Stories Behind the December Cover

Buckeye Farm Beat

Gale Astles, owner of State Aerial, has half a Century of tales to tell.

Published on: December 8, 2010

The December Ohio farmer arrived in mailboxes this week. It features the story of Vintage Aerial, a Toledo-based company that is putting 25 million aerial photos of farms on the Web in Goggle Earth fashion. Eventually that means you can go to their website (www.vintageaerial.com) and click on a map and see the photos they have taken of your farm over the last 50 years. Right now only about 15 of the counties in Northwest Ohio have been digitized in this fashion. Until the rest are finished, you can go through the company’s librarians to find a photo of your farm.

Most of the photos come from State Aerial, which has taken 16 million shots in 41 states since the 1950s. Gale Astles is the man behind the company which he bought in 1962 after working for the previous owner for eight years peddling the aerial photos door-to-door.

Astles had way more stories to tell than would fit in the magazine this month. For example, he once encountered a 91-year-old Amish farmer working in a shed behind the barn. When he asked the man what he was doing he replied, “I’m building my coffin.” Sure enough, he was, but he took a break to order nine photos of the farm – one for each of his children.

From a top drawer of his desk, Gale pulled a frayed file. In addition to the photos of farms, he has a few shots of special locations like Al Capone’s private retreat in rural Illinois, the well-guarded home of Baby Face Nelson and Richard Nixon’s grandmother’s farmhouse in Illinois.


AERIAL MASTER: Gale Astles shows the kind of color farm picture that comes from the 16 million photos that are part of the State Aerial collection.

Astles built the business to 200 salesmen, 16 planes and pilots and 75 artists who colorized the black and white photos shot from the air. Most of the pilots worked two or three years while they built up their hours to become commercial pilots, Astles told me. In a single season, they could pick up 500-600 hours. They were paid $30 to $35 per roll of black and white Kodak film they shot. They were limited to one shot per farm. “Sometimes two if there was a special feature.”

It took a uniquel coordination, he said, because the pilots had to fly in at a photogenic angle, lean out the plane, snap a photo and fly on. “Imagine them looking through a tiny Leica viewfinder, flying down the road, 150-feet above the ground shooting one place after another,” he said. He then added with a wink, “Guess we better change that to 300 feet above the ground for legal purposes.”

“For our customers the farm is their whole life,” he said. “They will reach for something like this. It’s amazing. It’s a gift they want to give to their brother and their sister. It’s something that doesn’t wear out. It’s not something you can buy downtown.”

But now it's something you can get on the Internet.