- 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
While struggling against bigotry, poverty, and illness, Dunbar managed to produce 12 volumes of poetry, 5 novels, and 4 books of short stories, along with librettos, plays, articles, essays, and recitations, all before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of 33. He could write in formal, elegant verse or in black dialect. His concerns were at some times universal, at others specific to the African-American experience. The title of Maya Angelou’s best-known book is the concluding line of his poem “Sympathy”: “I know why the caged bird sings!” His memory is preserved in the hundreds of schools, parks, and other institutions named for him, but also in the house that he shared with his mother. Following his death there in 1906, she kept it unchanged in tribute to him until her own death, in 1934. Two years later the state of Ohio took it over. Open to the public as a museum and a memorial for most of the years since, it is now one of the properties in Dayton’s national historical park.
The Dunbar House has undergone restoration over the years, but unlike the Wright sites, only about a half-mile away, it didn’t have to face periods of decay, abandonment, and rescue. Not only has the red-brick Victorian survived, but so has a remarkable amount of its contents. Dunbar’s own Wright bicycle, his typewriter, the suit he wore for public appearances, the ceremonial sword presented to him by President Theodore Roosevelt: All these and a great deal more are on display, for viewing by guided tour only. I was perhaps most struck by a single sheet of paper, lying on his desk. It’s an unfinished poem, with penciled doodles in the margins.
After Dunbar’s death in 1906, his mother kept their house absolutely unchanged.
At the same time Dunbar was working in ink on paper, the Wright brothers were working in metal, wood, and fabric. Their breakthrough creation, the first practical airplane, is on display in its own exhibit hall in Dayton. Wait, shouldn’t that be Washington, D.C.? It’s true that the Wrights’ 1903 Flyer is the most prominently displayed aircraft in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. But that first airplane, like the first telephone, electric light, and television, only barely qualified for performance success. It had just one day of flying, managing four flights, each of less than a minute. After that came two more years of slow and frustrating experimentation with later models. At last, the 1905 Wright Flyer III became the first airplane that could stay in the air, under the pilot’s full control, as long as the fuel lasted, and then land safely. One of its flights that year covered 24 miles in almost 40 minutes. Orville Wright later called it the most important airplane that he and his brother built. It is now the star attraction at Carillon Historical Park, lush green space with a bell tower and a transportation and industry museum near the banks of the Great Miami River.
After visiting the 1905 Flyer, you can go to the unchanged place where it first flew.
The 151-foot Art Deco tower came first, a gift of Edward and Edith Deeds, who so admired a carillon in Belgium that they resolved Dayton should have one like it. Mrs. Deeds herself performed the first concert on the bells in 1942. Colonel Deeds was the chairman of the board of the National Cash Register Company (NCR), the city’s pre-eminent industrial concern. Perhaps inspired by his friend Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, Deeds began developing the now 65-acre site as an open-air museum. He would display the Miami Valley’s transportation and technological heritage with an original lock of the Miami Sc Erie Canal, a gristmill, a steam locomotive, and more, and the centerpiece would be a hall devoted to the achievements of the Wright brothers. Deeds consulted with his friend Orville Wright, who suggested the 1905 Flyer as an exhibit and agreed to supervise its restoration.
Wright did not live to see the work completed. He died in 1948, and the museum did not open until 1950. Still, when you visit the neoclassical Wright Hall today, you see the 1905 Flyer the way Orville Wright intended. Ever the engineer, he wanted visitors to have a clear view of how the machine worked. So it rests in a three-foot pit, surrounded by protective railings. You can walk all the way around the airplane, looking down to see its structure from top to bottom. To the casual eye, the 1905 Flyer looks much like its 1903 predecessor. Both are twin propeller biplanes, with the pilot having to lie prone on the lower wings, but the Wright Flyer III is taller and longer, with a reconfigured elevator, improved engine, and revised pilot controls. These and other enhancements may seem subtle, but they combined to produce the first Flyer that could consistently live up to its name.