Daredevils, barnstormers, and record-breakers, the Hunter Brothers of Sparta were pioneers in the field of aviation, dazzling spectators around the country with feats of sport and endurance in the sky.
The four brothers – Albert, John, Kenneth, and Walter – were the sons of Alexander and Ida Blair Hunter. The eldest was only 15 when their father died in an accident on the Big Muddy River. To help support the family, which also included sisters Mabel and Irene, the brothers worked in automotive garages and local coal mines.
The brothers first gained notoriety in Sparta for their motorcycle stunt riding. Each spring, they would ride their motorbikes to St. Louis to trade them in for newer models. In 1923, though, their route took them past St. Louis’s new airport. In a later survey of the brothers’ careers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, “Albert routed them past the airfield that is now Lambert and … fell in love, hard, with an open-cockpit biplane.” On a whim, they decided to sell their motorcycles and buy the airplane. One brother, John, was assigned to stay behind in St. Louis and learn to fly the new plane, while the other three headed back to Sparta. He managed, after only 90 minutes of instruction, to pilot the plane back across the river, but his landing in a Tilden pasture was less than graceful.
John managed to survive the initial landing, and the brothers patched up the plane. A local pilot, Bud Gurney, taught all four brothers how to fly. (One of their sisters, Irene, also became a pilot.) Soon, they had graduated from motorcycle stunts to trick flying. By the summer of 1924, they had acquired two more planes, and they were performing air stunts with Gurney at county fairs all over Illinois and Indiana. They dubbed their act the “Hunter Flying Circus.” (They were also known in news reports from the day as the “Birds from Egypt.”) One contemporary newspaper article describes the show as a “daring exhibition of sky vaudeville” which includes “about every known thing on the aerial calendar.” Robert Hayes notes that their performances included “wing-walking, parachute leaps, changing from one plane to another in mid-air, loop the loops, tailspins and other sensational stunts.” One of their first major shows in Randolph County took place in Sparta that September.
All four of the Hunter Brothers began aviation careers that included airshow performances, passenger service, and even airmail delivery. They became good friends with the man who would become the most famous aviator of his age: Charles Lindbergh. But flying was an incredibly risky endeavor, and the brothers faced personal injury as well as harm to those around them. In 1924, one of the stunt flyers who worked with the brothers, Charles Exiter, was killed in a plane crash; his co-pilot, Albert Hunter, was only slightly injured. Kenneth Hunter narrowly avoided serious injury during a parachute stunt gone wrong at a county fair in Sparta in 1925. John, Mabel, and Irene Hunter made a fortunate escape from a burning plane north of Sparta in May 1928.
But in the summer of 1925, John Hunter was involved in an even more horrifying tragedy. After a flying exhibition in Cape Girardeau, two young women from Cobden, Grace Lamar and Pearl Baysinger, paid Hunter to take them for a ride in his aircraft. The Murphysboro Daily Independent reported, “They took seats in the cockpit and when the plane had attained a height of about 50 feet it suddenly banked and swerved, crashed into the top of a tree and dived to earth. A gasoline tank above the heads of the girls burst and sprinkled them with the inflammable liquid. Before bystanders could rescue them the girls were burned to death. Hunter, although injured seriously, crawled from his seat and attempted to save the girls, but failed.” Two of the three remaining brothers were in the audience at the show and witnessed the accident. A coroner’s inquest later determined that John Hunter was not responsible for the women’s deaths, but incidents like these must have been frequent reminders to all four of the brothers of the risk involved with flight.
By the late 1920s, the brothers’ airmail careers had them flying all over the Midwest, covering territory from St. Louis to Chicago, South Bend, and Evansville, Indiana. Although they had established stable careers in the field, the brothers’ daredevil spirit remained, and soon they were looking for new ways to push the boundaries of aviation. In the autumn of 1929, John and Kenneth Hunter made their first serious attempt to break the endurance flight record. Endurance flight efforts involved staying aloft for as many consecutive hours as possible, with replacement fuel delivered by another nearby plane. John and Kenneth piloted the primary aircraft, the “Chicago We Will” (later renamed the “City of Chicago”). The brothers managed to stay in the air for 264 hours – 11 days – but they were forced to land before breaking the record, as a heavy fog had prevented their refueling plane from making contact.
