In a building big enough to hold an airplane or two – or more – in Mentone, the accomplishments of a hometown boy are celebrated. The Bell Aircraft Museum reflects the boyhood beginnings of Lawrence D. Bell, one of America’s aircraft pioneers, and the impact he had on flight, including the development of Huey helicopters used in the Vietnam war.
Inside the building are some of Bell’s aircraft models and a recreation of his office as the owner and founder of Bell Aircraft. The displays and the exhibits are a historic look at how the aircraft industry developed, and the role that Bell had in this development. Visitors can look at the displays and watch a video on Bell’s life.
“It is history and it is educational,” says Tim Whetstone, museum board member. “It is unique and has one-of-a-kind things.”
A museum committee of eight local residents was established. Legendary pilot Chuck Yeager attended the groundbreaking, construction began and continued through 1979, and the museum opened in 1980. Many of the displays and artifacts including the planes were donated to the town of Mentone from Bell’s estate.
Bell, who passed away in 1956, was involved in the aircraft industry for four decades, and founded his own company, Bell Aircraft Corporation, in 1935 in Buffalo, New York. Under his leadership Bell Aircraft became known for its innovations, including the nation’s first airplane powered by jet engines, the world’s first commercial helicopter, the world’s highest-flying airplane, the Bell X-1A, and the first plane with vertical takeoff and landing capability.
Bell Aircraft was also one of the aircraft companies that made airplanes for World War II, including B-29 bombers. His company made 12,000 planes and was ranked 20th in production during the war.
Bell lived in Mentone from April 5, 1894, his birthday, until 1907 when his parents moved to California. He was 13 years old and the youngest of 10 children. His father worked in a sawmill and his mother was a schoolteacher who had moved to Mentone from Ohio.
While the museum preserves these relics of American entrepreneurial spirit and hard work, it also provides a way for students to learn more about their history, museum board members say.
For older people and military veterans, it is also a place to reminisce and reflect. Whetstone tells the story of a veteran who, after seeing the Huey on display, which figured in the Korean and Vietnam wars, remarked that he wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for the Huey.
The museum hosts the annual Rotors Over Mentone event on the second weekend in September. This year marks the 13th year for the event, which draws pilots and helicopters from long distances to converge in Mentone. It is set for September 10. A program with a speaker is planned for 11 a.m., and helicopter rides will be offered from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In a room off of the main exhibit hall is the Mentone Historical Museum. It was designated in 2018 as a repository of items reflecting Mentone’s history. Several donated items from residents fill this space including genealogical research materials, school memorabilia, and objects that reflect the town’s reputation as the “Egg Basket of the Midwest” – a distinction that came about when the railroad arrived and provided an easy way to transport eggs from the many producers in the area.
The Bell Aircraft Museum is supported by donations and fundraisers. The Mentone Historical Museum also seeks donations through a fund administered by the Kosciusko County Community Foundation and the Kroger Community Rewards program.
The Bell Aircraft Museum is located at 210 South Oak Street in Mentone. Admission is free. Starting June 12 through September 25, the museums are open on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and also by appointment.
Visit bellaircraftmuseum.org for more information on exhibits and events, or find it on social media. Call 574-353-7318 to make an appointment or for more details.
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