POPLAR GROVE — In the 1960s, the world was changing steadily. In the countryside of Boone County, things weren’t much different.
Side-by-side, dairy farmer Dick Thomas and his son, Steve, tended to cows and worked the land that had been in their family since the 1800s.
A fellow farmer came by to purchase an outbuilding from Dick in 1967. Rather than come up the lane in a pickup truck, he arrived in a small craft airplane, landing alongside the pasture.
“He took me up for a ride. I was 15. I said, ‘Ooh! This is it! This is a whole new world.’ And it seemed more exciting and more fun than milking cows, baling hay and shoveling manure,” Steve said.
From that moment forward, flying would become an instrumental part of his life.
His father also was bit by the bug. Their mutual and instant attraction to flight got the wheels rolling and in 1972, using a portion of the farmland, Dick opened the first airport in Boone County.
Both received their pilot’s license and learned the ins and outs of running a successful small airport.
The lay of the land has changed dramatically. The two cattle sheds became hangars, the fields became runways, and the fresh dairy air has given way to flight patterns with contrails.
Dick sold the property to Steve, and over time, it was annexed and Belvidere Airport got more than a new name.
Poplar Grove Airport has since grown into a complete aeronautics community.
Adjoining the airport, Aircraft Maintenance Poplar Grove Airmotive isn’t just a maintenance shop, Steve said They inspect, provide maintenance and complete large tasks, including overhauling piston aircraft engines.
“We have customers we ship to as far away as Guam, Indonesia and Korea,” he said.
Bordering the outskirts as well is Bel Air Estates, a subdivision where residents have access to runways adjacent to their driveways. They have hangars next to their garages, all of which was another one of Steve’s visions that came to fruition.
Neighboring Poplar Grove Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum land was donated by the Thomas family. It offers outreach programs, flight camps and scholarships.
There is also a flight school at the airport where students as young as 14 can learn to fly.
“We have lots of past students who became instructors and are now captains for major airlines,” Steve said. “One of our instructors now looks to be headed in that direction, too.”
His wife, Tina, who he met in college, was studying to be a nurse. He took her up for her first flight in 1975. She ended up falling head-over-heels in love, and not just with Steve. By 1976, she had her pilot’s license.