I t was cold and foggy on the morning of March 31, 1931, when 13-year-old Easter Heathman headed to the farm’s crib to gather corn for planting later that day. He heard engines revving and ran to the farmhouse to get his family to see the race he thought was underway. They obliged and headed outside only to find nothing. It wasn’t long before an uncle called to inform them a plane had crashed nearby.
All eight passengers, including Notre Dame football coaching great Knute Rockne, died. The plane was en route to Hollywood for production of a movie about Notre Dame football.
Young Heathman was among the first to the crash site. One of the canvas wings tore from the plane and landed about a quarter mile from the rest of the aircraft.
The images were so troubling, Heathman didn’t visit the site for more than two decades, and he rarely spoke of the event, says his daughter Sue Ann Brown.
Four years after the crash, a memorial stone was erected at the site in the rolling pastures near Bazaar, Kan., to honor those who had perished. While his family didn’t own the land, over time, Heathman became the caretaker of the memorial and visitor guide.
“Dad kept a book that he had all of his visitors sign,” Brown says. “People from every state and two countries have visited.”
The memorial is built on private property and requires opening and closing gates and even four wheel drive in some conditions. Even after Heathman’s death in 2008, the family still frequently serves as a guide for those who call ahead.
In March 2016, hundreds of people will gather in the Flint Hills to observe the 85th anniversary of the crash and remember coach Rockne and those who lost their lives on the flight from Kansas City to Wichita.
“American Countryside” is heard each weekday on a network of 100 radio stations and frequently on “U.S. Farm Report” TV. To find the station nearest you, visit www.American Countryside.com