- 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
But tourists don’t have to wait for them or content themselves with just the outline of a Wright shop. A few blocks away there already is an authentic Wright bike shop, open to the public. The shop at 1127 West Third, “the one that got away,” was not the Wrights’ only one. It was just the last of five they used over nearly two decades for their printing and bicycle businesses and the one in which they built the first airplane. The shop that stands nearby at 22 South Williams Street was their previous place of business, from 1895 to 1897. There they had a space large enough to combine their printing and bicycle enterprises under one roof, and there they began to manufacture their own line of bicycles. And it was while they were established at that shop that they learned of the death of Otto Lilienthal, the German aviation pioneer who was killed in the crash of one of his gliders. The news became a challenge to them, suggesting an entirely new field of technological endeavor. Wilbur would later recall, “My own active interest in aeronautical problems dates back to the death of Lilienthal in 1896.” The first airplane may have been built at 1127 West Third, but one could say it began to take shape at 22 South Williams.
The building has a saga of its own. It was saved from demolition by the Aviation Trail organization. Built in 1886, the two-story Victorian was home to the Wrights’ operation for only two years. At other times it was by turns a grocery store, a feed store, a boardinghouse, and a saloon. By the late twentieth century, with the connection to the Wrights largely forgotten and its exterior substantially altered, the building was welfare housing and in sorry shape. City authorities condemned it. But just a week or two earlier, Aviation Trail had acquired the building. There followed years of work to repair and restore it to its 1890s character. The discovery of a single photograph from the time ensured the fidelity of the result. The photo is of a little girl, but the shop, bearing the Wright Company name, is visible in the background. Paint, bay windows, and other additions were removed; the red brick re-emerged. Layers of flooring were pulled up, so when you’re in the shop now, you tread the same boards the Wright brothers stood on. There are few records to tell exactly what the interior looked like when it was in the Wrights’ hands, so it has been restored as a typical late-nineteenth-century bicycle shop. Exhibits profile the brothers during this period as well as the history of the building.
The two businessmen moved their operations a number of times, but they remained in the West Dayton community, generally within a short walk of their home. Prior to the 22 South Williams address, their printing business was just a few steps away, in a building known as the Hoover Block. It also has survived, and the two structures make up the core unit of the national historical park. They have been converted into the park’s interpretive center, complete with information desk, theater, bookstore, interactive exhibits, and a re-creation of Hale’s grocery store, which occupied space in the Hoover Block building a century ago. Next door a new building has gone up, incorporating the preserved facade of an early-twentieth-century structure. That’s now the headquarters of Aviation Trail. Exteriors such as these, with more restored structures to follow, help give a sense of West Third Street as the Wrights knew that commercial corridor.
When Congress passed legislation in 1992 creating Dayton’s historical park, the result was one of the more distinctive units in the National Park Service. First of all, for a single park to comprise noncontiguous places scattered across a city is unusual, if not unique. The sites are set up so you can see them in any order, with exhibit panels at each location directing you to the others. Since some of the sites were previously open to the public, the national park is a partnership between the Park Service, a federal agency, and a number of Ohio-based organizations. Also, the park’s focus on the early twentieth century sets it apart. While the colonial period has its Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Strawberry Banke restorations, this park interprets a far more recent but equally significant era: the beginning of what came to be known as the American Century.
The Wright brothers were not the only figures to lend historical gravitas to West Dayton. This becomes clear as you enter the new visitors’ facility in the converted Hoover Block. It is called the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center. The houses that are being built or restored nearby are part of Wright-Dunbar Village. The Dunbar remembered in each case is Paul Laurence Dunbar, a man of letters and tragedy, a friend and sometime business associate of the Wright brothers, and one of the first African-Americans to gain national and even international recognition for his poetry. A photograph of Dayton’s Central High School class of 1890 shows 27 grave-looking students. Seeming to hide in a doorway at the back, farthest from the camera, is Orville Wright. Nearby, at the upper-left corner of the group, is the sole black face, that of Paul Laurence Dunbar.