Farmhouses Witness Aviation History

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Dayton Celebration Events

Two old farmhouses at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB) stand as silent witnesses to early aviation history that occurred at nearby Huffman Prairie. Now known as the Arnold House and Foulois House, they were named after famous Air Force generals Henry A. “Hap” Arnold and Benjamin D. Foulois, who lived in those houses while serving at WPAFB. Both were taught to fly by Orville Wright.

It was my great-great grandfather Henry E. Hebble who built the houses. He was a bridge and house builder. Two covered bridges he also built in the 1800s are still standing. One spans the Yellow Springs Creek at Glen Haven, the nature preserve at Antioch College. The other spans Massies Creek near Xenia, Ohio

After he migrated from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1841, Henry E. Hebble built the house now known as the Arnold house (building 8) to be used as the family homestead. It is the oldest building on WPAFB.

The Foulois house (building 88) was built in 1874. None of the Hebble family lived in the house; it was rented out.

Both houses were eventually sold to the Miami Conservancy District and the land became a part of the Flood Plain for the Huffman Dam that was built after the great Dayton Flood in 1913.

In 1917, The Miami Conservancy District leased Huffman Prairie and the adjacent land (2,074 acres) to the Army creating Wilbur Wright Field. The area east of the Arnold and Foulois houses became Fairfield Aviation General Supply Depot.

The Springfield Pike that once ran by the two houses was relocated to its present site further east. The houses are located within a block of each other on Wright Ave. a little over a mile from Huffman Prairie.

Residents in the area traveled to and from Dayton using the Dayton-Springfield-Urbana (DSU) electric railway. They boarded the train at Simms Station adjacent to Huffman Prairie. Passengers sometimes referred to the letters “DSU” as meaning “dammed slow and uncertain.”

There is a group in Dayton that is raising money and working on plans to restore the railway from near the Dunbar house in Dayton to Huffman Prairie using a combination of trolleys and buses.

After the Army leased the land, twenty-four airplane hangers were constructed on a flight line close to the Foulois House.

In the mid 1920’s the Army started to look for a location to relocate because McCook Field, the engineering center located just north of downtown Dayton, was becoming too small for their needs. Dayton businessmen headed by NCR president Frederick Patterson quickly went into action to keep the Army in Dayton. They formed the Air Service Committee in 1924 to find a place locally for the Army.

The committee raised the money to purchase 4,500 acres of land that included Wilbur Wright Field (including the Arnold and Foulois houses) and Huffman Prairie. They sold the land to the army for $1.00. The Army named the acreage Wright Field.

In 1931 all of the land east of Huffman Dam (which included the Arnold and Foulois houses) was renamed Patterson Field in memory of Lt. Frank Stuart Patterson who died in a test flight in a DH-4 airplane over Wilbur Wright Field in 1918. He was the son of Frederick Patterson who had succeeded his father John H. Patterson as president of the NCR.

From 1929-1931, Major “Hap” Arnold lived in the first house that Hebble built. The house at the time was used to house the base commander. Orville was Arnold’s houseguest at his residence on the base on a number of occasions.

Arnold, a West Point graduate, learned to fly at the Wright Brothers flying school at Huffman Prairie. He soloed in 10 days after 28 flights totaling 3 hours and 48 minutes.

He went on to command the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and became a five-star general.

When the Wright Memorial in Dayton was dedicated on August 19, 1940, Orville’s birthday, Arnold flew into Dayton for the occasion. In his comments he said, “This monument would stand as a shrine to aviation as the Plymouth Rock is to America.”

The Hebble house was dedicated as the Arnold house in honor of General “Hap” Arnold on May 16, 1986.

General Foulois played a critical role in the Wright Brothers’ history. He flew with Orville in 1909 as an official observer for a speed trial on July 30 to fulfill an Army requirement to qualify the Wright airplane.

The requirement was for the airplane to carry two people aloft for one hour at 40 mph. There was a $2500 bonus over the base price of $25,000 for each one mph the speed exceeded 40 mph. There was also a $2500 deduction to the base price for each one mph under 40 mph.

The route was from the parade ground at Ft. Myer, Va. to Shooters Hill five miles away at Alexandria, Va. and return. Shouters Hill is where the Masonic Temple now stands. The facility was under construction at the time of the flight.

Orville chose Lt. Foulois to fly with him as the official Army observer. He selected him because he liked Foulois for his avid interest in aviation. It also helped that he weighted less than 130 pounds and was an experienced map reader.

Foulois arrived for the flight with two stopwatches hung around his neck, a box compass strapped to his left thigh, an aneroid barometer strapped to his right thigh and a map on his belt.

The Flight was a success. Orville completed the ten-mile course at an average speed of 42.586 mph and earned a financial bonus of $5,000.

Foulois was eager to take flying lessons and was able to receive three lessons from Wilbur Wright at College Park, Maryland before he was reassigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, home of Signal Corps airplane #1. He successfully finished his instruction through correspondence with Wilbur and Orville. He liked to say he was the world’s first correspondence-school pilot. At the time he was the Army’s only active pilot.

He lived in the house that was to carry his name from June 1929 through July 1930 while serving as Chief of the Material Division, Wright Field. He subsequently rose to command of the U.S. Army Air Corps prior to World War II.

Both Foulois and Arnold played major roles in establishing the U.S. Air Force as a separate service and guided the early development of Military Air Power.

The Foulois house underwent a major renovation in 1986 and today serves as the home of the base commander.

Henry Hebble became a prominent citizen in the area and was running for county commissioner when he died from a heart attack. One of his sons, Zebulon Hebble, became mayor of Fairfield. The current Fairborn City building resides on Hebble St.

Residents of the two houses could watch the activities of the Wrights at Huffman Prairie during their development of a practical airplane during 1904-1905 and the further activities of the Wright Flying School, the Wright Exhibition team and the testing of airplanes built by the Wright Co. in 1910-1916.

Hebble Creek and Hebble Creek Rd form the southern boundary of Huffman Prairie, while the houses that Hebble built remain today as silent witnesses to aviation history.

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