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Maple Airport part of vibrant past

Published in the Vaughan Perspectives
30 August 2008

Today, the City of Vaughan is one of Canada’s fastest-growing municipalities, a vibrant world-class city with several of the GTA’s major tourist attractions.  It was not so long ago that Vaughan was a tranquil rural community.  For a brief 30-year period, Vaughan Township as the area was known then, had its own small airport.

The story of the Maple Airport begins in 1950.  This is when Dr. Phillip Macfarlane, a local dentist, bought 100 acres of land comprising part of Lots 19-20, Concession 4, along the Maple Sideroad (now Major Mackenzie Drive).  Local residents found it humorous to know that Dr. Macfarlane paid for the property.  “Many of the locals felt that Phillip paid double what the property was really worth,” said Phillip’s wife Catharine Macfarlane.

Dr. Macfarlane’s original intention was to farm the land. He tried wheat farming, but soon sound that it was not a profitable venture.  It was around 1953 that Dr. Macfarlane came up with a new idea for the property.

With the impending closure of Barker Field, a small private airfield in Downsview, Dr. Macfarlane realized that his property might make a suitable location for aviation activities.  His father Robert Macfarlane, known during his teaching days at Central Technical School in Toronto as “Hacksaw Bob”, had worked as an aircraft mechanic during WWII, so Phillip was very familiar with the joys of aviation.

Dr. Macfarlane invited Marion Orr, owner of Aero Activities Limited and the owner/manager of Barker Field, to move her flying school to his proposed airport.

Marion Orr was a civilian veteran of the Second World War, working as a civilian employee at the St. Catharines Flying Club and No. 12 Elementary Flying Training School in Goderich.  She later served as a pilot in the British Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organization that ferried aircraft within England and to continental Europe, where she achieved the rank of second officer.  After the war, Marion Orr became the first woman in Canada to own and operate a flying club when she bought the bankrupt Aero Activities in 1949.

Once again, Dr. Macfarlane’s activities were the subject of much discussion, as local residents objected to his proposal for an airport.  Both Macfarlane and Orr faced intense opposition from the community to their airport plans.  A petition to stop construction of the airport was started by local residents who wanted no part in such a venture.

Marion Orr refused to give up so easily.  She had already put $5000 into developing the airport, but it was only after she put in the first runway that the townspeople told her they were going to block her application for an airport.  Marion went to Parliament Hill to request Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent personally assist her in getting a licence to build and operate an airport and flying club.  She reportedly refused to leave until she was allowed to speak to the Prime Minister.

Eventually Dr. Macfarlane and Marion Orr succeeded in establishing an airport in Maple.  With the help of friends such as Elmer Wells, Rocco Ugolini, John Innes, Jim Creb, Helen Wilson and Don Hems, the land was cleared, the runways leveled and a club office built.  Some of the land clearing was done with picks and shovels.

Marion Orr herself made the first landing at the airport in January 1953 on the frozen, unfinished runway, breaking a tail-wheel in the process.

The Maple Airport held its grand opening on September 18, 1954.  To commemorate the day, Marion held an airshow with Sally Wagner, Helen Wilson and herself flying de Havilland Beaver and Otter aircraft.  Two of Marion’s friends in the RCAF did a fly-past in their CF-100 fighter jets.

Facilities at the airport were pretty basic with only three buildings on site:  the original farmhouse and a barn, which was used to store airport supplies and maintenance equipment for aircraft, in addition to the newly constructed office building.  The airfield initially consisted of three grass runways, one 3000 feet, 2700 feet and the third 1900 feet, lit by lanterns for night landings.

Marion established the Maple Flying Club at the airport, along with Sally Wagner.  It is interesting to note that both Orr and Wagner were among the first Canadian females to receive their pilot’s licences.  During the first summer at the airport, Marion lived in the old farmhouse along with Sally Wagner.

