Q: What is the history of the B-17 parked at Mefford Field in Tulare? Was it a B-17 training field in World War II?
Scott Nichols, Fresno
A: Long before it was renamed Mefford Field, the 180-acre civilian airstrip south of Tulare was the temporary home of the Rankin Aeronautical Academy. Founded by Tex Rankin, the school trained U.S. Army Air Corps cadets during World War II. The pilots didn’t train in the B-17 Flying Fortress, like the one on display, but instead flew mostly PT-17 Boeing-Stearman aircraft.
Airmen trained at Mefford Field from February to May 1941, when classes were moved to the newly-completed Rankin Field southeast of Tulare. According to one history, Rankin Field was one of 62 civilian flying schools where 1.4 million World War II Army pilots were trained.
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Mefford Field’s namesake became the oldest person to skydive in 1994, at age 93.
One of the Rankin instructors was Oliver Franklin Mefford. He was born in Texas in 1901. According to a history written by the Tulare Historical Museum, Mefford’s love of flying began in 1937 when he purchased a Piper Cub airplane.
“He and his brother, Dwight, spearheaded an effort to develop an airport,” the history said. The Tulare Municipal Airport opened prior to World War II. In 1981 the field was named for Mefford, a local businessman who served on the Tulare City Council.
The B-17 Flying Fortress on display at the airfield is named “Preston’s Pride” for Maj. Gen. Maurice Preston, who flew the plane to Tulare in 1958. The warplane was a gift to AMVETS Post 56 from the U.S. Air Force as a memorial to the town’s World War II veterans. The plane is on permanent loan from the Air Force, as is the Vietnam War-era F-4 Phantom.
Mefford Field is owned by the city of Tulare. Both planes are maintained by AMVETS Post 56. Outgoing post commander Roger Kerns said both planes underwent a year-and-a-half long restoration.
Q: Who was the voice of Kearney Bowl at Friday night races? I believe he worked for KMJ radio. How many years did Kearney Bowl last?
Manuel Caetano, Fresno
A: Jack T. “Jeff” Nagle, longtime announcer for KMJ radio, was the voice of races at the Kearney Bowl race track for three years in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Nagle began as an announcer for KMJ radio in 1951. He became the station’s program manager in 1957. He left KMJ in 1967 for an insurance job, but returned to the station nine months later.
In the 1960s he recorded listening tapes or “talking books” for the blind and hearing impaired.
In 1972 he went to work for KMJ-TV. He left the station in 1974 and from 1975 to 1982 he was the executive director of the Downtown Association of Fresno. In 1981 he made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Fresno City Council member Dale Doig.
In the 1980s Nagle and his wife, Doreen, were travel tour guides. He died in 1999 at age 73.
Kenny Takeuchi of Fresno was a race official for Kearney Bowl. He recalled sitting beside Nagle during the races, recording the official race times. Takeuchi took over announcing duties in 1962 and continued until the racetrack closed. The last race was held on Sept. 18, 1970, ending the track’s 42-year history.
The racetrack began in 1928 as the Italian Amusement Park on the north side of Kearney Boulevard. In the mid-1930s the track was moved to the south side of the street to make room for expansion at Chandler Field. It was renamed Airport Speedway in 1947, Fresno Recreation Park in 1956 and Kearney Bowl in 1959. Demolition of Kearney Bowl was completed on Jan. 11, 1971.
Q: What is the history of the mausoleum at Smith Mountain Cemetery in Dinuba? When was it built and who was the architect?
Roy Cotton, Dinuba
A: The Smith Mountain Cemetery opened in 1910 and the mausoleum was completed in 1923, according to Dinuba Daily Sentinel newspaper stories.
When construction began in 1921, the size of the mausoleum would be determined by the number of families that reserved space for future burials, a story said.
An April 14, 1923, story about completion of the “beautiful new mausoleum” said it was designed and built by R.C. Palmer, D.A. Schlemmer, H.J. Bartlett and a Mr. Wheatland at a cost of $75,000.
The Grecian-style mausoleum was built of concrete and steel to “withstand the ravages of time,” the story said. Alabama and Napoleon marble, art glass windows and ceiling panels, bronze gates and hand stenciling decorate the interior.
The mausoleum was called “the grandest of its size of any that have been constructed on the Pacific coast.”
In 1987 Walter Gray, then the manager, wrote a history of the cemetery that was organized by the Odd Fellows Lodge. Gray said that in 1910 “some men took their buggy” up a hillside to find a place to start a cemetery. “It was rocky. Looking down they saw a dry spot where the grain would not grow,” and purchased 40 acres of barren land.
Smith Mountain was named for James Smith, a native of Pennsylvania who came to California in 1848.
Smith Mountain Cemetery takes its name from a hill just north of the cemetery. Smith Mountain was named for James Smith, a native of Pennsylvania who came to California in 1848. In 1855 he started Smith’s Ferry across the Kings River just south of Reedley.
Gray wrote that “before any roads, people would come across country to meet at the base of this hill and then as a group travel on north to Reedley” to take the ferry. The hill became popularly known as Smith’s Mountain because of its proximity to Smith’s Ferry, according to the late historian and author Catherine Rehart.
Irma Dean, 9, who died after being hit by a team of runaway horses, was the first person buried at Smith Mountain Cemetery, on Sept. 22, 1911.
Some Dinuba pioneers are also buried at the cemetery, as are the notorious Ruggles brothers, “reported to be bandits (who) were lynched for rustling,” Gray wrote.
Editor’s Note: Paula Lloyd’s Ask Me column will return in September.
Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.