For what could uncharitably be called a glorified stick in the ground, the flagpole behind Waco High School has stood tall above some remarkable history.
In its first year, hundreds of Army air cadets saluted the flag that it carried above Rich Field, the U.S. Army’s Waco base for flight training during World War I. After the soldiers left, it supported flags at the site of Waco’s fledgling air transportation and the start of passenger service.
It disappeared from public display after the shift of the city’s air traffic to what is now Waco Regional Airport, only to reappear in 1969 in a new location at Richfield High School. There it has stood above generations of students walking to classes across the quadrangle behind the main building of what is now Waco High School.
More than 100 years after its erection, the chipped and weathered flagpole may find its life extended in yet another place, the new Waco High School under construction about a hundred yards away.
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Brad Willis, a member of the Richfield High Class of 1971 and local history buff, hopes so.
Willis has kept an eye on the flagpole over the years, photographing it in the 1980s for the McLennan County Historical Commission as a relic from Waco’s World War I time. With Waco Independent School District’s plans to build a new Waco High near the current school, part of a $355 million school construction bond issue, he wondered about its fate.
“To me, what makes this so significant is it’s survived more than 100 years,” he said. “I would hate to see it lost to time.”
Although its paint is badly peeling and the small iron fence surrounding three sides of its concrete pad is dented, the flagpole hasn’t come down yet. When it does, it will be in preparation to move to a new location near the future Waco High School, said Kevin Hafer, WISD assistant director of construction.
The flagpole is thought to be the only surviving artifact from Rich Field, which was a bustling training base in the infancy of the Army Air Corps. It covered 690 acres, with the heart of the operation roughly bounded by today’s Lake Air Road, New Road, Bosque Boulevard and Cobbs Drive, it was a smaller counterpart to Camp MacArthur, the sprawling Army training base built on some 10,900 acres on the north edge of Waco.
It took the name of C. Perry Rich of the Army’s Philippines Scouts, who died in a 1913 flying accident in Manila Bay, Philippines, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The base, built in flat prairie outside Waco, opened Aug. 24, 1917, to train cadets to fly, take photographs and drop bombs — all new skills for the Army’s infant aerial arm. At the height of its operations, it had 81 buildings and more than 300 planes in 16 hangars.
Biplanes, singly and in formation, buzzed over McLennan County at a time where cars and trains still coexisted with horse- and mule-drawn wagons.
The field was home base for three air squadrons and supported the training of 339 cadets during its two years of operations, eight of whom died in aircraft accidents.
Military training stopped in 1919 after the end of the Great War, but where Camp MacArthur seemed to disappear within months after decommissioning, a fledgling aviation industry used Rich Field as a Waco toehold. According to Anabel Burke’s piece on the Rich Field on wacohistory.org, the field handled freight traffic in the 1920s with passenger service starting on March 30, 1929.
In the 1930s Texas Air Transport offered two routes with Waco stops, a Fort Worth-Dallas-Waco-San Antonio route and a Fort Worth-Waco-Houston-Galveston route. The stone building that now houses the Waco Lions Club dates back to Rich Field’s commercial days.
In 1941, the city bought land for a new airport near China Spring, which the next year became Blackland Army Air Field. Rich Field returned to military service as an auxiliary training field, but the focus of Waco’s commercial and passenger air service shifted to Blackland, which after the war became the Waco Regional Airport.
In 1951, the Heart O’ Texas Coliseum and fairgrounds were built on part of what had been Rich Field and its aviation days soon became memory.
And the flagpole?
Its fate during that period is unclear, but a Oct. 15, 1961 Waco Tribune-Herald article on Camp MacArthur mentions it. It reported the original Rich Field flagpole, at “Joe Brownfield’s place near McLennan Crossing on the Bosque,” was going to be given to the Heritage Society of Waco, the predecessor to Historic Waco, for installation at the Mann House, now East Terrace, after repairs at the house.
That article ends with a prescient sentence: “Before long, it (the flagpole) may be the only tangible reminder of the days when there were more soldiers than civilians in Waco.”
Historic Waco has no record of if the flagpole ever made it to the Mann House, said executive director Eric Swanson, but its next verifiable location comes eight years later, when Brownfield presents it to the Richfield High School Key Club at the new high school, which opened in 1961.
At the time of its installation in the quadrangle behind the school’s main building, the flagpole had a marble plaque at its base with the statement “The original Rich Field Army base flagpole. Presented to Richfield High School Key Club, May 8, 1969” and a small fence around its concrete pad.
That’s the flagpole that Willis and fellow Class of ‘71 member Michael Parrish, now a Baylor University history professor, remember from their time at Richfield. Even then, they concede, few students probably took notice of it on their way to class and at one time flew the senior class flag.
It’s a witness to Waco history, nonetheless, and worthy of preservation, Parrish said. The flagpole is a rare artifact from the city’s World War I days, a pivotal time in American history when the country shifted from isolationism to become a player on the world stage, and it’s a symbol of Waco’s involvement in aviation over the decades.
“It’s kind of a miracle that it’s survived all these years,” he noted.
That’s the history that Willis also would like to preserve. “What (the flagpole) signifies is it’s a survivor,” he said.