Dayton Celebration Events

The Wright Cycle Company building at 22 S. Williams St. in West Dayton was recently renovated. Wilbur and Orville operated a bicycle and printing business at this location from 1895 to 1897. It is in this building that the Wrights began to discuss the building of an airplane.

Steve Wright, the great-grandnephew of Wilbur and Orville, gave the rededication speech. The following is an adapted version of the speech printed in the Dayton Daily News in August 2004.

Infatuation is what led my uncles into the business of selling bicycles when the bicycle was all the rage. The bicycle was and is affordable freedom.

The design philosophy of the new safety bikes of those early days transferred beautifully to the study of aeronautics and the design of a flying machine. That transfer of design and technology from one machine to another fascinates me, and I’m so pleased to see that subject addressed in the restored bicycle shop we dedicate today.

Without a doubt, the bicycle is one of man’s most beautiful inventions — simple, efficient and practical. I view this machine as rolling, minimalist art.

The shape of the early safety bike remains virtually unchanged from the time Uncle Wil and Uncle Orv and Aunt Katharine pedaled through the local countryside around Dayton. That alone is testament to the near-perfect design of this machine, especially when you consider the pace at which inventions become obsolete in today’s world.

Wilbur and Orville Wright made only modest improvements to their custom-built bikes. The masters of aerodynamics left the shape alone.

That is not to say improvements have not been made to the machine and its rider over the last century. Guess where most of those improvements transferred from?

They came from the very same industry that initially employed bicycle innovations to get that first airplane off the ground. That industry began in this bicycle shop. The bicycle begat the airplane and its myriad technologies and science disciplines. Those technologies and disciplines, in turn, improved the bicycle and the physiology of those who ride it.

Today’s bicycle uses aerospace innovations such as variable geometry aluminum tubing, Kevlar, titanium, carbon fiber, fiber, studies in ergonomics, physiology and aerodynamics, and computer-aided design to bring it all together.

I’m just glad that the clothing we ride in today does not usually include bowler hats, starched collars, three-piece wool suits and wingtips.

I’ve been watching a television documentary that follows Lance Armstrong preparing to attempt a sixth straight Tour De France win. If he pulls it off, he will be in a class all by himself in the realm of human athletic achievement. Needless to say, he and his team’s training regimen is single-minded and grueling.

But what really caught my attention was a segment that showed Armstrong on his bike in a wind tunnel covered with sensors from head to toe while riding in place into a stream of smoke. He was being monitored by a team of people who probably represented a dozen scientific disciplines.

Most of those disciplines were born or at least driven to greater achievement by a decision made by Uncle Wil and Uncle Orv to pursue a lifelong interest in flight in this building a little more than a century ago.

I think Uncle Wil and Uncle Orv would be amused and proud to see Armstrong perched on his bike in that wind tunnel; a device that they had used so brilliantly in the back of their bike shop so long ago to build a different kind of machine. OF course, they would love to take a spin on Armstrong’s bike, assuming they didn’t disassemble it first.

But I don’t think they’d be willing to trade their bowler hats, starched collars, three-piece wool suits and wingtips for his skin-tight Spandex. At least let’s hope not.

If you look in Dayton for the historic Wright bicycle shop where they began their aeronautical experiments and built the first airplane, you will find a vacant lot. You will have to journey to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan to find the cycle shop. The building, along with the Wrights’ home on Hawthorn St. was purchased by Henry Ford in 1936 and moved there.

In preparation for Dayton’s centennial celebration, the question arose as to whether any Wright artifacts remained in the soil. To answer this question, a team headed by Wright State University’s Field School in Archaeology, conducted an excavation of the site from June 27th to August 6th in 2003.

This is the story of how it came about that the cycle shop was moved to Michigan and about the search for any Wright artifacts left behind in the soil.

Henry Ford started the process in 1925. He was interested in obtaining the 1903 Flyer for display in his Greenfield Village, Michigan but nothing came of it at the time.

It is somewhat odd that Ford and Orville were now friends and that now Ford wanted the Flyer because earlier Ford had criticized the Wrights for using their patent to hold back progress in aviation.

