W. E. Easterwood, Jr. was a wealthy Dallas businessman who became known for his philanthropy as much as for his enthusiasm for aviation. Easterwood had been born in 1883 in Wills Point. After serving in World War I, he returned to North Texas to earn his wealth in various businesses he started in Wichita Falls. Easterwood later moved to Dallas and became an ambassador for his adopted city.
The 1920s marked great enthusiasm for aviation in the United States. Charles Lindbergh had completed his transatlantic flight. Two weeks later, a flyer named Clarence Chamberlin flew from the United States to Germany with a passenger, barnstorming pilots were putting on exhibitions and overland air races began to be organized. In 1927, a race was conceived and sponsored by pineapple magnate James Dole. It was called the Dole Air Race or the Dole Air Derby. This contest offered price money of $25,000 to the first aircraft that could make it from Oakland, California to Hawaii. About the same time, W. E. Easterwood announced a $25,000 prize to the first flyer to make it from Dallas to Hong Kong, allowing stops in California and Hawaii. The races were expected to take place concurrently, though Easterwood’s actually never got underway, to any significant degree.
The Dole Air Race had a winner with one aircraft reaching Hawaii in about 26 and a half hours. Another aircraft arrived a little later and was awarded a $10,000 second prize. Of the other six aircraft competing, one experienced engine problems early on and returned to land, two crashed on takeoff and three were lost at sea, the Golden Eagle, Miss Doran and Dallas Spirit.
The Dallas Spirit was likely named to evoke Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. The Dallas Spirit had been manufactured by the Swallow Airplane Company in Wichita, Kansas. At the time, Swallow was a relatively new company that manufactured biplanes and monoplanes during that era.
Dallas Spirit had been piloted by a Dallas resident named Capt. William Portwood Erwin, who had distinguished himself as a flyer in World War I, becoming the third ranking flying ace. The aircraft had been revealed to dignitaries and a crowd of thousands on August 6, 1927 at Love Field. Erwin and his navigator Alvin Eichwaldt left for Oakland on August 9, 1927, returned briefly for repairs to the fuel system and departed again on the 10th, arriving in Oakland the next day. Erwin had entered both the Dole and Easterwood contests, hoping to collect both prizes. The Dallas Spirit left Oakland a week later on August 18, 1927. The aircraft suffered another failure soon afterward when an access panel that had been cut into the fabric below the navigator is believed to have led to another tear in the fabric. This was repaired back in Oakland, but Erwin was effectively out of the race. By that time, two contestants were considered lost at sea and a reward was offered for their recovery. By then out of the running for the Dole, Erwin elected to assist in the possible search and recovery of the other lost aircraft, evidently intending to go on and try to complete the Easterwood leg of the competition. The Erwin aircraft was one of four equipped with radios (theirs borrowed from another crew that had failed) and around 9 pm, the crew transmitted a report that they had experienced a spin but had recovered. Shortly afterward, they issued a truncated SOS that they were experiencing yet another spin. The latter transmission ended and they were never heard from again.
Easterwood’s Dallas to Hong Kong prize was never claimed but he is said to have given $5,000 of the offered prize money to the widow of Capt. Erwin. Easterwood sponsored another contest for a one stop flight from Paris to New York to Dallas that was claimed in 1930 by two French flyers, Capt. Dieudonne Coste and Maurice Bellonte in an aircraft curiously named Question Mark.
Though Easterwood was an aviation enthusiast, he apparently did not have his own pilot’s license. As noted, his philanthropy was well known and included churches, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, veterans care facilities and many others. Though apparently not from a poor family, he is said to have created a company that manufactured “listerated chewing gum.” It was a success and and a short time later he sold the company to a national manufacturer, unnamed. He continued to work work for the buyer as an area distributor of chewing gum after the sale. The company could possibly have been Wrigley, as in the early 1930s, Easterwood sued Wrigley for breach of contract and lost. Even with his notoriety, the only time he is noted as dabbling in politics was when he made an unsuccessful run to be the Democratic candidate for governor. It is unknown whether he went all the way to the primary, or dropped out of the race prior to the election. In any case, Easterwood is not listed as having received a significant number of votes in the primary, and the number of candidates was large.
Easterwood was a visionary and predicted that some day, airplanes would be built that could accommodate 3,000 passengers and fly 1,000 miles per hour. He lived to see many changes, but at some point, his health began to fail. He and his wife moved to California where he died in 1940 at the age of fifty-eight. His remains were returned to Dallas where he was buried at Grove Hill Cemetery. He was survived by his widow, Mae Easterwood, a sister Eva Easterwood, a brother Busby Easterwood. Easterwood Airport in Brazos County is named for his brother, Lt. Jesse Lawrence Easterwood, who lost his life in 1919 in a noncombat aircraft accident while serving as a Navy pilot in Panama, Canal Zone.
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