All four brothers banded together the following year to make another run at the endurance flight record. The Daily Independent wrote that the “opinion in the Sparta vicinity, where the Hunter boys were born and reared and obtained their first flying experience, is that if anybody can set a new endurance record they will do it.” They were right. With John and Kenneth piloting the “City of Chicago,” and Walter and Albert flying the supply plane, the brothers flew over Sky Harbor Airport in Northbrook, Illinois, for 553 hours, 41 minutes, and 30 seconds, breaking the world record for endurance flight. The women of the Hunter family were also instrumental in their record-breaking flight; Ida and Irene cooked meals and did laundry for John and Kenneth throughout the 23-day flight. (Mabel could not be a part of the family’s efforts – she was hospitalized in Chicago, suffering from tuberculosis.) The “City of Chicago” finally landed at Sky Harbor on July 4, 1930, in front of a cheering crowd of 75,000.
The record-breaking flight brought immediate fame and attention to the brothers, who were often reluctant to publicize their efforts. During their 1929 attempt, the press didn’t even learn John and Kenneth’s names until after the flight had ended. In 1930, the four hired a press manager to help with the business and publicity aspects of the flight. And they needed it. Will Rogers, the famous actor, writer, and aviation enthusiast, brought national attention when he flew in the supply plane during the attempt. He also hosted a banquet for the brothers in Chicago after the flight had ended. Newspapers and radio programs from around the world interviewed the family, and they appeared multiple times on stage at the Palace Theater in Chicago to tell tales about their feat. Hollywood came calling, too: the brothers signed a contract with United Artists for a film produced by Howard Hughes (who made several important aviation pictures) and Sid Grauman, although the picture was not ultimately made. However, footage of the real flight was captured by newsreel cameras and screened around the country. Sparta residents got a chance to see the filmed footage for the first time a few weeks after the flight had ended.
A week after setting the endurance flight record, John Hunter had another surprise for his family: he had secretly married a fellow Sparta native, Laura McCarey, more than a year earlier. (Laura was teaching school at the time of their wedding and could have been asked to resign if her marriage had become public knowledge.) Albert Hunter also started a family of his own; he and his wife, Pearl Alexander Hunter, had four children: Elizabeth, Pauline, Eileen, and Herschel. John Hunter was also involved in one other marital adventure. In December 1930, he flew a plane over Sparta carrying four passengers: a bride (Ruth Rankin), a groom (Miller Stephenson), a best man (Stephenson’s cousin), and a minister (Rev. James C. Murdock of First Presbyterian in Sparta). The couple were married in mid-air, and as Hunter flew over downtown Sparta, they dropped wedding announcements to the public below.
The brothers’ passion for aviation led them to campaign for a permanent airfield to be built in Sparta. Without a dedicated landing field, they had been landing planes in empty pastures and fields. In May 1931, Hunter Field was officially opened north of Sparta. It remains the primary airfield in Randolph County today. The airport’s opening was celebrated with a “rodeo” of air stunts and performances, as well as a display of three of the Hunters’ most famous planes, including the “City of Chicago.” Although their endurance flight record did not stand the test of time – it was broken in July 1935 by the Key Brothers of Meridian, Mississippi – the airport stands today as a monument to the important early aviation careers of the four brothers from Sparta.
The Hunter Brothers’ celebrity didn’t diminish the danger involved with their flying careers, and two of them eventually lost their lives in aviation incidents. In June 1932, at the age of 29, John Hunter was flying an amphibious plane on an airmail route in Louisiana. While preparing to take off from the Mississippi River, he was killed when he was struck by one of the plane’s propellers and knocked in to the water. Kenneth Hunter, who had a lengthy flying career as a military and corporate pilot, died in an aviation accident in Oklahoma City in 1974. Walter Hunter continued flying, embarking on a long career as a pilot for American Airlines, becoming the airline’s senior jet captain before his retirement in 1966; he died in St. Louis in 1983. Albert Hunter focused on farm and equipment work, flying only as a hobby, until his death in 1942.
Fifty years after the Hunter Brothers captivated the nation with their record-breaking flight, Sparta celebrated the family’s achievements with an anniversary airshow at Hunter Field. The Southern Illinoisan’s report on the event neatly summed up the importance of the Hunter Brothers’ work as aviation trailblazers: “They were the astronauts of their day.”
The Hunter Brothers were inducted into The Randolph Society in 2017.