Boomer Grandpa: Balloonist’s heir will share stories from the gondola

May 9, 2019 GMT

I get the opportunity to write this column every week. I also compile the Day in History feature for the Post Bulletin. I peruse old Rochester newspapers on microfilm and select what I believe are interesting news items from 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago.

I come across stories that are good, bad, cringe-worthy and funny. Our past in Southeast Minnesota is rich with stories and remarkable tales.

As a frequent attendee of local history groups, a Civil War Roundtable and a Veterans and Emergency Services Roundtable, I thought I would pen a column about a pretty big deal being planned by these groups.


First, a little background. Longtime Rochester residents and local history buffs may recall the Jean Piccard story. Piccard lifted off in the Pleiades, an aircraft made up of a cluster of 98 latex rubber balloons that carried him in a gondola. His liftoff was shortly after midnight on July 18, 1937, from Soldiers Field.

Piccard, an accomplished balloonist, received a great deal of news coverage for this flight into the stratosphere, and the event was witnessed by a lot of Rochester residents staying up past their bedtimes.

Now, the event being planned by the local history groups: Civil War historian Kevin Knapp will present “Eyes in the Sky, Lincoln’s Air Force,” a portrayal of Thaddeus Lowe, an aeronaut, scientist and inventor who was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to head the Union Army Balloon Corps. The program is at 6:30 p.m. May 17 at Autumn Ridge Church in Rochester.

Knapp’s presentation will be assisted by re-enactors and historians Dale Blanshan, as Lincoln, and Arn Kind, as Civil War general Fitz John Parker. If you like history, you will enjoy this program, but WAIT, THERE’S MORE. A special guest at the program will be Don Piccard — yes, the son of Jean Piccard. In fact, Don was 11 year old at the time of the launch and helped out with that very flight.

Don followed in his family’s footsteps and also became a professional balloonist. Don’s dad, mom, uncle and others were balloonists, chemists, physicists, scientists, and deep sea explorers. Don clearly remembers when he was 7 years old and met Orville Wright.

In 1963, Don and Ed Yost were the first to cross the English Channel in a hot air balloon. Don Piccard has won numerous awards and accomplishments and was named to the Ballooning Hall of Fame in 2014. Don also greatly improved the safety of the sport with the development of load tape that reinforces the balloon envelope and carries the weight of the gondola. Don even took former Tonight Show host Johnny Carson for a ride in 1967. There will be an admission fee for this program. WAIT, THERE’S EVEN MORE.


The following day, May 18, the program continues on the up and up. (That is a pun that I hope you find funny.) At the Olmsted County History Center, adults and kids can take tethered hot ar balloon rides from 7 to 9:30 a.m., and from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Get there a little early each session and you can watch the balloons get inflated.

Mike Lesmeister, balloonist extraordinaire and owner of Lesmeister Balloon Company, will oversee this event. There is a charge ($10 for adults and $5 for kids) and of course the weather will need to cooperate. Mike hopes to have two or three balloons there. Each will go up 40 to 50 feet for three to five minutes and then down for the next passengers.

Many know Mike as the force behind the Liberty Belle Project. Donations to this nonprofit go towards funding free hot air balloon flights for veterans. There will be additional activities as well at the History Center. AND WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

Also on May 18 at the brand new Hilton Hotel there will be a “Balloon Launch Luncheon” from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Speakers will be the world famous Don and his wife, Wilma Piccard, and Knapp, the Civil War historian. If you like history, this is the place to be. Teachers, students, history buffs, balloonists, those who need a reason to see the new Hilton — please come.

The lunch, for $30, will be catered by the Canadian Honker complete with Bunny’s Coconut Cake. I am hoping I can offer a server some cash on the side so I can get two pieces of cake.

Reservations are required for the luncheon program. To make your reservation send your check (made out to VESM) to Richard Krom, 1090 Buck Ridge Drive NE, Rochester, 55906. If you have a question, call Richard or his wife Sharon at 507-259-6708. In fact, luncheon reservations need to be made by May 14, so don’t dilly, dilly. WAIT, THERE’S MORE.

No, just kidding. I think that is enough. Presentation, balloon rides, lunch — there’s nothing more to see here.