The idea didn’t die. An organization called the Early Birds got involved. This group was composed of pioneer pilots that had flown prior to 1916. They believed that Ford’s Greenfield Village had the resources to properly preserve the Flyer.

William E. Scripps, publisher of the Detroit News, was president of the group. He sent James V. Piersol, one of his reporters, to Dayton to talk to Orville on the behalf of Henry Ford and his son, Edsel. The meeting occurred in December 1935.

Orville explained to his visitors that he would make no decision on the Flyer, which was in London at the London Science museum, until his feud with the Smithsonian was resolved.

Since the fate of the Flyer could not be resolved, Piersol mentioned that Ford was interested in preserving the bicycle shop at 1127 West Third St. where the Flyer had been built. Ford was interested in some of the artifacts in the shop such as the lift and drag measuring balances used in the wind tunnel tests as well.

Orville was interested in this proposal. Following the meeting, Edsel Ford worked with Orville to complete the deal. Piersol paid the Charles Webbert family, $13,000 on July 2, 1936 to complete the transfer of ownership. He then donated the building to Ford for the park.

During the discussions about the shop, Orville mentioned to Piersol the possibility of also acquiring the residence on Hawthorn St. where Orville and Katharine been born and Wilbur had died. Orville was concerned that both buildings wouldn’t be preserved. Henry Ford was interested. Henry and Edsel visited Dayton to see both buildings in October 1936.

Lottie Jones, the Wrights’ laundress when they lived on Hawthorn St. and at the new mansion at Hawthorn Hill, owned the house. She had acquired it when Milton Wright left it to Katharine when he died. Katharine sold it to Lottie for $4,000, including most of the furniture. Lottie sold it to Ford for $4,100.

The two buildings were moved to Dearborn in boxcars and reconstructed piece by piece in their original configuration. Every piece had been marked in Dayton to permit identification. Ford’s specification even required that five dump trucks of soil (some 20 tons) be taken from beneath the house so that it would continue to stand on Dayton soil. Charlie Taylor, the Wrights mechanic, was hired to help with the reconstruction in order to assure accuracy. He also helped Orville and Mabel Beck, his secretary, locate surviving machine tools that were used in the shop.

The dedication of the two relocated buildings took place on the anniversary of Wilbur’s birthday, April 16, 1938. Orville was the guest of honor. A. D. Etheridge and John T. Daniels from the Kill Devil Lifesavings station and William J. Tate from Kitty Hawk were in attendance.

Not everyone in Dayton was happy with what happened. But in the long run it was the best decision. The neighborhood around the buildings in Dayton was deteriorating. Buildings were neglected and forgotten. Businesses were closing. Money was scarce because it was in the middle of the depression. The house next to the Wright home burned down and most likely would have burned down the Wright’s house with it since there was only four feet between them.

Also, more people can see the buildings. Last year, 1.4 million people visited Greenfield Village. The park was opened in 1929. Ford’s idea was to illustrate forever the role of a handful of innovators in improving American life. That idea has now been expanded to celebrate things that demonstrate innovation, resourcefulness and ingenuity.

The park includes a 40,000 square-feet “Heroes of the Sky” exhibit containing a collection of famous airplanes in the context of history making aviators. The most recent addition to the exhibit is the reproduction Wright Flyer that attempted to fly at Kill Devil Hills on December 17, 2003 built by the Wright Experience. It did fly on two practice flights at Kill Devil Hills prior to the 17th.

In the 1950s, Andy’s Used Furniture store was built on the site of the cycle shop, which was than a parking lot. In August 2002 it was demolished in anticipation of building a false facade of the cycle shop at the site. Unexpectedly the demolition crew ran into some limestone blocks from an earlier foundation that were thought to be two segments of the foundation of the cycle shop. Tony Sculimbrene, Executive Director of the Dayton Aviation Heritage Commission, immediately realized that there might be more original historically significant artifacts below ground.

Tony related the information to Robert Riordan, Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Wright State University. This set the ball rolling for the Heritage Commission’s awarding a contract to Wright State’s Field School in Archaeology to conduct an archaeological excavation during the Inventing Flight Celebration in July 2003. The timing would be great because thousands of tourists would be in the area to visit the historic sites and the National Historic Park.