Marion would remain at the Maple Airport until 1956, when she sold the Maple Flying Club to Avro Activities.  She moved to Florida, but 4 years later returned to Canada to become the Chief Flying Instructor at the Markham Airport Flying club and later at the Buttonville Airport.

By 1958, commercial transport aircraft began using the Maple Airport, making it the third busiest private, uncontrolled (no tower) commercial airport in Canada.  At its peak, the Maple Airport handled 2500 to 3000 flights a month.

In 1960, the Maple Airport received $200, 000 worth of upgrades and improvements.  Two of the runways were paved, but the 3000 foot one was closed.  Plans were made to construct a row of hangars, but this never came to fruition.  Instead several new tie-downs were installed and later, parallel taxiways were build beside both runways.

Around this time, the farmhouse then became the clubhouse for the Maple Flying Club, which consisted of three instructors and five planes.

The 1960s was a time of growth for Vaughan Township too, with its population reaching nearly 16,000 people, triple what it was in the 1930s.  Canadian National Railways opened their marshaling yard in 1965 directly south of the airport between Rutherford Road and Highway 7, paving the way for major industrial and residential development in Vaughan.

Residential sub-divisions began springing up between the airport’s east border and Keele Street.  Further residential and commercial development around the Keele Street – Major MacKenzie area occurred throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  As well, in the late 1970s, land directly west of the airport on the 5th Concession was being cleared for Canada’s Wonderland theme park, which had its grand opening in May 1981.

On July 11, 1968, the original barn at the airport burned down in a spectacular fire that also destroyed a Piper airplane.

In 1971, the Township of Vaughan became the Town of Vaughan. Exactly twenty years to the day after this event, Vaughan was designated a city (1 January 1991).

In 1975, Dr. Macfarlane sold the airport to Great Pine Ridge Developments.

In 1977, Fernand Boulanger opened a French cuisine restaurant, Auberge Maple Inn, at the airport in the old farmhouse.  Boulanger, a celebrated chef, helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews hiding from the Nazis during World War II by secreting them across the border between France and Switzerland.  Boulanger died of cancer on June 17, 2006.

The airport, like many, had its share of mishaps.  In 1978, an airplane skidded off the far end of the runway and into the West Don River bordering the east side of the property.

Adele Fogle, president of Neiltown Air Ltd., relocated her business to the Maple Airport in 1984 from the nearby King City Airport.  She later become the Operations Manager of the Maple Airport as well.  “It was a bit of a mess; rundown by this time,” says Fogel, who made the best of her short time at the Maple Airport.  By this time however, the airport’s days were numbered.

The urbanization of Vaughan and the Maple area was well underway.  Houses were springing up where farm fields once sat and there was little interest in maintaining a private airport in the midst of so much prime development land.  The suburban sprawl in the York Region had sealed the airport’s fate.  On 20 September 1987, over 200 people attended the official closing of the Maple Airport, ending over 30 years of flying in Maple.

Adele Fogle moved Neiltown Air Ltd. to the Guelph Airpark, where it was later known as Aviation International until closing last year. The airport’s buildings were torn down and the runways ripped up, making it yet another in a growing list of small private airports in the Toronto area to disappear from the maps.   By 1993, developers began building houses on the property and the landscape changed forever.

Today, not the slightest trace of the old Maple Airport remains.  The only reminder of the property’s past is a small park on Avro Road, named Maple Airport Park.  The naming of streets Lockheed, Mustang and Avro is also a nod to the former airport.

During the official opening ceremonies for Maple Creek Public School (one of two schools that now sits on the property) on March 25, 2003, staff and students paid tribute to the former airport.

Special thanks to Catharine Macfarlane, Marylin Dickson, Don Hems, Helen (Wilson) Hems, Elmer Wells and Adele Fogel for their assistance with this article.

Additional information provided by Doug Thomas and Debbie Driscoll.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/maple-airport-part-of-vibrant-past/

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