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Today in Sanford history (TSH), the U.S. Navy announces it will take over the Sanford Municipal Airport and create a base to train pilots. It was April 24, 1942.
“It’s the biggest thing to ever happen to Sanford,” an unnamed Sanford official was quoted as saying in the April 24 edition Sanford Herald.
Historians might argue if it was actually “the biggest thing,” however there is no doubt he arrival of the Navy had a massive impact on the city of Sanford. Not only was the Navy planning to spend at least $5.5 million to build new facilities at the airport (about $91 million in 2020), the base brought an influx of new residents.
Sanford’s population in 1940 was 10,217. The Navy estimated at least 1,700 enlisted men and officers would be stationed at the base immediately, a nearly 17% increase in population in a 6-month timeframe. Plus, all of those Navy men would be earning a good wage, as would hundreds of Sanford civilians working indirectly to support the base.
The president of the Sanford Merchants’ Association, H.B Pope, told the Herald, “Naturally, we are all tickled to death.”
The official announcement by the Navy was the culmination of several years work by city officials to land a military base. As the Great Depression worn on In the late 1930s, and with Hiltler’s sabering rattling in Europe, Sanford and other Florida cities saw military bases as a potential source of economic development.
The Herald reported on Sept. 7, 1940, that city commissioners and Seminole County Chamber of Commerce officials met with the Army Air Corps at the city airport “to inspect the site for national defense purposes.”
Sanford Mayor W.C. Hill, city commissioners Edward Higgins and Volie A. Williams were key advocates for bringing a base to Sanford. Using city funds, as well as federal monies secured by U.S. Rep. Joe Hendricks from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Sanford undertook improvements to the airport that made it attractive for the Navy.
Although it was never reported in the Herald, “the Sanford City Commission and Navy agreed to the sale of 1,490 acres as a site for a Naval Operational Training” on Jan. 24 1942 according to a master’s thesis written by Lewis W. Metzger in 2010 (“From Celery City To Navy Town: The Impact Of Naval Air Station Sanford During World War II”). The Navy paid $10 for the property, according to Metzger.
The delay between the agreement and the official announcement was most likely because Congress did not appropriate funding until April 23, 1942. The Herald reported that in addition to Sanford, airports in Daytona, DeLand, Melbourne, Lake City and Vero Beach were chosen for training bases.
Construction on barracks and other facilities begann May 26, 1942 and the Navy officially commissioned the base on Nov. 3, 1942.
Immediately after the war, in 1946 the base was decommissioned, and per the terms of the Jan. 24, 1942 agreement, Sanford acquired the base and renamed the facilty Sanford Airport. Between 1946 and 1950 the city recruited a number of tenants to occupy the base, including the New York Giants, who built 8 baseball fields for spring training.
The base was reactivated in 1951 at the start of the Korean War and throughout the bulk the Vietnam War.
On Dec. 9, 1965, Congress, facing steep budget deficits, announced the closing of Sanford Naval Air Station. The base officially closed in June 1968.
As with the Navy’s arrival, the decision by Congress to close the Sanford Naval Air Station had an equal and opposite effect on the city of Sanford.
The city’s population in 1968 was about 19,000, and the base was the largest employer in town providing 3,000 military and 300 civilian jobs.
The loss of good paying Navy and civilian jobs and a decrease in population at a time when retail and commerce were shifting away from downtown/urban areas to more suburban locations effected Sanford until the start of the new millennium.