- Historic Sites
A town forced to earn its living by its wits from the very beginning—most spectacularly through the work of two young bicycle mechanics—and now remaking itself into a Colonial Williamsburg of the industrial age, this year’s Great American Place is
October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
I settled into the chair in my dentist’s office. Before the instruments came out, he asked me if I had any interesting travel coming up. Yes, I replied, I would soon be going to Dayton to visit the Wright brothers’ historical sites. “Dayton?” he said. “I thought they were in North Carolina.”
That’s the kind of exchange to make a Daytonian cringe. While the first piloted heavier-than-air flight took place at Kill Devil Hill on December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers called Ohio their home, not North Carolina. Wilbur had moved to Dayton at the age of four, and Orville was born there. Except for a few years spent in Iowa as children and their forays to the Outer Banks for the seclusion and steady winds to be found there, the brothers tended to remain in Dayton. Both inventors died there, and both are buried there. The Wrights’ gliders and airplanes, including the one that now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum, were designed and built in a Dayton bicycle shop.
That shop still stands—but not in Ohio. In 1936 Henry Ford transported the whole structure to Michigan as part of the open-air historical museum he had built, Greenfield Village. He also took the Wright family home at 7 Hawthorn Street. Ford was thorough; he even took the dirt on which the house stood. Orville approved the transfer. (Wilbur had died many years earlier.) Ford was a friend of his, and Orville clearly appreciated the preservation and attention his old home and shop would be accorded. Perhaps he could also see that they wouldn’t fare as well if they remained in Dayton.
Orville’s laboratory would later be torn down to make way for a gas station, which was never built. Mike Peters, syndicated cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News , pictured a tour bus traversing a terrain of rubble, with the guide intoning, “And this pile of bricks is where the Wright Brothers worked. The pile of bricks on the left is where [the poet Paul Laurence] Dunbar lived. And that pile of bricks is where. . . .” The Daily News columnist Martin Gottlieb called Dayton “The City That Never Much Cared.”
Well, it cares now. Whether it was indifference or Midwestern reserve that kept the city from celebrating its heritage, that reticence is long past. Nearly two dozen organizations—from local, state, and federal governments as well as from the private sector—are involved in showcasing Dayton’s history. Many of these efforts were tied to this year’s centennial of powered flight, but they started well before it, and their impact is likely to endure.
Dayton may have lost the world’s most famous bike shop, as well as that precious Wright house and laboratory, but the city still has plenty to attract the historically inclined traveler. To start with, there’s the recently established and prodigiously named Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which comprises four primary sites, in separate locations across the city. But don’t stop there. Just as Boston has the Freedom Trail, Dayton has the Aviation Trail. You can pick up one of Aviation Trail, Inc.'s brochures and follow the maps and street signs to 12 listed sites. And there’s more to the Aviation Trail than those 12 sites. Before you can claim that you’ve covered the whole thing, you’ll need to visit all 45 sites described in the Trail’s 144-page Field Guide to Flight: On the Aviation Trail in Dayton, Ohio, by Mary Ann Johnson. If you do, you’ll find that while the Wright brothers started it all, there’s a lot more to Dayton-area aviation history than the Wrights alone. For example, the Trail will take you to where the first guided missile went up as well as to where the first parachutist, bailing out of a stricken aircraft, came down.
At some of the sites there’s frankly not much to see these days, or the property is in private hands. But for the true aviation devotee, there’s satisfaction in just standing on historic ground. For example, at the former location of the transplanted Wright house, there are now wayside signs, an outline showing where the house stood, and a replica of part of the front porch. But even when it was nothing but a vacant lot, visitors would come to stand at the spot. I know because I was one of them. Neighbors smiled indulgently at us pilgrims staring reverently at a nondescript plot strewn with weeds and trash.
This historical tour really requires a car. Fortunately, navigating around the Dayton area is easy, traffic is manageable, and the distances are short. Consider the Wright family’s crosstown trek. When the airplane business began at last to pay off handsomely, they moved from unassuming West Dayton to a mansion they had built in the exclusive neighborhood of Oakwood. It was a huge leap in social station, but only about three miles in distance.