Thirty minutes on the treadmill raced by as I listened to Pulitzer prize-winning author David McCullough talk to WOSU’s Ann Fisher about two intellectually curious brothers who loved to read, to learn and to keep to themselves. These determined models of integrity who invented powered, human-controlled flight are the subject of McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.
McCullough’s interview prompted me to visit some of the historic Dayton, Ohio sites associated with the Wright brothers, but a dapper aviator teddy bear turned it into an exciting day of discovery. Join me in my quest to bring home Wilbear Wright!
The Race to Dayton’s Amazing Aviation Places is an initiative of Wright Dunbar, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the revitalization of the Dayton neighborhood where the Wright brothers and their high school classmate, African-American author Paul Laurence Dunbar, lived. To join the race, pick up a passport, tour the one required site — the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center — and a minimum of five of the remaining eight aviation sites in the Dayton area, receive a stamp at each of those sites, and turn in the passport to earn a free Wilbear Wright.
The Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center and the Aviation Trail Visitor Center are part of the National Park Service’s Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. A full-size replica model of the Wright brothers’ 1902 glider, which helped them discover balance and control, is on display here.
The center is filled with clever exhibits that tell stories of the brothers’ lives. For example, in 1878, their father, Milton Wright, brought home a toy “helicopter” for young Wilbur and Orville that was made of paper, bamboo and cork with a rubber band to twirl its rotor. The boys played with it until it broke, and then they built their own. Later, they said the toy sparked their interest in flying.
That ingenuity continued when 12-year-old Orville saw a series of woodcut illustrations in a magazine and decided to teach himself how to engrave, fashioning a carving tool from a pocket knife and carving wood blocks. When he was in high school, Orville began a small printing business with his friend, Ed Sines, and later, Wilbur. During their stint as job printers, the brothers printed letterheads, business cards, tickets, programs, church-related publications, and a small current events magazine called Snap-Shots. They also printed the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper Dunbar edited for Dayton’s black community.
From 1890 through 1895, the Wrights operated a print shop on the second floor of the Hoover Block on the corner of Third and Williams Streets, the building where the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center is located. Exhibits recreate the composing room, where they set type by hand, and the job press room, where they printed small jobs. The rooms feature some of the original printing equipment once owned and used by the Wright brothers.
Here, you can also learn about the Pinnacles, a once-popular picnic area located south of Dayton, near Moraine. The Pinnacles featured unusual 40- to 80-feet-high geological rock formations, known as the Devil’s Backbone. From 1897 to 1899, the Wright brothers came here to observe turkey vultures soaring above the Pinnacles. While watching the birds twist the tips of their wings as they flew, the brothers developed their wing-warping theory. The Pinnacles was destroyed during road construction and is now an abandoned farm.
The brothers put wing-warping into action with their remarkable hip cradle, which allowed the pilot to roll the plane left or right. As he flew from a lying-down position, he swung his hips in the direction he wanted to go. The hip cradle then activated the warping cables, twisting the wings and turning the plane. At the center, see how the hip cradle works by placing your hand in a model of the cradle, moving your hand to either side, and watching how the wings of the model move.
The Wright brothers became interested in bicycles in 1892, when this new form of transportation became a national craze, and decided to venture into the bicycle business, which they continued until 1908. In fact, my great-grandfather, Louis Stein, was one of the Wright Cycle Company’s employees.
The Wrights’ fourth bicycle shop, located at 22 South Williams Street and adjacent to the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, is now the only remaining building that housed their bicycle business. While running their business here from 1895 to 1897, the Wrights began to design and build their own models of bicycles, the Van Cleve, named after Wright ancestors who were among the first to settle in Dayton and the St. Clair. This restored site is also where the brothers researched and developed their interest in flying.