The first building on the site was a one story home built by Jacob Zearing in 1861. Charles Webbert, who owned a plumbing and hardware store, subsequently purchased the building. He converted the home into a business with two adjoining storefronts.

In 1897 the Wrights leased one of the storefronts from Webbert and moved the “Wright Cycle Company” for the last time into the storefront on the West Side.

Several additions were made to the building over the years for needed space. Eventually the building consisted of a single building with three separate storefronts two stories tall.

One of the businesses that shared the building was an undertaker, Fetters and Shank. They occupied the storefront on the East Side from 1905-1910.

The Wrights continued to build, repair and sell bicycles until 1904. Thereafter they employed others to sell and repair other brands until 1908.

They continued their printing business upstairs and by this time had co-mingled the financial assets of the bicycle and printing businesses. They sold the printing business in 1899 after Ed Sines, Orville’s friend from boyhood, was no longer able to work because of health problems.

The Wrights (Wilbur died in 1912) continued to use the building until 1916 as a laboratory and office and built the early Wright airplanes there, including the first airplane that they shipped to France in 1907.

When Orville became president of the Wright Company after Wilbur’s death, Orville preferred to work at his office at the cycle shop. He retained Mabel Beck, who had been Wilbur’s secretary for his secretary.

Wilbur left the building in 1916 and moved up the street to his newly built lab and office on South Broadway St.

Fourteen volunteers, full and part-time, including college, high school and others under the direction of Dr. Robert Riordan conducted the excavation of the 65-ft. by 165-ft. site. Dr. Frank L Cowan, a consulting archeologist provided part-time assistance.

They found some 6,100 artifacts including architectural products and debris, household items such as glass bottles, personal items such as buttons and shoes, and industrial byproducts such as valves and brackets. They also found children toys such as marbles and two fragments from porcelain dolls.

Most important, they found a number of bicycle parts and printer’s linotype slugs 70-cm below modern grade. Both types of items have actual links to the Wrights and their associates.

The bicycle parts consisted of 44 spoke nipples that are used to tie the spokes to the wheels, 4 valve caps and a one-centimeter brass button with the wording “Kelly Handlebar Co.” on its face.

The button was not used on the Wright-built bicycles but could have been used on bicycles that they sold but didn’t make themselves.

The linotype slugs consisted of an uppercase “R”, a “W” or “M”, another “M” and one that is undecipherable.

They also found two tools, a 14-cm long adjustable wrench and a 25.5-cm file.

They have many more items to examine so their analysis is continuing.

They also have found that the foundation of the Webbert building remains largely intact and the foundations of the Zearing residence are well preserved where examined. There is, therefore, the likelihood that the rest of the foundation structure is as well preserved and capable of providing for the original architecture dating back to 1861 and for the sequence of additions made to the original building.

Tim Binkley (standing in picture) and Tasha Hairston, graduate students from Wright State University, provided hundreds of people, including me, with a friendly and interesting interpretation of the progressing work.

The excavations only sampled a small area and there remains much yet to be discovered. Ford left more behind than expected. The area is extensively disturbed, yet the foundations remained and the site appears rich with artifacts of the pre-1930s era. The excavation team believes that it is very likely that other intact deposits of Wright associated artifacts remain within the lot.

Reference: The 2003 Wright State University Field School Investigations at the Wright Cycle Shop, 33 MY80, Dayton, Ohio (Draft)

Katharine Wright and her Famous Brothers come to life again in the persona of Betty Geiger-Darst, a dramatist and historian who performs as Katharine in a one-woman show.

Katharine, the younger sister of Orville and Wilbur, managed many of the brothers’ affairs and was their confidant and caregiver. She was intelligent and poised and charmed presidents and Kings providing the social interface for her shy brothers. She gave them the freedom to dream, research and invent the airplane.

Darst is Katharine when she speaks to her audience dressed in a 1909 black pin stripped duster and a stylish hat with plumes that Katharine would have worn. She shares with her audience a personal view of the Wright family highlighted with short vignettes using many letters and diaries written by the Wright family and recollections by their descendents.

