- 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
To protect the venerable craft, the light is kept low in the hall. That also lends a stark, reverential air to the place. There is little to distract the eye from the Flyer. At the back wall are busts of the two inventors, and in the pit near the airplane stands a large wooden toolbox containing replicas of original tools that traveled with the Wrights.
In the late 1960s Dayton’s mayor led a movement to wrest the Wright house and bike shop back from Michigan. When it became clear the city had no chance of prevailing, Dayton awarded itself a kind of consolation prize. A reproduction of the bike shop was built in Carillon Park, near Wright Hall. When it was completed, in 1972, only the exterior had been made to look like the original. But by now the interior, too, has been rendered as authentic as possible. For this recent project a carpenter was sent to Greenfield Village to take measurements of the original shop and note other details, while the museum staff consulted the inventory of the shop’s equipment and fixtures that had been compiled when the Wrights sold the property. The curators have outfitted the shop to appear as the original did in late 1901, when the brothers were still active in the bicycle business but becoming increasingly interested in aviation. So, for example, there’s not as much stock in the salesroom as there would have been earlier. In the workshop there’s a truing stand for bicycle wheels, but the figure of Orville is working at the lathe, making parts for the 1901 glider.
And there’s been a recent change at the site: As one Carillon Park curator put it, “We’ve added wings to Wright Hall.” The result is a single, connected aviation center, which is a unit of the national historical park. Visitors enter the cycle-shop reproduction, pass from there into the new Wilbur Wright Wing, then into Wright Hall, with the 1905 Flyer , and finally on to the Orville Wright Wing. Carillon Park has always had significant artifacts in its collection, but with the added exhibit space in the two new wings, it can now show those items in some very creative ways.
For example, one of the world’s most universally recognized photographs is the one of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight. Taken on Kill Devil Hill at 10:35 A.M. on December 17, 1903, it shows the Flyer lifting off with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside. Well, the camera that took that photograph is on display in the Wilbur Wright Wing.
I remember visiting Carillon Park as a kid and looking with awe at that camera, inside a glass case. But now, along with its tripod and some of the Wrights’ darkroom equipment, it’s not just a static exhibit; it’s a performer in a compelling sound and light show about the Wright brothers and their achievements. “Many of the images you’re about to see were taken with this,” says a recorded narrator, and a spotlight hits the camera. When the subject turns to the Wrights’ talent for engineering, the brothers’ drafting table comes into view, modified by Orville using bicycle chains and sprockets. Later there appears the sewing machine they used to sew wing coverings. Between shows the theater converts to exhibit space, where visitors can examine the artifacts up close.
After visiting the Wright Flyer III, you can go to the place where it first flew, an open field known then and now as Huffman Prairie. Part of this early flying field is a unit of the national park. The Huffman Prairie Flying Field is the least-developed site, intentionally so. The Wright brothers would find today’s Dayton greatly changed from what they knew, and even North Carolina’s Kill Devil Hill is now covered with grass, not sand dunes. But walk the paths at Huffman Prairie and you’ll see pretty much what Orville and Wilbur saw day after day, spring through fall, in 1904 and 1905.
After the landmark flights of December 17, 1903, the Wrights broke camp at Kitty Hawk and returned to Dayton. For their next flight tests, they would seek an experimental station closer to home. They found what they needed an eight-mile trolley ride from West Dayton. The property was owned by Torrence Huffman, a local banker who gave them permission to use it.
The field was well outside the city, but it was still not as secluded as Kitty Hawk. Neighboring farmers observed the strange craft rising from the prairie, as did riders on the interurban rail line. And the press? There were some newspaper and magazine accounts, but most were highly fanciful. Only one reporter made regular trips to Huffman. He was Amos I. Root, the editor of Gleanings in Bee Culture , an apiary journal. Root was there because his interests extended well beyond beekeeping, and his exuberant accounts give a sense of the drama unfolding in that pasture. When the Wrights achieved the world’s first circular airplane flight, Root called it “the grandest sight of my life. Imagine a locomotive that has left its track, and is climbing up in the air right toward you—a locomotive without any wheels we will say, but with white wings instead. . . .”