1951 Plane Crash Shakes South Deerfield

It occurred two years before I was born: a Saturday-morning plane crash that exploded on impact in bucolic Mason, New Hampshire, instantly killing four prominent South Deerfield townsmen and shaking the village to its core.

The date was July 28, 1951, the time about 9:30 a.m., visibility poor in foggy rain.

The crash made the national news wires. Photos of the twisted wreckage appeared on the front page of newspapers throughout the land, especially in the Northeast. Today, it has faded from the collective memory, even in South Deerfield – except for a few 80- and 90-somethings like Patricia McNerney Kelleher, then a young woman living in town. She remembers it well.

“The town seemed to stand still,” she said. “We were numb.”

The victims, closer in age to my grandfather than my father, had departed for Boston from the Turners Falls Airport the previous afternoon in pilot Delmer M. Jewett, Jr.’s private, four-passenger, Ryan Navion, single-engine plane. Their destination was Fenway Park, for a Friday night Red Sox game vs. the Cleveland Indians, won by the visitors, 3-2, on a ninth-inning run.

Although they planned to return home that night, stormy weather moved in soon after Indians righthander Bob Lemmon closed out his complete-game win, and Jewett didn’t want chance night flight. He called home to report they’d spend the night in Boston and return in the morning. That’s the last anyone heard from them. About halfway home the pilot got disoriented in a cloud bank and crashed into a mix of trees and fields some 15 miles north of Fitchburg.

Accompanying Jewett, 43, who had owned the plane for about three years, was his 79-year-old father, Delmer, Sr., 52-year-old South Deerfield postmaster and former police chief Edward J. Redmond, and downtown pharmacist Hollis D. Billings, 50. The victims’ ages varied in breaking-news accounts, but are reported here according to birth dates published in obituaries.

The Jewetts owned what was known around town as the “Pickle Shop” – that is, D.M. Jewett Corporation and Oxford Pickle Works, the official name prominently displayed on the plane. The company was founded as Sugarloaf Pickles in 1896 by Delmer Sr.’s father, Alvord Austin Jewett (1838-1905), a decorated Civil War veteran buried in the Brookside Cemetery.

The Jewett family came to Bloody Brook, now South Deerfield, from Templeton in the mid-1780s, and by the turn of the 19th century had established a large “downtown” presence on both sides of the county road from Deerfield to Hatfield, now South Main Street. Patriarch Enoch Jewett (1739-1813) and his son Reuben first appear as Deerfield taxpayers in 1786, when development was burgeoning on the south end of town, between Elm Street and the Whately line.

By the 1850s, the Jewett family had split into branches from Reuben – one associated with the Pickle Shop, another with the first Mount Sugarloaf summit house and a large North Mill River farm. The summit-house family was headed by Dwight Jewett (1812-1909), and his son-in-law, Granville Wardwell, built the first Sugarloaf structure during the Civil War.

Delmer M. Jewett, Sr., was the semi-retired pickle company president at the time of the crash, and had lost his wife about a year earlier. He left a son Dana in South Deerfield, a daughter in Houston, Texas, and six grandchildren.

The pilot, Delmer, Jr., was the company vice president, manager, and treasurer. He left a wife and two daughters. Delmer, Jr., was born and raised in South Deerfield, where he had been a selectman and president of the Rotary Club before moving to Northfield, where he owned a large cucumber farm. He had been a licensed pilot for 10 years, and bought the plane in 1948 for travel to a sister pickle plant in Paris, Maine.

Hollis Billings, the pharmacist, was born in Northfield to a family with deep Connecticut Valley roots in Sunderland, Hatfield, Conway, and South Deerfield. He left a wife, son, and daughter – not to mention another gaping hole in the downtown business scene. Just four months before the crash that claimed his life, downtown South Deerfield had lost its centerpiece when the stately Bloody Brook Inn, diagonally across the common from the drugstore, was destroyed by fire.

The Redmond family was relatively new in town. World War I veteran Edward Redmond, born and educated in Westfield and previously a patrolman on the Palmer police force, came to town as the newly appointed police chief in 1928. In 1943, he left that job to become South Deerfield’s postmaster. A member of St. James Catholic Church, Redmond brought a large Irish family to town. He left a wife and six children, the two youngest of whom, son Richard and daughter Jane, are alive today.

“I remember that day like it happened yesterday,” said 83-year-old Richard Redmond. “I was only 12 when I lost my dad.”

As it played out, Redmond’s father and Billings were the victims of a simple twist of fate. They had accepted last-minute invitations to the Red Sox game after police chief James Rosenthal and auto dealer Guy Hosley, Sr., declined due to previous commitments.

The crash was witnessed by many Mason, New Hampshire residents who reported hearing the plane circling in distress before emerging from a 100-foot ceiling on a fatal downward trajectory that could not be corrected. Others heard a loud, distant explosion. A woman said she thought the plane was going to land on her home as it passed close overhead, shearing off treetops before crashing to earth and exploding.

The New Hampshire Aeronautics Commission attributed the tragedy to pilot error. An inexperienced instrument pilot, Jewett, Jr. got disoriented in a dense cloud bank, took a steep dive, and perished. No one was sure whether he had been aiming for the airport in Keene, New Hampshire or Turners Falls.

Friends who had flown with Jewett praised him as a careful and conscientious pilot, and his plane did have instrument-flying technology for blind flying without sight lines to the horizon. But his instrument-flying experience was limited and, without visual reference to the ground, he succumbed to the fates.

An experienced local pilot who today owns a small plane provided insight to me about the dangers of blind, instrument-flight through cloud banks, which he admitted avoiding at all costs. Faced with such perilous conditions, he said he opts to go around cloud banks, even if he must travel 100 miles out of his way.

“To get through cloud banks, you have to totally trust your instruments,” he said. “You don’t want to get disoriented and experience vertigo.”

He said he has been in the cockpit with sophisticated pilots who won’t even look out the windshield when navigating through cloud banks, focusing exclusively on the instrument panel. He compared it to trusting a compass to get out of the woods. The golden rule is to never to doubt a compass or instrument panel.

Jewett must have seen a favorable weather report before taking off that morning from Boston’s Logan International Airport. Investigators speculated that when he encountered the cloud bank, he incorrectly interpreted it as a small, localized patch and immediately got in over his head.

The pilot was identified by officials who went to the crash site. The other three victims were later identified by Francis Redmond and Dana Jewett, who traveled to the scene from South Deerfield.

Activity in South Deerfield came to a complete standstill for the funerals on Tuesday, July 31, 1951. Town offices, stores, and other businesses were closed to allow friends and neighbors to pay their final respects to four community leaders. The tragic victims were literally here today, gone tomorrow – leaving their grief-stricken Deerfield village in a state of shock.

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