The Airports of South Hill
by Carl Vest
It is well known that there is a very active airport located on South Hill. Anyone who has lived on the Hill for more than a few days has witnessed the vast amount of air traffic that it regularly produces. It is owned and operated by Pierce County and is officially known as the Pierce County Airport. Unofficially it’s called Thun Field, and is often cited by that name in written publications – both private and governmental.
Why is it called Thun Field? Because the airport, where it is now located, was developed by a local man, John Thun, during the 1950s and 1960s. But he did not originate this landing field nor was it the first aviation facility on South Hill.
James Sagmiller created the first airport on South Hill in the late 1930s. Before moving to the area he had operated an aviation business in his home state of North Dakota where he had been engaged in crop dusting and related aviation-agriculture activities. His intent was to move that enterprise to the farming areas of the Puyallup Valley. The airfield he built was located at the intersection of present-day Meridian Avenue East and 168th Street. The new Wal Mart store and parking lot now occupy the site of that airstrip. While never prominent, this facility was listed in flying directories until the 1960s under the name “S&S Airport.”
In late 1944 a new airport was started, at a location directly across the road from the S&S Airport location -- on the East side of Meridian. A group of Puyallup businessmen acquired the site and formed a company, not to support agriculture but rather to offer a place to provide aviation training for returning war veterans. The attempt did not go well. There were still restrictions on private aircraft usage because of the war effort and moreover the airstrip was never developed to acceptable standards. Eventually, it was essentially abandoned.
In 1949 John Thun bought the discarded airport acreage. He was an aviation enthusiast but not a pilot. He moved his family to the site and set about creating an acceptable airstrip. In this endeavor he was successful and over the next 20 years he brought into being a first class airport with modern facilities. A large number of local flyers were using it for recreational purposes, there was some limited commercial activity, and on occasion the military landed aircraft when McChord AFB was fogged in or over crowded.
Thun sold the airport in 1967. A group of Puyallup businessmen, investors rather than airport operators, took control for a short period. They subsequently sold the business to an individual, again an investor. It remained in his hands until the County bought the property in late 1979. Thus, Pierce County has owned the present landing field for some 28 years. The County paid just over $1 million for the installation, funded primarily (89 percent) by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.