She has spoken to kids and adults around the world, giving 25 presentations alone during the Wright celebration in Dayton in July 2003. She has made trips from Oklahoma to Virginia to Nebraska to Massachusetts to Australia to New Zealand to France, to name a few.

In France she made several presentations at the Paris air Show and visited Pau, location of the Wrights First Flight School. There, she spoke at the city hall utilizing her command of the French language.

During December, in honor of the December 17th celebration, she hosted 37 British aviation enthusiasts in Dayton. They visited the Wright brothers’ historical sights including a trip to Hawthorn Hill where Darst portrayed Katharine on a tour of the mansion.

If you would like to experience such a tour you can via a video: “Wright at Home: A Visit to Hawthorn Hill.” Darst’s e-mail: [email protected]

In another video, her voice is heard along with Neil Armstrong and John Glenn in another great video, “Kitty Hawk: The Journey of Invention that was shown on PBS.”

Darst says her goal is to educate youngsters and adults about the Wright brothers. She is a teacher and historian and has been telling her story from the perspective of Katharine for 18 years. She says she got started, when after portraying Katharine on Public Library day in 1985, Ivonette Wright happened to be in the audience. Ivonette is a niece of the Wrights. She told Darst after the presentation, “Keep on telling the story. You are doing a good job” So she has.

Darst is a student pilot and flies as a co-pilot for her husband, Jack. Jack has flown 500 youngsters on behalf of the EAA young eagles program. Jack is also active in Dayton heritage activities including Aviation Trail and Nick Engler’s Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company.

Paying for First Flight Celebration events is as much of a challenge as the first flight itself.

Hampton, Virginia’s celebration never got off the ground because of insufficient funds. The Festival of Flight Celebration in Fayetteville, NC is asking for help from the city of Fayetteville and Cumberland County to pay for some $173,000 that is owed to vendors.

Inventing Flight in Dayton, Ohio reported losing a whopping $3 to $4 million during its 17-day celebration even though it exceeded its attendance goal of 600,000.

Update: As of December 21, 2003, Inventing Flight is only $200,000 in debt. Fourteen creditors remain with some claims still in dispute. More than half of the remaining companies are media companies.

I spent two weeks in Dayton for the celebration and enjoyed every minute of it. However, I was interested in hard core Wright Brothers and didn’t attend the “show business” side of the celebration where most of the money was lost.

The free shuttle transportation service was one source of the displeasure.

A number of people wrote to the Dayton Daily News about their poor experience. “Sandra Jones of nearby Centerville wrote about her experience after attending the opening night ceremonies, “I am appalled that the media didn’t cover the sea of humanity trying to catch buses after the Inventing Flight opening ceremonies.”

She continued, “There were thousands of people squashed into a very small area. Many families with babies and small children were being dangerously crushed in the crowd. Elderly people were passing out.”

“The bus service volunteers didn’t have a clue what to do, and the more than two hours it took to clear the area was a nightmare. No water, no bathrooms, no safety.”

Colin Hall of Atlanta, Ga. wrote about her experience with the transportation service at the Huffman Prairie site. “We were told the trolley came by every 20 minutes but there was no schedule. We waited over half an hour and when the trolley came it was full. The driver would not talk to us — one of the passengers explained that we could not get on because it was full. So we were told we would have to wait another 20 minutes to half an hour. By this time children were crying and we were beyond lunch time.”

(Note: There is no food available at Huffman Prairie).”

“At this time we were desperate. My husband tried to flag down a RTA bus but the driver just waved and zipped on past us. As the next bus came we stood in the middle of the road to get it to stop.”

Marty Tommy relates a scary story. “To cap off the evening, we were on one of the first busses to arrive back to the University of Dayton Arena’s dark and desolate parking lot (A designated parking area). It was quite scary for a single MOM alone with a young child. We could only make out white cars, it was so dark, and my car is not white. Where were the lights? Where was security? It was honestly frightening.”

I didn’t experience these problems because I ignored the instructions to park at designated parking areas and ride the shuttle. I drove to all the locations.

