Looking Back on PSB Co-Founder, Harry Williams:
What were some of the fastest airplanes in the world and a lot of aviation history are housed in a little museum in St. Mary Parish near Patterson. The town was once home base for Jimmie Wedell and Harry Williams, who were among the biggest names in aviation in what is called the golden age of flight.
They were unlikely partners, but successful ones. Jimmie was blind in one eye, timid, barely educated, and from a poor family. Harry was the son of one of the richest men in Louisiana, educated, married to a movie actress, a politician who served as mayor of Patterson and president of the St. Mary police jury. He had the financing, contacts, and know how and Jimmie was a natural born engineer who loved to fly as fast as he could.
Jimmie was born in Texas City, Texas, in 1900. His mother died when he was an infant and he was reared by a bartender father who barely kept ends met. He quit school early, because he was busy putting together his first airplane from the scraps of two others that had crashed. It didn’t matter that he’d never flown and didn’t know how to fly. When the plane was finished, he took an hour long course from a pilot who happened to be in town, took off in his own plane, and never looked back. Before long Jimmie was making a living barnstorming around Texas and Louisiana.
He wanted to fly for the Army in World War I, but the Army wanted pilots with two good eyes. So he found another way to use his talents, carrying guns and rum runners across the U.S. Mexican border.
When the war ended, government planes began to patrol the border, and they were much faster than Jimmie’s home built jobs. He figured he’d better get out of the gun running business, or get a faster plane. In the end, he did both.
Jimmie and Harry met and formed Wedell Williams Aviation in 1929, clearing a landing strip at the Williams family’s Calumet Plantation near Patterson. By the middle 1930s, their planes flew weekly from New Orleans to St. Louis via Jackson, Miss., and Memphis, and made a daily run from Baton Rouge to Alexandria, Shreveport, and, later, Dallas Fort Worth. In 1934, the company got a lucrative contract to carry the mail between New Orleans and Houston.
Meanwhile, their mechanics at the Patterson airstrip worked to build faster planes—officially to help land bigger mail contracts, but mainly because the aviators just liked to fly fast.
Jimmie and Harry began racing regularly in 1930, with mixed results. But they kept tinkering, and it paid off. By 1932, Wedell Williams planes dominated racing. In 1933, Wedell Williams planes finished first and second in the New York to Los Angeles National Air Race, and they finished one two three in the prestigious Thompson Trophy Race that lured all of the fastest planes in the world. That same year, Jimmie became the first pilot ever to officially fly at more than 300 miles per hour
Jimmie Wedell was on top of the world on June 24, 1934. He was aviation’s most successful designer of racing places, and the holder of more records than any other flier. But that day, something went wrong with his airplane as he flew near Patterson. He died in the crash. His death was national news and his obituaries included a column by Will Rogers and an article in Time magazine.
Harry Williams, died two years later, on May 19, 1936, when his plane crashed while taking off from the Baton Rouge flying field. About a year later, Marguerite Clark Williams, Harry’s widow, sold the company to another nationally known pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker. The Wedell Williams fleet and its transport contracts helped him put together the company that became Eastern Air Lines.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at [email protected] or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.