In the Museum: The Papers of Crocker Snow

In the Museum: The Papers of Crocker Snow

"CROCKER SNOW, NOW THAT'S A BOSTON NAME," says Mark Kahn, a former Bostonian himself and currently an archivist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “I remember hearing about the battles over [the expansion of] Logan Airport in the 1970s. I was in high school at the time, and he was in the news.” Kahn fingers the rough list the Museum has created of the contents of the Crocker Snow collection, which it acquired last summer.

Though Snow is not widely known in aviation beyond his native New England, his papers captivated NASM acquisitions archivist Patti Williams because the regional disputes Kahn remembers had national implications. “Crocker Snow was head of aviation in Massachusetts, and Massachusetts was one of the first [states] in the U.S. to have a major aviation bureau,” says Williams. “He was deeply involved in how to manage a major urban airport,” starting as early as 1939, when he became head of the state aeronautics commission. (Prior to 1939, the Motor Vehicles Department was in charge of all aviation-related issues and regulations.)

Williams recalls the fall day in 2001 when Snow’s son, Crocker Snow Jr., walked into the lobby of the Museum unannounced, with a copy of his father’s biography, Log Book: A Pilot’s Life. His father had died in 1999. Did the Smithsonian want his personal papers?
“Because I’m a staff of one, the families almost always have to contact me first,” says Williams. “We only take about 40 percent of what we’re offered. We have set acquisitions criteria. First, the papers must be of national, not just regional, importance.”

She agreed to look at the collection.

Six months later, Williams flew to Ipswich, Massachusetts, to check out the various files, audio tapes, videotapes, photographs, and more stashed in the damp basement of Crocker Snow Sr.’s home. She spent the day sifting through the mementos and papers of a man whose life spanned the first century of aviation.

Born in Boston in 1906, Snow took his first flight with his older brother, Kick, in 1922, back in the days when airplanes braked by dragging their tail skids. He toyed with Harvard Law School for a year, but couldn’t resist the allure of the airfield and the example of his charming brother, a former World War I pilot. Even after his brother died in 1923 while landing an airplane at the new Logan Airport, Snow remained convinced that aviation was his calling.

In 1928 he joined up with two well-off friends, Ted Kenyon and Andy Ivanoff, to form Skyways, one of the first commercial flying operations at Logan. By the start of World War II, Snow had established himself as one of the most experienced and knowledgeable aviation figures on the East Coast.

During the war, the scope of his career expanded beyond New England. The U.S. Army Air Forces asked him to plot a northern polar path to Europe to be used in the event that Germany occupied the British Isles. He eventually established a variety of supply routes and oversaw the construction of bases and airstrips in places like Reykjavik, Iceland. He even saw action in the Pacific as commander of the first B-29s to bomb Tokyo.

Williams knew Snow’s story by the time she started flipping through his filing cabinets in Ipswich. She also knew that the Museum would take something from his collection—the only question was what. On her second trip to Snow’s home, she brought Dana Bell, a NASM information specialist. “You need someone with a knowledge of aviation history to sit in,” says Bell. “What do we really want? On the surface everything is interesting, but we try to see where it would all fit.”

Crocker Snow Jr. is grateful that his mother, Janice Snow, insisted the family keep certain items. “Dad’s study still has all of the things that mean the most to the family, like his [first pilot’s] license, which was signed by Orville Wright and is displayed on the wall.” There were few dilemmas about what to give and what to keep. Mementos of interest primarily to the family, including the license, stayed. Documentation about Snow’s World War II military career, including his service as commander of a provisional B-17 bomb group and his participation with the 498th Bomb Group, which flew B-29s, went. The Museum also collected documents regarding Skyways and reams and reams of reports and papers related to his work on the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission and as a member of the Nixon administration’s Federal Aviation Commission.

“Our collection is more technology based,” says Williams. The bulk of what the archivists took “would be of interest to anyone interested in aviation law, and we don’t have a lot of materials on that.”

The end result: 40 cubic feet of materials stored in Building 10 at the Smithsonian’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. It includes things like a 1980 environmental impact statement on the development of the Bird Island flats near Logan Airport and a 1941 map showing Snow’s proposed flight routes for World War II supply aircraft marked in red grease pencil.

The Museum has still not created an official finder’s guide—a road map archivists create to help researchers navigate a collection—but the material in the boxes has some semblance of order, thanks, in part, to a friend of the Snow family who catalogued the files. (Researchers are permitted to access the collection at any time.)

In the end, the usefulness of a given collection could lie less with the facts than with its larger spirit. How can you classify observations such as this one, which Snow made in 1927 while making his first cross-country flight: “I navigated by dead reckoning. The cows, turning their behinds to the wind, showed me which direction it was blowing. Usually as I flew over cattle on their ranges, they barely budged. On this day, however, as I skimmed along at my customary low altitude, the cows scattered, startled by the noise of my plane. That meant I had strayed from my path: cows living on a direct course between cities were accustomed to airplanes.”

When Snow died at age 94, he’d been involved in nearly every level of aviation since its infancy and had helped lay the framework for the busy urban airports of the 21st century. Along the way he also took time to savor the pleasures of low-altitude flights over farm fields, and that’s Americana at its best.

—Mary Collins

The Planetarium’s Makeover

After a one-month renovation, the National Air and Space Museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium is back—and better than before. The planetarium has gone digital, featuring a new technology that, in conjunction with the original Zeiss projector, uses 12 projectors to paint the entire surface of the 70-foot-high dome with images. The new technology gives viewers the sensations of three-dimensionality and movement. The latest show, “Infinity Express: A 20-Minute Tour of the Universe,” takes advantage of the new system by transporting viewers on a wild ride through an enormous canyon on Mars and giving them a tour of the cosmos, in which thousands of galaxies float past. General admission is $7.50; for more information, call (202) 357-2700.

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