John P. Salzar was the father of aviation in La Crosse. Not an aviator himself, he nonetheless possessed a passionate interest in flight from its earliest days in Wisconsin.
Born in West Bend in 1862, Salzer grew up in La Crosse, where his father established a farm and garden seed business. As treasurer of Salzer Seed, John expanded the operation and became one of the most prominent business leaders in La Crosse.
When pioneer aviator Hugh Robinson sought backing for a flight down the length of the Mississippi River in 1911, Salzer found local investors to support the flight and brought a crowd of thousands to see Robinson make the first flight of an airplane in La Crosse, the first flight by a floatplane, and the first delivery of air mail.
As early as 1918, Army aviators dispatched to find landing sites for regular air mail routes landed on property owned by Salzer Seed on the edge of the city. They were the first of several Army aviators surveying air mail routes who found “Salzer Field” suitable. When World War I Air Service veteran Norman Moll brought a Curtiss “Jenny” to La Crosse and established the La Crosse Aerial Co. in 1919, he used “Salzer Field” as his base, thereby making it one of Wisconsin’s first commercial airports. To further support aviation, local leaders organized an Aero Club and elected John Salzer president.
Thanks to Salzer Field, La Crosse joined Milwaukee as one of the two Wisconsin cities on the state’s pioneer Air Mail route of 1920-’21, a feat repeated when contract air mail and airline passenger service started in 1926. Throughout this period, La Crosse was aviation’s second city in Wisconsin.
After 1923, ill health restricted Salzer’s activities, leading to his death in 1928. He bequeathed his love of aviation to his sister Ellen, who became one of the first federally licensed female pilots in Wisconsin. Salzer Field became the La Crosse City Airport in 1928, but was soon a victim of its own success. In 1933, it was replaced by a larger airport, better suited to the aircraft and the traffic of the times.
The first La Crosse airport survives in history as the legacy of John P. Salzer.