At work on a biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright for the past two years, I have gone to considerable lengths to share a bit of their experience. Thanks to any number of good friends, I have been able to fly a replica of their 1902 glider, serve as a crew member for flights of a reproduction 1903 airplane, and spend hours peering into a faithful replica of their 1900 wind tunnel. It has not only been fun. It has been useful. Those experiences have increased my understanding and informed my writing.
I have also visited the places that the Wrights knew. Modern Kitty Hawk is still a fascinating spot, but the very fact that the Wrights flew here has forever altered the landscape.
The West Side of Dayton, Ohio, where Wilbur and Orville spent most of their lives, is much altered as well, though in very different ways. Today it is decidedly not the best part of town. There is nothing to distinguish it from a hundred other urban neighborhoods, fallen on hard times and more than a bit down-at-the-heels. A typical block contains the usual complement of hock shops, shabby storefronts selling used furniture and second-hand clothing, seedy bars, and an abandoned gas station on the corner, the pumps missing, the windows boarded up, and weeds sprouting tall through cracks in the concrete.
For all that, it is not so difficult to imagine the place as it must have been in the early spring of 1900, when Wilbur and Orville Wright walked these streets. Many of the landmarks that were familiar to them remain in place. They could stroll down West Third past buildings where they worked and shopped. The three-story Hoover Block still stands. They ran the printing firm of Wright and Wright here from the fall of 1890 to the spring of 1895. Legend has it that Paul Laurence Dunbar, a friend and classmate of Orville’s at Central High (class of ’90), once scrawled a bit of doggerel on the pressroom wall:
Orville, a talented amateur photographer, should have taken a picture of that wall. Long before he and his brother became famous as the inventors of the airplane, Dunbar had earned an international reputation as America’s leading black poet.
The shop where the Wrights first began to manufacture bicycles of their own design is just around the corner from the Hoover Block at 22 South Williams Street. A few years ago when a local preservation group accepted the challenge of restoring the building to its appearance at the time of the Wright occupancy from 1895 to 1897, it was little more than a crumbling shell. Money has been slow in coming, and the restorers are still at the task.
You can go out the back door of that shop, cut across the block, and find yourself on Hawthorn Street. Today 7 Hawthorn is a vacant lot. Henry Ford moved the two-story white frame house that once stood here to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, in the fall of 1936, along with a nondescript structure at 1127 West Third. In the fall of 1900 the proprietor of a funeral parlor rented one-half of that building. The Wright brothers built their bicycles and their gliders in the other half.
It is worth a trip to Dearborn to see those buildings. You can peek into the workshop where a kite, three gliders, and a powered flying machine took shape between 1900 and 1905. The furnishings in the house, particularly those in the typical turn-of-the-century Sunday parlor, give you a sense of middleclass life and the taste of the times.
There are personal touches as well. Orville’s guitar leans against a rocking chair, as though he had just walked out the door. The Wrights loved to make music. “Orv began lessons on the mandolin,” sister Katharine wrote to their father not long before Wilbur left for Kitty Hawk in 1900. “We are getting even with the neighborhood for the noise they have made on pianos. He sits around and picks that thing until I can hardly stay in the house.”
The interiors of the two buildings have been meticulously restored. It is only when you walk outside that the problems become apparent. Henry Ford transplanted the two structures into an environment of his own imagining. Set on a generous plot of neatly manicured grass, framed by shrubs and trees, the Wright house and the world’s most famous bicycle shop have become central features of Ford’s idealized vision of small-town America. The message that he hoped to convey is apparent: The rural values of an older America, the patterns of life rooted in the farm and the village, remain valid in a new and more complex age.
Gazing at the vacant lot on Hawthorn Street where the Wright house used to be, you realize just how false Ford’s vision was. It is difficult to believe that the lovely house that looks so large at Greenfield Village could ever have been wedged onto this narrow lot. The frontage is only thirty-seven feet. This was a tight, cramped, urban neighborhood. No more than two feet separated the Wright house from its closest neighbor. You had to turn sideways to pass between the two buildings.
West Dayton was a streetcar suburb, the result of a new pattern of urban expansion that was to change the face of cities across America. It had begun to blossom in 1869, when two real estate promoters decided to link the sparsely inhabited area on the west side of the Miami River to the city of Dayton via a horse-drawn streetcar line. The two entrepreneurs did not expect to grow rich on fares. Rather, they hoped that the availability of cheap transportation would encourage the sale of new lots and houses to working men and women who had previously been forced to live within walking distance of the industrial and commercial core of the city.
It worked. Within a year after the opening of the car line, stores and shops had sprung up along the main thoroughfares, with residential areas sprouting a block or two back from the business district. Hawthorn, a block south of Third and William, and half a block north of Fourth, was a typical West Side residential street. Most of the houses were new, having been constructed by small-scale developers or by individual workmen who purchased lots and built their own homes.
The sudden availability of inexpensive housing drew an influx of workingclass citizens into the area. The Wrights’ neighbors were carpenters, day laborers, wagonmakers, foundry workmen, bookkeepers, seamstresses, house painters, salesmen, clerks, laundresses, machinists, firemen, and stenographers.
The neighborhood featured what was, for a Middle Western city of the time, a relatively rich ethnic and cultural mix. West Dayton was a neighborhood for black families seeking to improve their situation, and the sound of Irish, German, and Hungarian accents was a part of life for the children who grew up here. The West Side was a busy, bustling place, a far cry from the bucolic serenity of Greenfield Village and even farther from the isolated fastness of Kitty Hawk.