“Welcome to Matsqui, Home of the World Famous Abbotsford International Airshow”
By Steve Stewart
It is common knowledge that until Abbotsford and Matsqui merged in 1995, Abbotsford Airport was not in Abbotsford. It was always in Matsqui. And that means the Abbotsford Flying Club was in Matsqui and the Abbotsford International Airshow was in Matsqui. This always seemed like an odd twist to reality, and it gave rise to signage on Highway One for traffic approaching the Mt Lehman road exit, which proclaimed the welcome used as a title for this piece. We are left wondering why the airport was not simply called Matsqui Airport when it was first built.
The explanation we have heard is that the Village of Abbotsford was simply the closest built up area to the airport, so the Air Force named their new station Abbotsford, without bothering to check where it actually was. It is true that the Village of Abbotsford is closer than the Village of Matsqui, and maybe the Air Force was distracted and busy with other concerns at the time, but it does seem unlikely that they would be so sloppy. They must have known full well that they were building in the District of Matsqui, and that the Village of Abbotsford was not involved.
The reason that the new RCAF station was not called Matsqui may have been because there was already a Matsqui Airport, and it had existed for over ten years. It was located on the Lundstrom farm in Gifford, on the south side of Harris road, one and a quarter miles west of Matsqui Village. Two of the Lundstrom brothers had been inspired by Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight to build their own aeroplane. First they built a large barn to use as a hangar and base for aircraft construction. Then they built the aircraft. And they also built a runway – grass, as was normal at that time. Then they held airshows. There had probably been earlier barnstorming visits by aviators to the area, but these airshows were the first organized airshows in what is now Abbotsford. And they were very successful.
The Lundstroms’ achievements were quite remarkable given the era in which they were working. Soon after they started towards their vision, there came the Wall street crash. Then there were the hungry thirties. Unemployment in the Fraser Valley was huge. Labour camps were set up. There were marches. Then, in 1935 the Matsqui dykes gave way and the prairie was flooded. But somehow the Lundstroms’ airfield remained in use, and in February 1939 a Flying Club was formed, based at what was called Matsqui Airport.
We can find no further mention of the flying club or the airport after June 1939. No doubt they disappeared during WW2. But when work started on RCAF Station Abbotsford, the existence of Matsqui Airport would have been well known.
Jumping forward to 1961, the year the Abbotsford Flying Club was formed – the new club’s name was a natural choice, given its location at Abbotsford Airport. Then our airshows started, and although the 1962 airshow was called the Rotary Air Show, for 1963 it became the Abbotsford Air Show.
1965 was the next important year in this story. An airshow episode was prophetic of what would happen thirty years later. At that time Abbotsford was still a village, just about one square mile, and centred around Essendene Avenue. It had just one traffic light. It was dwarfed by the District of Matsqui to its north and west, and the District of Sumas to its south and east. Both districts had been formed long before the creation of Abbotsford.
The star of the 1965 show was undoubtedly the brand new USAF Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. It was making only its second public appearance, having been at the Paris show two months earlier. It was so popular that the name ‘City of Abbotsford, BC’ was painted on the side by Chuck Dennet, sign-painter and a founding member of AFC. Sid Collins had urged him on. Chuck was also responsible for Advertising, and this direct action approach was brilliantly successful. Later, a press release by the USAF and Lockheed confirmed that the name was ‘expected to remain on the aircraft as it travelled the world airlifting men and supplies for MATS’ (the Military Air Transport Service).
This was the first ever use of the name ‘City of Abbotsford’. It publicised the City of Abbotsford (which would not exist until 1995) around the world. Was it a statement of faith, or just a publicity stunt? The answer does not matter, because we have the press release, and we have a photograph of Chuck still only part way through the painting. The City of Abbotsford is proud of its brand, but do they own it? Is it really the property of the AFC?
Fast forward again, to 1994. Years earlier the District of Sumas and the Village of Abbotsford had merged to form the Municipality of Abbotsford. The next merger would be of Abbotsford and Matsqui. But what would be the name of the new city? Matsqui was much bigger, and senior in years. There was strong support for Matsqui, and it was clear the merger would shut down the Abbotsford administration buildings, with the new city administration based in the City Hall recently built by Matsqui on South Fraser Way in Clearbrook. Matsqui is a Sto:Lo word meaning a stretch of higher ground. What could be more natural than to continue with the well-established and unique name? A vote was held and Abbotsford won, by a wide margin. The newspapers already knew the reasons for the choice, and the explanation was both simple and clear. The name Abbotsford was associated with the Airshow, and the Airshow was the single biggest factor in defining the community identity. Unfortunately, many people associated the name Matsqui with the prisons just south of the freeway. It was no contest.
So the Airshow had defined the community, and given the name Abbotsford to the new City of Abbotsford. And it had presented an image of that vison thirty years earlier, back in 1965. Now, the name is second nature, the debate of 1994 is mostly forgotten, and the debt owed to the airshow unacknowledged. But if Matsqui had not already had an airport back in the 1930s, our story may have been different.