What Happened to the Last Wright Bicycle Shop?

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Dayton Celebration Events

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)

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