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A frozen river, an early aviator, and a daring feat

Courier-Post photographer, Otis Howell, took this 1953 photo of J.R. Kelly’s Drug Store, located at 1928 Market in Hannibal, Mo. The pharmacy is best remembered at Cornelius Pharmacy. Walter Cornelius and Paul F. Wright purchased Kelly’s Pharmacy and in the 1950s they operated it as Hannibal Pharmacy. Cornelius eventually bought out his partner and renamed the business Cornelius Pharmacy. OTIS HOWELL PHOTO / STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

NOTE: Thanks to Hannibal native James F. Featherstone for this story suggestion.


On Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1936, a snowstorm raged practically all day in the Hannibal/Palmyra area. Cold temperatures had prevailed for the previous five or six weeks, allowing 20 inches of ice to accumulate on the Mississippi River at Hannibal.

Late afternoon on this cold and blustery day, J.R. Kelly, a 31-year-old Hannibal aviator, accomplished a daring feat: He swooped an airplane down over the frozen Mississippi River at the foot of Broadway in Hannibal, and made a perfect landing on the layer of ice.

The Marion County Standard newspaper of Feb. 26, 1936, described the amazing feat, noting that Kelly was flying a 19,000-pound Waco plane.

Wikipedia explains that Waco planes were very popular between the two world wars, with more Wacos registered than aircraft of any other company. The company’s planes included open cockpit biplanes, cabin biplanes and cabin sesquiplanes (known by Waco as Custom Cabins).

Kelly not only landed the airplane on the frozen river, but he also taxied south, turned the plane northward, and took off again.

Hannibal foundation

James Reynolds Kelly was born circa 1905 in Keokuk, Iowa, and moved to Hannibal when a young boy with his parents, James E. and Matty Kelly. In 1912, the elder Mr. Kelly was manager of Hannibal Monument Co., located on the southeast corner of Fourth and Center streets.

Jeanne Brosi, who along with her husband, Bruce, now own Hannibal Monument, believes that Arthur Brosi purchased half interest with Jim Kelly in 1942. Arthur was hoping at the time that when his two sons returned from World War II, they would purchase the other half interest from Jim Kelly, who was wanting to retire.

James E. Kelly died in March 1946, and is buried with his family just to the northwest of the chapel at Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Pilot training

Elmer Long completed Hannibal’s first airport in June 1930, leasing the landing field located two miles west of Hannibal.

It is unclear where or when J.R. Kelly learned to fly, but during the 1930s, he became an enthusiastic participant of the first generation to take to the airways.

Other aviators of the day included H.C. Mills, J.W. Overstreet, E.H. Ryals and Floyd Dameron. These four men, along with Elmer Long, circled Hannibal for 30 minutes on Dec. 15, 1934, to commemorate the first flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

In November 1938, aviators flew five planes over Palmyra and Hannibal, dropping “paper bombs” during Armistice Day festivities. The “bombs” served as reminders of the opening of the annual Red Cross fund drive.

J.R. Kelly

Twenty four-year-old James Reynolds Kelly was a registered pharmacist in 1930, living with his parents at 1242 Broadway. His mother, Matty, died on June 28, 1932, at the age of 50.

After his 1936 aerial stunt, J.R. Kelly took a turn at operating Kelly’s Bar, at 313 S. Main, while he and his young wife, Mable K. Kelly, lived with his widowed father.

During the 1940s, James R. Kelly opened a pharmacy at 1928 Market. Connie Cornelius White, daughter of Walter Cornelius, remembers that her father and Paul F. Wright purchased Kelly’s Pharmacy from J.R. Kelly, and in the 1950s they operated it as Hannibal Pharmacy. Cornelius eventually bought out his partner and renamed the business Cornelius pharmacy.

After J.R. Kelly sold out of the pharmacy business, he continued to operate a film developing business. Connie remembers that her father’s pharmacy was a drop-off point for a film developing service, and she can still picture the little man who operated the business, but can’t recall his name.

“Looking back, there are so many details that I wish I had gathered while Daddy was alive,” Connie said.

Levering Hospital

After selling Kelly’s Pharmacy, James R. Kelly went to work as pharmacist for Levering Hospital. In 1960, he and his wife were living at 3112 Rendlen, Hannibal, and later they made their home at 3208 Greenway.

He died in 1967, and is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery to the south of Hannibal. His surviving wife, Katheryn, worked as a cosmetician at SuperX Drug Store in the Huck Finn Shopping Center, Hannibal, retiring in 1977. She moved to Florida, where she died in 2004. Her remains were brought back to Hannibal, where she is buried alongside her husband and his parents.

Dan Price was the photographer for this image of Long’s Airport, just to the west of Hannibal, Mo., in the late 1930s. Air circuses and stunts were popular during this decade sandwiched between the two world wars. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

This photo of the Hannibal riverfront was taken by Dan Price in the late 1930s, the same era in which J.R. Kelly landed an airplane on 20 inches of frozen ice on the Mississippi River at Hannibal, Mo. The aviator then turned the plane around, and took off again. The year was 1936. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

James Reynolds Kelly, his wife, Katheryn, and his parents, James E. and Matty Kelly, are buried together in the family plot, located near the chapel at Hannibal’s Mt. Olivet Cemetery. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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