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St. Louis Regional history comes alive in this joint production by KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. Stories of our past are connected with the present in these well researched and entertaining short presentations about the people, places, and events that have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. 

Oct 30, 2023

Sometimes traditions seem like they have been around forever, but each tradition has its start. The Great Forest Park Balloon Race gathers people by the thousands each Fall, and is world famous, but it had a dubious start in 1973. Fortunately, it was championed by two pioneers who planted the seeds that grew into the race we know today.  Just press play to hear the whole story. -----

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Podcast Transcript: I’m Adam Kloppe, public historian at the Missouri Historical Society, and Here’s History on eighty eight one, KDHX. ------

Every September, tens of thousands of St. Louisans make their way to Forest Park for the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. This event has been celebrated by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and it is recognized as one of the oldest and largest balloon races in the country. ------

But the Great Forest Park Balloon Race almost never got off the ground. The event traces its roots back to the renowned balloonist and St. Louisan Nikki Caplan. Caplan was a true pioneer in ballooning: she got her start in 1968, when she purchased her first balloon. By 1973, Caplan was an internationally recognized balloonist, and she even received special permission to fly her balloon through the legs of the Gateway Arch! She would later go on to log more than 15 hundred hours of balloon flying, and she would receive the highest award a balloonist can aspire to—the (MONT GO FLEE AIR) Montgolfier Diploma—in 1982. She was also posthumously named to the National Balloon Museum Hall of Fame in 2014. ------

In 1973, Caplan and another renowned balloonist named John O’Toole decided they wanted to design a balloon race that would launch out of St. Louis. They wanted to do this partly to honor the city of St. Louis’s deep ties to ballooning—the first balloon race ever held in the city was the 1907 Gordon Bennett Cup. Many other prestigious balloon races and balloonists had come through the city in the years that followed, but no race called St. Louis home. ------

Caplan and O’Toole organized their race for November of 1973, and they decided to use Forest Park as the launch site. However, the event was very small, as it featured only six balloons and about a dozen spectators. Over the next few years, the event remained very small, until four St. Louis balloonists—Ted Staley, John Schaumberg, Dan Schettler, and John Marlow—took over the race. These organizers quickly learned that the event was being held at the wrong time of year, and they moved the event to September. Soon, the even grew in popularity with balloonists, and the field swelled until it was capped at 70. In 1991, these four organizers added the Balloon Glow to the list of activities associated with the Race—an event that continues to draw thousands of people to Forest Park. Today, the Race and Balloon Glow are still going strong, and routinely draw around 150 thousand spectators. ------

Here’s History is a joint production of KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. I’m Adam Kloppe, and this is eighty eight one, KDHX, St. Louis.