HILLSBORO – There is no lack of quaintness at the Joshua Sanford Field Airport.
Those who land at the city-owned airstrip are asked to sign in on a faded yellow legal pad protected by Plexiglas in a self-serve kiosk constructed by Ian Collins, an Eagle Scout with Boy Scout Troop 83. The plaque doesn’t say in what year Collins built the structure.
The 3,600-foot-long and 50-foot-wide paved, lighted runway hasn’t been resurfaced in nearly 20 years and is sprouting weeds. There is no terminal, maintenance shed or a place to buy fuel — just two hangars that over the last few years have housed only a few aircraft.
And while the number of regular users at the airport can be counted on two hands, it’s not uncommon for those that do land to walk across the street for rings of bologna, two-pound rolls of butter and chunks of Muenster, Swiss and Colby at Janet Helgerson’s Cheese Store & More. This is where a sign above the three-door cheese cooler states “We ID Limburger Cheese Customers!”
“Everything I get is as local as possible,” said Helgerson, who has worked at the store for 37 years and bought the place in 2003. “The economy is tough. So goes the farmer, so goes everything else in town. And with all the small farms closing down, everyone has to go someplace else to work.”
But there are mixed feelings in this Vernon County city of about 1,400 people about a project at the Land O’Lakes butter factory that is bringing economic development to the community, located 23 miles northwest of Reedsburg.
The plant, purchased earlier this year by Land O’Lakes, makes quarter-pound, one-pound and 55-pound blocks of butter along with vats of butter oil used by commercial bakers and candy makers. But the facility is located at the southwest end of the airport’s runway, and an addition will create a safety hazard for airplanes. That has forced the city to close the little-used airport in exchange for jobs and tax base.
The 20,000-square-foot addition to the 28,000-square-foot butter plant will include a refrigerated warehouse, new employee entrance, locker and changing rooms, a break area and conference space. The project is part of $15 million worth of improvements planned for the facility through the end of 2018 that could also see the company’s Hillsboro workforce grow beyond its existing 30 employees, the company said in an email.
“We worked closely with the city to identify the best option to meet the needs of our growing business while helping to ensure the safety of our employees,” company spokeswoman Rebecca Lentz wrote. “This option was the one that met those needs.”
In January, the Hillsboro City Council approved a memorandum of understanding and a development agreement with Land O’Lakes. The city then floated a plan to close part of the runway and make it a restricted-use facility, but the hangar owners, Henry Peterson and Bill Lesnjak, threatened to sue the city, saying it would affect their operations. They dropped their case when Land O’Lakes paid Peterson $60,000 and Lesnjak $29,000 for their hangars that are in a flood plain thanks to the nearby West Branch of the Baraboo River.
The state Bureau of Aeronautics urged the city to prevent any incompatible land uses but had concerns about adding new structures and moving the runway protection zone. The Federal Aviation Administration also studied the issue and told the city that a hazard designation could only be removed if the 40-foot-tall Land O’Lakes addition was only 6 feet tall.
So, after months of debate and haggling, the city informed the state late last month that it was closing the airport. Bulldozers were at work last week moving earth for construction at Land O’Lakes, but mowing has stopped alongside the runway and takeoffs and landings will be prohibited by this fall.
“Was it an easy decision? No,” said Adam Sonntag, Hillsboro’s city administrator. “This has been six months of trying whatever we could in working with the state (Bureau of Aeronautics) and working with the FAA to come to some sort of reasonable solution. It was frustrating. These things have existed next to each other for the last 30 years and all of a sudden they can’t because somebody wants to add to it? It doesn’t make any sense to us.”
It’s unclear what will become of the airport property, which is along a bike trail. The flood zone eliminates the potential for development, although Sonntag said it could be used as parkland, a test track or for other uses that require minimal facilities.
Wisconsin is home to eight commercial airports, including Dane County Regional Airport in Madison and General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, but 90 airports are considered general use. They support activities like personal and business travel, charter services, tourism, sky diving, medical aircraft, flight training and agricultural spraying, according to the state Department of Transportation. That count does not include scores of private airstrips around the state, most of which are rural grass strips.
The airport in Hillsboro began as a pea gravel strip, has been both private and public over the years and was used by the Kickapoo Oil Co. founded in 1959 by Raymond Knower. Kickapoo, which grew to more than 60 stations before it sold to Kwik Trip in 1988, is credited with having the first self-serve gas pumps east of the Mississippi after it convinced the state legislature to change the law that required gas to be pumped by service station attendants.
The airport was taken over by the city in the 1980s and in 1993 was named after Joshua Sanford, a Native American World War II fighter pilot. He was twice wounded but highly decorated for his flying exploits that included 102 combat missions. He was also officially credited with downing eight enemy planes and was shot down or ditched his own plane 12 times.
Sanford, who was born near Friendship and graduated from Viroqua High School before attending UW-Madison, lived in Hillsboro after the war from 1948 to 1956 before moving to Reedsburg. Sanford died in 1962 from complications of war injuries. He was just 43 and is buried at Mount Vernon Cemetery on Hillsboro’s southwest side.
“I am deeply saddened that proposed construction by your company is going to be at the expense of our local airport,” Patti Bruha wrote in an open letter dated July 11 to Land O’Lakes and sent to the FAA, city, state and Ho Chunk Nation plus to media, including the Wisconsin State Journal.
Bruha, 66, was born and raised in Hillsboro, has a pharmacy degree from UW-Madison and is training to get her pilot’s license. When she was in high school, she took an aviation course as did many of her classmates. Now she’ll have to go elsewhere to train.
“We want the tax base from Land O’Lakes. We want the jobs, the city needs that,” she said. “But I think the city needs the airport, too. Can’t we just co-exist together?”
Peterson, who served as the airport’s manager and owns L.G. Nuzum Lumber Co., a firm founded by his grandfather in 1902, said he has moved his two Cessna airplanes to Reedsburg. The change will make flying less convenient for him, while the closure of the airport will take away part of the city’s character.
“I know jobs are important. I’m a small businessman,” Peterson said as we walked the runway. “There’s always traffic in and out of here. How lucky is a small town like Hillsboro to have an airport? Look at all the other communities that don’t have an airport.”