When WCHK went on the air in 1957, the community quickly made it their own. That was when the fun began. Mike McDougald was one of the owners and was involved in all operations during its early years.
Commenting on the zany going-ons at WCHK at that time, he wrote, “You know, Radio folks today, with their tight play lists and acerbic talk shows, just don’t seem to have the kind of fun that folks had back in the 1950s in ‘hometown radio.’”
He has given me permission to use articles he has written about those days. One he entitled, “Canton, Georgia Grabs Lead In Space Race Against Russia.”
Of course, it was a hoax, but everyone knew it was all in fun. Many listeners chose to be part of it.
To set the stage for you, the Russians had jumped out in front of the race to space with the launching of Sputnik.
Tongue-in-cheek, McDougald wrote, “The Communist victory was short-lived when a team of broadcast specialists quickly designed a massive rocket ship, the rocket in place on Highway Five directly in front of Canton’s then brand new Radio Station WCHK, and gained the full cooperation of hundreds of listeners to provide materials and equipment to propel the rocket on what was expected to be a long flight.” The local rocket was named Spitnik.
The proposed plan was for Spitnik to be launched a few feet high in the air. Nearby businesses like the service station at the “V,” the Pine Crest Restaurant and Inn at Holly Springs and other nearby structures would be protected from the rocket’s route.
Listeners of WCHK were informed daily of the progress made in the construction. They joined in the fun. “Downtown merchants bought spots on the radio station to herald the ‘building’ of the rocket.” Georgia Power gave permission for it to be built around an unused power pole in front of the station.
People brought building materials. Some hammered and sawed. Every day the rocket got taller and taller.
“Recognizing the need for utilities, plumbers brought toilets, lavatories, and various pipes which ran unceremoniously up the side of the rocket. Two flashing red lights atop the rocket quickly identified it at night to passing motorists. They always blew their horn as they passed.”
Naturally, an American flag was placed atop it. Floodlights lit it up at night.
This farce went on for about three weeks with bulletins from WCHK keeping everyone updated about when the rocket would be launched.
A pseudo-voice on WCHK was Oley Svenson. Oley was supposedly a Swede from the mid-west and wanted to help with the local space program. In his mind, he would “drive” Spitnik when it was launched.
According to McDougal, “Listeners knew Oley, delightful voice that he was, was not exactly a rocket scientist himself.” They knew to take anything Oley said with a proverbial grain salt.
After it seemed everything that could be done on the rocket had been done, the broadcasters had to decide what to do with it. Everyone who worked on it or just kept up with the project knew it would not fly. But, it did not seem right to just take it down.
The telephones at WCHK rang often with people asking, in jest, when Spitnik would be launched. An announcement on WCHK was made that the rocket would be taking off on Friday, Oct. 25, 1957. Everyone, including national media, was invited.
However, Spitnik was accidentally launched on the night before. The story was that Oley Svenson went inside it to check things out. He pushed the red button that said “GO” and he and the rocket blasted off. There was only a patch of burned grass where the rocket had been.
On that night, there had been busy people at the rocket site. McDougald remembers, “It took most of the Canton Jaycees led by Judge Marion Pope and mortuary owner Norman Sosebee, among others, most of the night to disassemble the monstrous thing and haul off the pieces … and several key pieces like the toilet, lavatory, and a couple of instruments were strewn in a field in the Macedonia community along Highway 20 between Canton and Cumming.”
The next morning when it was supposedly discovered that the rocket had blasted off during the night, a call came into WCHK. The caller reported that a rocket had landed on his farm. Oley Svenson was there. He had survived the crash and was eating breakfast with the farmer’s family while hoping to catch a ride back to Canton.
Oley explained that he just wanted to be sure the red button worked. Another account is that he launched Spitnik by flushing the toilet.
Whatever, that was the end of the WCHK spoof of Canton’s role in the Space Race.
Marguerite Cline is the former mayor of Waleska.