The Douglas County Hall of Fame is filled with notable people who are citizens or former citizens of Douglas County who have accomplished lives and who are recognized nationally for their achievements. This past Wednesday the newest inductee was announced at the annual Downtown Preservation and Tourism Lunch, and I couldn't be more pleased with the selection -- Hugh Watson. He was born in Douglasville in 1894, the son of Mathias Bates Watson and his second wife, Tallulah Strickland Watson.
It is said he played with pliers and monkey wrenches when other children played with toys. By the age of 17 he was working as an auto mechanic, and the racing bug bit him. He raced on dirt tracks choking down mud and dust including the Candler Racetrack which opened in 1909 and was located where Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport sits today.
It was during his auto racing days he met up with Lincoln Beachey who was making a living across the country performing flying stunts that included racing the speediest autos in the neighborhood. Watson challenged Beachey to a race, and Beachey's airplane won, of course, but from that moment on Hugh Watson was smitten with aviation, and he never went anywhere in a car, if he could get there with a plane.
By 1914, Watson had joined Beachey at Buffalo, New York where Watson performed his solo flight and earned his wings. Watson is only one of three Georgians who received wings prior to 1916 enabling him to be a member of the Early Birds Organization -- aviators who made their solo flight at some point between 1903 and 1916.
In the few years prior to U.S. involvement in World War I, Hugh Watson was the epitome of a barnstorming pilot taking part in air shows where he raced an auto or two, and he partnered up with Jack Knight, a veteran aviator for United Airlines.
It was common for Watson to make as much as $5,500 weekly giving airplane rides. $15 would get you up in the air ... an extra $10 would earn you a loop the loop or a death dive. Watson dubbed one plane he built himself as "The Money Wagon" because he earned $22,000 one year taking people for airplane rides.
Watson graduated from the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California and spent the war years as an aviation instructor for the US Army Air Service, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force. His efforts earned him the rank of lieutenant.
From time to time he'd fly home. The Dec. 6, 1918 issue of the "Douglas County Sentinel" stated, "... if you want to see an airplane operated by a home boy be in Douglasville Saturday ..."
There were many shouts when Watson's plane was sighted over Douglasville. Stores and businesses were emptied as the entire population of the town, as well as hundreds from the surrounding counties, were watching, many for the first time, a real flying machine.
"It was a great show as Hugh Watson looped the loop, made a tail spin, and even cut his engine for a death dive falling several hundred feet before he turned upward and proved his complete mastery of the machine."
During the 1920s Watson took a job with movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille and his Mercury Aviation company where he flew in dozens of aviation oriented movies such as "The Skyway Man."
Later, in the spring of 1921 Watson headed to the Orient and toured Japan, China, and other countries in the Far East with Barr's Flying Circus. At one show the troupe of aviators entertained over 10,000 people.
By the early 1930s Hugh Watson was ready to own his own airfield and set his sights on Cincinnati, Ohio along with his brother, Parks Watson. Over the next 30 years he owned and operated three different airfields in Cincinnati where he provided flying lessons, operated his own local airline, and sold airplanes.
During World War II he taught new fliers again and was elevated in rank to major.
The final Cincinnati airfield Hugh Watson owned was sold to the city of Cincinnati and became known as Blue Ash Airport.
Hugh Watson, a son of Douglas County we should all be proud of, passed away soon after he returned home for retirement in 1955 and is buried here in our city cemetery.
Visit the Douglas County Museum of History and Art to see the extensive Hall of Fame exhibit that includes images and artifacts regarding all of the inductees.
Lisa Cooper writes the amazing stories of Douglas County each Sunday. You can find her new book "Every Now and Then: The Amazing Stories of Douglas County" online at Amazon, print and Kindle versions. Locally, her book can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art and the Douglasville Welcome Center located at O'Neal Plaza in the former Douglasville Banking Company building.