The opening ceremonies were a big disappointment for many. It cost a million dollars and was produced by Entertainment Design Corp. of Los Angeles who had planned events for the Olympics — so expectations were high.

William Kincaid from Miamisburg, Ohio represented many comments when he said that he couldn’t believe that he paid $125 for two tickets to see the opening ceremonies.

“Not only could I not see the stage, I didn’t see one minute of the sorry show. All in all, if I had paid $5 a ticket, I would have been distraught. I’m quite sure that I’m not the only one who thought the whole thing was a big disappointment.”

Matt Engel of Oregona commented that the public wouldn’t be fooled again. “I will not belabor how cheesy the opening ceremonies were, other than to say I did not expect the flying saucer to enter via a wheelbarrow.”

“I am not critical of the performers. The production stunk. I am curious as to how they spent the million bucks.”

Another attendee commented, “There were so many glitches and detractive moments it was almost embarrassing! The first musical cue was cut off before the speaker reached the front of the stage – not a good sign for the flow of the evening.”

Celebration Central located at Deeds Park across the river from downtown Dayton was the biggest money loser. It consisted of exhibit pavilions, stage shows and the nearby Orbit Zone that provided amusement rides for kids.

It was supposed to be a Disney-style affair and had a budget of 10-12 million dollars, but it had difficulty attracting people to attend from the start.

Dean Neitman of Englewood thought Celebration Central was extremely disappointing. “I was disappointed to be a Dayton-area resident. If Orville and Wilbur were alive today to witness this poorly organized circus being conducted in their honor, I’m sure they both would rescind their association with Dayton and claim to have secretly developed the plane in some back alley in North Carolina.”

A number of the food vendors deserted Celebration Central because of the low attendance.

MC2, national known consultants, designed, managed designed and operated Celebration Central. Bad weather during the initial days didn’t help. In desperation they cut ticket prices in half from the initial price of $20 per person. But it never really recovered.

I was disappointed by the few Wright Brother’s displays in the pavilions at Celebration Central. I did enjoy seeing a beautiful display of the reproduction of Ken Hyde’s Wright Flyer that is scheduled to reenact the first flight at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17.

I also enjoyed attempting to fly the Wright Flyer simulator. I didn’t fare too well as I crashed the Flyer five times and failed to fly for even the 12 seconds that Orville flew during his first flight.

Nick Engler, general director of the Wright Brother’s Aerospace Co., may have the answer to what went wrong. He claims that the core of the problem was the hiring of big national consultants from Atlanta and Los Angles who had no stake in the community and its history. They created a “celebration without a heart.” They should have capitalized on what the community already had.

He continued, “Aviation is an art form, and it’s best appreciated and understood by those whose souls that have been touched by it. It was like having the Dayton Air Show Board plan next season’s opera.”

There were many positive events. The Air Show was the best ever and drew spectacular crowds of some 150,000 people. The Wright Brother’s historical sites at the Wright Bicycle shop, the Dunbar State Memorial House and the Huffman Prairie all had record crowds. So did the Air Force Museum and Carillon Historical Park. The Sunday morning memorial service for the Wright Family at Woodlawn Cemetery while the Wright B Flyer circled overhead was special.

President Bush spoke to an estimated crowd of 30,000 people on Independence Day.

The “Time Flies” shows were excellent. There was “What’s News” at the Wright Interpretative Center,” the “Musicale” at the Dunbar House, the “Rhythm and Shoes” vaudeville show at Carillon Park and “Matter of Balance” at Huffman Prairie.

The Black Cultural Festival held in conjunction with Inventing Flight drew a record crowd of 65,000.

The evening ceremony held by the National Aviation Hall of Fame emceed by Harrison Ford was an inspiration for a record crowd of 2,130.

The community is a better place to live for having the “Inventing Flight” celebration. The only thing that didn’t work was the glitz. The admission prices to Celebration Central were too high and people were not interested in theme park rides and stage shows.

I doubt that Orville and Wilbur would have attended the glitzy affairs. The rest of the celebration was great.

