, nor any of the intervening cities."

Still, he and his fellow "rangers" did well on the trip, and it marked the beginning of a long career on the road. Now well into the second decade of the 20th century, to the consternation of Mrs. Peak, the old traveling man planned another journey, one like none he had ever taken despite the many thousands of miles he had covered over the years.

"Having during my 52 years on the road traveled by every means available to date, on horseback, in buggies, hacks, stagecoaches, freight and passenger trains, autos and buses, there remained but one other way available," he wrote in his privately published 1929 memoir, "A Ranger of Commerce: Or 52 Years on the Road."

At 82, he intended to go up in an airplane.

Peak's opportunity came when the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce began planning a promotional event they dubbed an "Aerocade." To showcase Cowtown as the commercial capital of West Texas and potential air travel hub, civic leaders -- including colorful Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter -- organized the aeronautical equivalent of a whistle-stop tour of West Texas.

Eleven "ships," as Peak referred to aircraft, would leave Fort Worth Nov. 8, 1928. And, his doctor having declared him in good health, the elderly former traveling salesman would be among those along for the four-day sky ride.

While his wife had been openly nervous about her husband taking such a trip, Peak had been a bit on edge about it himself, despite his excitement.

"When I took my seat in the good ship Fairchild, all nicely cushioned and comfortable, and looked in the blue eyes of that handsome Viking Mr. Rhenstrom, the pilot, all doubts of safety were dispelled, never to appear again," he wrote. (E.G. "Swede" Rhenstrom, a former World War One flier, would have a long career in commercial aviation.)

Takeoff that late fall morning went so smoothly, Peak recalled, that at first he didn't even realize they were airborne.

"I whispered to the pilot, asking when we were going to start," he wrote. "His answer was, 'Mr. Peak, we are now going 80 miles per hour,' and looking out I saw [the community of] Saginaw a thousand feet below."

Soon, they reached 3,000 feet with an airspeed of 135 miles an hour. "Reading the Star-Telegram of the evening before," he wrote, "I felt like the fellow who was taken by a Kansas cyclone when he exclaimed, 'We are shore goin' some!"

Following a short stop at Wichita Falls, four hours of flight time after leaving Fort Worth the aerial entourage landed in Amarillo, 400 miles distant. Peak later noted in his book that the same trip used to take him more than 10 days on horseback.

"Over the same grounds that the wild Comanche and countless thousands of buffalo roamed undisputed in my younger days, I could play my fancies to limitless expansion," Peak wrote, recalling his thoughts as he looked down on West Texas from above.

From Amarillo, the following morning the Fort Worth flyers headed south to Plainview, Lubbock, Big Spring and Midland, where they spent their second night. On the third day, once a morning fog lifted, the planes in the "Aerocade" flew to San Angelo, Abilene and the oil boom town of Ranger. There they took part in that community's Armistice Day (now Veteran's Day) celebration on November 11.

With the fleet wheels up from Ranger the following morning, the next stop would be Fort Worth.

"While sailing along, enjoying the inexplicable thrill of flying, I could but revert to the days agone, and centered my thoughts on my boyhood's family circle," Peak wrote.

His father, arriving in 1854, had been Fort Worth's first doctor, his mother only the eighth Anglo woman to settle along the Trinity. And he had been the only male child born at the military post that gave the future city its name.

"But now look on my family," he continued. "Wife is listening over the radio; sister down at the beauty shop having her hair steam rolled; [son] Buddy teaching salesmanship by applied psychology, while Pop is flying in an airplane. Times do change!"

Indeed they do.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 3, 2016 column

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