In 2010, I took some time the week after Oshkosh to travel to Cherry Grove, Bernard Pietenpols home town in Minnesota. I went there with Mark Petz, our Corvair cylinder head expert from Madison WI. After getting back to Florida I wrote the story reprinted below. Since this has been a week of Pietenpol thoughts, I wanted to bring this back out for people who may not have seen it.
I consider BHP to be the Patron Saint of Homebuilding. I don’t say that lightly. Before him, it was just accepted that aviation was for rich people to do and working people to watch. The battle on this point didn’t end with BHP striking a blow for affordable aviation with his model A powered Aircamper. It still goes on today, and there are plenty of magazine editors, FBO operators and even people on the EAA board who think that if you work for a living your place is watching from the outside of the chain link fence. I am from NJ, and we have a three word phrase to express unwillingness to go along with someones idea for you. It is “F- – – That S – – -.” I consider myself a foot soldier in the conflict to keep aviation affordable. BHP is my George Washington (Our first Commander-in-Chief.)
BHP was truly a genius. He knew how to repair Color televisions in the vacuum tube era of electronics, no small feat. The best lesson in life I ever learned from the man is that simplicity has made far more people happy than complexity. Many of the things I do, from live in a rural area, to not having a cell phone can be directly traced back to understanding that BHP knew a secret; The best things in life and flying are often the most simple in the most peaceful setting. It is hard to explain how much I respect the man’s legacy. Try this: I keep a Coffee can of soil that I picked up from the Cherry Grove runway in 2002 on top of my refrigerator. Once a year or so, when I am having a bad day, I take it down and stare into the soil in it and think about how the guy who walked on that ground knew how to live with peace of mind in a trying world.
‘The Long Way Home’
After Oshkosh I took a few days to regroup at Mark’s shop. We decided to make a field trip out to see Piet builders Dave and Will Mensink, and make a trip over to Bernie Pietenpol’s home town, Cherry Grove, Minn. We made a couple of stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Because our 450 mile loop was intended to go visit things that live in the past, it seemed appropriate to take Mark’s 1963 Corvair van.
H.L. Menken is one of my favorite writers. In the 1920s and ’30s, he and George Nathan would take long car trips in rural America without a time or destination, just a goal of “taking in the national mood.” Menken was one of the best known newspaper men of the day, a halfway point between Mark Twain and Walter Cronkite. Today, journalists think that news comes from NYC, DC or LA. Despite being nationally prominent and a lifelong lover of all things Baltimore, Menken knew that the story was “out there.” With this spirit in mind, Mark and I drove west to visit some places from long ago.
Mark displays his motorhead credentials. The pistons and rods are 350 Chevy. His 1963 Corvair van in the background is affectionately referred to as The Groovy Cruiser. It looks terrible but runs great.
Mark and I stopped to see this Stratofreighter on static display in the middle of Wisconsin. It had been flown into a tiny airstrip decades ago
Above is the cockpit of the Boeing C-97. It is powered by four 4,360 cid radials. A placard in front of the co-pilot lists the minimum weight, full flap stall speed as a stunningly low 69 knots. With their reversing propellers, these aircraft can land on short strips.
Third stop for The Groovy Cruiser was to visit the brothers Mensink and their Pietenpol project. Will, seated in the plane, is a worldwide cargo pilot for UPS. Dave runs a huge and successful family farm about 10 miles from Cherry Grove, Minn.
Above, an overhead shot of the Mensink Pietenpol during its weight and balance. Although a Piet is a very basic aircraft, it still is a good match for All of our Gold Components. Dave’s 2,700 cc engine has a Weseman 5th bearing, and was assembled by Mark at Falcon. It will be a potent, smooth performer on their aircraft.
Will Mensink’s hangar used to belong to Andrew Pietenpol, Bernie’s grandson. Inside this hangar is an exact full-size replica of Bernie’s Cherry Grove shop (his shop in Cherry Grove was in town, separate from the hangar). This door is the original from Bernie’s shop.
Bernie Pietenpol was a multi-faceted guy, and he did a lot of other things besides build airplanes and convert Corvairs. In his shop, he also repaired the most sophisticated piece of consumer electronics of his day: color televisions. This row of light switches is an exact replica of the ones in his original shop. They’re mounted overhead as you walk into the shop, and could all be thrown with one motion of the hand.
Will and Dave gave Mark and I a guided tour of Cherry Grove. I had been there only once before, with Grace eight years ago when Dave took the time out to show us this tiny hamlet. Years ago, it was very quiet, almost deserted. Today, there are a dozen or so people there. Bernie Pietenpol’s old airstrip is about a mile from town. Out in the fields, it would be impossible to find from the ground if you didn’t know where it was. In the above photo, Mark and I with The Groovy Cruiser at one end of the airstrip. It is private and still owned by the family. It looks a lot bigger in the photo than it is in reality. I would sincerely discourage anyone from flying there without first contacting the family.
Cherry Grove is the intersection of two streets. There might be two dozen buildings there. The above photo is Bernie Pietenpol’s old shop. I consider the location a very special place, perhaps the most sacred spot in the entire history of homebuilding as a passion for the working man. Being something of a historian and extremely passionate about this subject, I do consider taking two days out of my life and driving across the upper Midwest in a 46-year-old van as time well spent. However, I do want to caution people reading this that the shop no longer belongs to the family, and the owners are private people who are somewhat perplexed and not entertained by the concept that they own something that’s seen as a national treasure by others. Drive by if you wish, but don’t count on a friendly welcome. Cherry Grove has been around more than 100 years. Perhaps it’s just in a private era right now, and time will likely change this. Keep in mind that the spirit of Bernie Pietenpol and his ideals live more in the workshops of Piet builders around the world than a small shop in Minnesota. The ideals of George Washington are not restricted to the things that physically exist at Mount Vernon.
Fans of wooden aircraft will appreciate this detail. When we visited the shop in 2002, I noticed the awning frame out front, which had no roof on it at that time, was made from a Piper wing spar. You have to appreciate the values of a man who ended up with an apparently straight aluminum Piper spar and thought that its best use was an awning frame. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the diagonal bolt holes where the lift strut used to be attached.