Walk one block to 7 Hawthorne Street, the site of the Wright family home from 1871 to 1878 and from 1885 to 1914. Orville was born in the house in 1871, the brothers lived there while they were developing their flying machine, and Wilbur died there in 1912. The actual house was moved to Greenfield Village in 1936, but the site is now a commemorative area. Part of the home’s front porch has been reconstructed, while lines of concrete blocks trace the placement of its first-floor rooms.
Huffman Prairie Flying Field, now part of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is an 84-acre prairie pasture a few miles outside Dayton. Here, the Wright brothers continued the work they did at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in teaching themselves to fly. During 1904 and 1905, they took a 10-minute Interurban electric trolley ride from their Dayton home to the Simms Station stop almost every day. The platform is still standing.
At Huffman Prairie, the brothers learned to control and maneuver their flying machine. You can see a replica of the hangar and catapult launching device that they used to perfect the world’s first practical airplane, the 1905 Wright Flyer III. From 1910 to 1915, the Wrights operated the Wright School of Aviation here, training many of the world’s first pilots.
The meadow is also an excellent place to take in plenty of birds, moths, butterflies and prairie plants. In fact, Orville was introduced to the area by his high school biology teacher, who led his students on field expeditions at Huffman Prairie. When Huffman Prairie was being restored in the 1990s, scientists working there discovered a new species of moth, Glyphidocera wrightorum, naming it in honor of the Wright brothers and the work they did there.
The Huffman Prairie Flying Field Interpretive Center contains exhibits focusing on the Wright brothers’ work at Huffman Prairie. Take a ride in a 1911 Wright Model B flight simulator, using outboard sticks to move the plane up and down and the center stick to roll the plane left and right. “On Great White Wings,” a 30-minute film narrated by Martin Sheen, recreates the brothers’ achievements by flying a full-scale replica of the Wright Flyer III on site at Huffman Prairie. Steps away from the center is the Wright Memorial on Wright Brothers Hill, a 27-acre landscape featuring a 17-foot pink granite obelisk that was dedicated on August 19, 1940, Orville’s 69th birthday.
At the National Aviation Hall of Fame, located in the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, see a scale model of Orville and Wilbur preparing for their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. The same materials found on the original aircraft were used, such as laminated spruce for the propeller, spruce and ash on the forward supports, and chain links punched from metal. The sculpted landscape it sits upon is covered with sand taken from the beaches of Kill Devil Hill at Kitty Hawk.
Wilbur and Orville purchased a 17-acre tract of land in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood in 1912 and began plans to build a home there. While Wilbur passed away before Hawthorn Hill was completed in 1914, Orville lived in the home for over 35 years.
In Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery, a blue flag with a white airplane flies over the Wright family plot, where Wilbur and Orville are buried. Following tradition, visitors to the gravesite place coins on the plain granite markers as a sign of respect.
The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park also includes the Wright Brothers Aviation Center in Carillon Historical Park. This site features the 1905 Wright Flyer III, which Orville helped restore, and the Van Cleve bicycles that the Wright brothers designed. In 1910, the Wright brothers opened the Wright Company Factory, the first factory in the United States designed especially for building airplanes. The factory is a new part of the park and is not open to the public yet.
Another Wright-related site in the area is the Wright State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives, home to one of the most complete collections of Wright material in the world. The collection includes the Wrights’ personal library; Wright family letters, diaries and financial records; and over 4,000 photographs documenting the invention of the airplane and the lives of the Wright family. The collection is open for public research, but making an appointment to do so is necessary.
Recently, the library partnered with the Dayton Metro Library to create an online archive of the most complete run of the Wright brothers’ newspapers available to date. Over 150 of the papers are now available to search and read online.
Finally, venture into eastern Indiana to Hagerstown, where you can tour the Wilbur Wright Birthplace. Wilbur was born in this small farmhouse on April 16, 1867.
Click here to listen to David McCullough’s interview about The Wright Brothers on the June 4 edition of All Sides With Ann Fisher. It begins at the 31:30 mark.