By EMMALEE C. TORISK
When Marian Kutlesa, founder and secretary of the Struthers Historical Society, received a phone call asking for more information about the mail-carrying rocket sent between Struthers and Poland by a group of Struthers High School students in the 1930s, she was stumped.
“People are always calling here with questions, and I do my best to answer them,” she said. “But I didn’t know anything about it. I started making inquiries, and darned if it didn’t exist. It was such a complete surprise to me.”
What information Kutlesa did manage to uncover about what was allegedly the first rocket mail flight in the U.S., however, was skimpy at best. She pored through old newspapers and scrapbooks but couldn’t find much beyond the basics — a handful of scattered details that she was positive didn’t reveal anything close to the full story.
That’s when Kutlesa knew she’d stumbled upon quite the local mystery.
And that’s also when just one phone call in 2006 from the public library — prompted by the Smithsonian Institution’s request for data about this one particularly strange event in U.S. aviation history — turned into a years-long quest to determine why, exactly, a handful of teenagers would attempt to deliver the mail via rocket July 1, 1931 — and then twice again in April 1932.
“These high school students had set off on their own adventure,” Kutlesa said. “It was quite an achievement, but [when I asked about it], the response was minimal from everybody.”
Kutlesa then enlisted the help of Ted Heineman, a member of the Poland Historical Society.
Like Kutlesa, Heineman also hadn’t heard of the event beforehand, but was intrigued.
Back in the early 1950s, when he worked with the Air Force in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to help develop the very first rocket launch pads, the technology was terribly primitive, Heineman recalled.
Though the Struthers flight was admittedly on a much smaller scale, it predated those experiments by two decades.
Heineman noted, though, that mail had long been delivered by rockets, but mainly overseas and to isolated locations. For
example, mail ships often weren’t able to dock at lighthouses and islands, so mail was placed into some sort of tube or capsule, then shot to the proper destination.
“Rockets were in their infancy back in the 1930s,” Heineman said. “Who were these people, and what possessed them to think they could send mail from Struthers to Poland?”
Even from the start, Kutlesa and Heineman kept coming across one name — John Kiktavi Sr. — in their research.
The elder Kiktavi, they later discovered, was an avid philatelist, or stamp collector, who owned a print shop — the Modern Printing Company — located in the rear of his residence at 93 Morrison St. in Struthers.
But perhaps more significantly, both Kutlesa and Heineman added, he also led the various groups of Struthers High School students — probably including his son, John Kiktavi Jr. — in their rocket mail experiments, and even printed special covers, or envelopes, and postal stamps emblazoned with the words “Miniature Airways” for the flights.
Heineman added that this was an obvious violation of postal regulations, but it wasn’t until after the 1932 flights that both father and son faced some ramifications for their illegal activities.
According to information from the National Postal Museum, Kutlesa said, in late April 1932, several envelopes — donning the counterfeit stamps printed by the Kiktavis — were attached to a frame propelled by fireworks rockets, which crashed not too far past the dividing line between Struthers and Poland.
The rocket-launch participants had sold stamps for the envelopes, however, and still insisted upon delivering the mail anyway. But when they brought the letters to the post office in Poland, the federal authorities were notified, Heineman said, adding that those who had paid for the stamps were reimbursed, and that the remaining stamps and plates were seized and destroyed.
And that action apparently marked the end of rocket mail in Struthers — a handful of record-setting events that practically no one today can recall.
But even today, some contention still exists within the philatelic community regarding the legitimacy of the July 1, 1931, flight.
Scott Tiffney, a reference assistant with the Pennsylvania-based American Philatelic Research Library, explains that some classify it as just an experimental flight — not a true rocket mail flight.
Nancy Pope, a historian from the National Postal Museum, said she’s also unsure if it was the country’s first mail-carrying rocket flight, adding that the attempts were mostly “kids being kids.”
“It was very, very different from a company trying to fire a rocket off a ship to try to deliver mail to shore faster,” Pope said. “You have to get the mail from Point A to Point B, and get it there in one piece. They were just setting rockets off — and not doing either of those things very well. They were just doing it for the heck of it.”
Paul A. Roales, an Oklahoma-based rocket mail hobbyist who runs “The Rocketmail Page” website, clarifies the first Struthers-to-Poland flight’s designation even further. It could very well be the first unmanned rocket mail flight in the U.S., although a manned rocket glider carried mail near Atlantic City, N.J., less than a month prior to the Struthers flight, he said.
Controversy aside, Heineman remains fascinated by these early attempts at rocket mail, and still can’t quite understand what inspired and drove their participants more than 80 years ago.
“It’s so interesting,”
Heineman said. “Maybe we ought to send a rocket from Poland to Struthers to reciprocate.”