The community will benefit in the years to come from the investments made in the Wright historic sites, the Air Force Museum and the development of the westside neighborhood near the Wright and Dunbar homes.

Wright State University has estimated that the total economic benefit to the community from the celebration is $112 million. And you can’t place a dollar figure on the spirit and teamwork generated among thousands of volunteers who participated in the event.

Reference: Dayton Daily News

In November 1909 the Wrights formed the Wright Company to manufacture their airplanes. They initially rented factory space in February 1910 while they built their own factory in a cornfield north of Dayton. It took about ten months to build their first building. Their new factory was used to build Wright airplanes until 1915, at which time Orville sold the company.

My friend Ed and I, while attending “Inventing Flight” in Dayton during the month of July, decided to find these two factory locations and determine what has happened to them.

We found the location of the rented building at the intersection of Miami Chapel Avenue and Wisconsin Boulevard in west Dayton. That was the good news. The bad news was that the building had been razed. In fact there were no buildings at that corner, not even a marker to serve as a tribute to what had once occurred there. The area is rundown, which may explain why.

The site can be reached from the Wright bicycle shop/residence location by following South Broadway St. approximately two miles south from West Third St.

The rented building at the time belonged to the Speedwell Motor Car Company. It was a brick building with a distinctive sawtooth roof. (Here are two views of the factory)

Speedwell was a prosperous growing company making automobiles until the great Dayton flood of 1913. The plant was flooded and they could not recover from the loss of equipment and inventory.

The site is significant in airplane history because the first mass produced airplane was manufactured here. The airplane was the Wright Model B.

This was the first model of airplane that the Wrights built that didn’t place the elevator in the front. It was a two-seat design with dual controls and utilized a wheel-and-skid design. It took three days to assemble. The engine was built at the Wright Bicycle Shop and transported to Speedwell building.

The dual controls were used at Huffman field for pilot training. The student pilots attending the Wright School of Aviation purchased many of the airplanes. The Model B airplanes were built in the 1910 and 1911 time period.

The Wright Model R airplane was also built at this location. The Model R was designed for racing and altitude competition. The Wright Exhibition Team based at Huffman Prairie set four world altitude records with this machine.

In November 1910 they moved to their new factory upon the completion of building 1. A second building was added a year later.

We found the buildings several miles north of the bicycle shop on West Third Street. The buildings now belong to General Motors Delphi.

The one-story buildings have a distinctive curved roofline similar to airplane hangers. The Wrights built two buildings. Three similar additional buildings were added later after the Wright Company went out of business.

The buildings are painted a bright white and can be easily seen just inside the entrance gate. We drove up to the guardhouse at the gate and confirmed from the guard that the buildings were indeed the original Wright factory buildings.

I asked the guard if I could take some pictures but was told no! I asked if he would check with his boss. He did, with the same answer.

We came back on Sunday and found no one at the gate. I took a number of pictures through the chainlink fence..

The first airplanes manufactured at the new factory were the Model EX, Model C and Model D. The rest of their models followed. They included the models CH, E, F, G, H, HS, K, and L along with their instruments and engines.

The Model L was the last airplane manufactured by the Wright Co. It was a biwing type with a fuselage and was powered with a single propeller in front of the airplane (tractor type).

Upon completion of building 2, the factory had the capacity to produce four airplanes per month, a capacity greater than that of any other airplane factory in the world at that time.

Plaques commemorating the factories exist somewhere for these buildings and the earlier rented factory. Aviation Trail, Inc. presented them to General Motors in 1983.

It is unfortunate that General Motors during the Inventing Flight celebration did not make available to the public these historic factory sites. Building 1 is located just inside the entrance gate and contains the office that Orville Wright once used. This is hallowed ground and desires better treatment.

Great News!

Amanda Wright, great-grandniece of Orville and Wilbur, was instrumental in getting included in a new parks bill, the Hawthorn Hill Home of the Wrights and the Wright factory buildings.

President Obama signed the bill on March 30, 2009.


The Wright Co. Factory Boundary Assessment and Environmental Assessment. Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, Dayton, Ohio. The National Park Service. January 2006.

Dayton Daily News, March 31, 2009.