Forgotten Eagle: Wiley Post,America's Heroic Aviation Pioneerby Bryan B. B. Sterling, Frances N. Sterling
Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, as the world remembers, and Amelia Earhart, who never completed her round-the-world flight with navigator Frederick Noonan in their twin-engine Lockheed, became a legend. Yet the contemporary of these two pioneers in early aviation, Wiley Postthe pilot who circled the earth alone in a single-engine plane, who flew at sub-stratospheric altitudes and discovered the jet stream, and who designed the prototypes for astronauts� space suitshas been largely, and perhaps officially, ignored in history and American folklore. Until now. Based on thirty years of research, this biography by Bryan and Frances Sterling reconstructs the adventurous life of Wiley Post from his poverty-stricken boyhood on a farm in Texas to a certificate from the Sweeney Auto School in Kansas City, Missouri, to a brief career in armed robbery that sent him to prison in 1921. It was in the oil fields of Oklahoma that ex-con Post lost his left eye, a handicap that he did not allow to impede his career as a parachute jumper, stunt pilot, barnstormer, and record-setting ace aviator. Post�s incredible career ended in 1935, with a fatal crash in Barrow, Alaska, that also killed his passenger, the great American humorist Will Rogers. As in their comprehensive account of the enigmatic Wiley Post�s life, the Sterlings leave no official record or government file unturned in their thoroughgoing investigation of the mystery that has long surrounded this maverick aviator�s death.
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TEXAS BORN AND BRED
Arthur Houston Post, one of Wiley Post's older brothers, went home again. He had often heard it said that going home again is one thing you cannot do, but he went anyway. He knew that his remaining days could now be counted easily and that is why he undertook the sentimental journey. He traveled down the old county road to where, as a boy, more than three-quarters of a century earlier he had helped his father pick cotton and where once stood the small house in which he and four of his siblings had been born. He found no trace of the building, or the trees that had once grown beside it. All that was left was an old, worn-out sandy field, full of weeds.
Arthur Houston Post would die on October 17, 1978, and be buried near the graves of his parents and his grandparents, in the old cemetery next to the Corinth Baptist Church. It still holds in its sacred ground a goodly number of headstones, some of which have weathered so badly that names and dates can no longer be read. Other old burial sites, by farmers too poor to pay for carved tombstones, are simply indicated by fieldstones without names or dates scratched into them, while still other graves appear to have been marked solely by specially planted cedar trees.
Among the still readable headstones are those identifying the graves of the Reverend Thomas McAdams Post and his wife, Ceney, nee Howell. T.M., as the Reverend was usually called, was the son of a farmer and had been born in Shelby County, Alabama on July 11,1843. He was raised on his family's farm and attended public schools. When T.M. wasthirteen, his father moved the family to Louisiana and, as the Herald, the newspaper published in Canton, the seat of Van Zandt County, Texas, reported in a recollection on January 30, 1925, T. M. was "converted to the Christian Religion." It was not until 1874 that Thomas McAdams Post entered the ministry as a Baptist and became a circuit preacher. His wife, Ceney, was born on December 9, 1839, in El Dorado, Arkansas. They married on March 20, 1862, in Spearsville, Louisiana, and had eight offspring, seven of whom lived to maturity. One of their sons, William Francis "Frank" Post, was born in Spearsville on June 11, 1869. He, too, is buried at Corinth. Records show that in 1879 the budding Post family had first moved to Bowie County, Texas, around 1879, and six years later arrived at Corinth Community where the Reverend T. M. Post became pastor of the Corinth Missionary Baptist Church. The Van Zandt County tax roll of 1890 indicates that one Post, T. M., Abstract No. 418, owned 83 acres of land, valued at $415. It was in Corinth, then, that Wiley Post's future paternal grandparents had finally settled, and there that T. M.'s children grew up, although young William Francis would not stay there too long.
"Granddaddy was," Arthur Houston Post recalls in his autobiography, "the unmistakable head, not only of his family, but of the whole tribe. He was preacher, family doctor, and lawyer, but if he ever went to any school, I don't remember ever hearing of it."
Reverend T. M. Post was a spiritual man who had established a number of churches in the area, but he was by no means a single-minded religious zealot. He had a wide range of interests and a large personal librarya most unusual possession in that time and place. One of his hobbies was genealogy. He corresponded prolifically to trace his family's ancestors. When Reverend Post died, he willed his entire correspondence to his grandson Arthur. That is how young Arthur first learned of his grandfather's short service in the Confederate Army. The most interesting discovery of an ancestor, however, was a certain John Post, "my great, great, great grandfather who had come from Amsterdam to New York and Virginia Colony in 1750 and remained in the East long enough to serve in two wars and get married."
Through his correspondence, the Reverend Post had discovered that this John Post had fought in the French and Indian War, where he was wounded in the "Battle of Braddock's Defeat," and "was under Washington in the Revolution." It was said of John Post that he had died "with lead in his body." He had married one Aly Bell from Antrim, Ireland, who as a young girl had run away from a troublesome stepmother and had stowed away on a ship bound for the American Colonies. Discovered a few days out at sea, she was brought to New York and there indentured to a family to work three years to pay for her passage. Aly had worked just one year for that family when she met John Post and fell in love. The two of them worked off another year of her indenture, and were then allowed to go free and get married. "They were the starters of a southern branch of the Post family in the United States," Arthur Post believed.
The industrious Reverend Post had also discovered that long before John Post's adventure in America, earlier members of the Post familyProtestantshad fled to Holland to escape religious persecution in England. In addition, some even earlier records of the Post family name revealed that about 1066 several kin by that name had gone from Normandy to England with William the Conqueror. How the Posts got to Normandy in the first place, has so far escaped detection, though the claim has always been that the Post family's background was also Scottish.
Reverend Post was a dedicated shepherd of his flocks, but the passing years were not too kind to him and his wife. The congregations he served were small and poor, and many families drifted off to other communes. No records show why T. M., having so many descendants, slipped into poverty. What is available, however, is a column from the Canton Herald of Friday, February 6, 1925:
T. M. Post and Wife Express Appreciation
On last Thursday the 29th, an old preacher and his almost blind wife had a pleasant surprise. Near 12 o'clock two cars drove up to our place. We soon found out, they were from Sand Springs church. They were Brethren Selke, Anderson, Lancaster and Will Chaacy (sic) and their wives, and Sister Daniels and Sister Stringer. After they warmed, wife mentioned something about dinner. They quickly said they would attend to that and went to their cars and brought out and put on the table a dinner good enough for a king, consisting of baked meats and fried chicken, pies and cakes of all kinds.
After we all enjoyed the feast together, they cleared off the table and went to the cars and brought in two buckets of lard, one bucket of cane syrup, 15 jars of fruit jellies and preserves, four pounds of soda and a few other things. They also gave wife a nice large bed sheet and towel, and to this they added $6.00 in money.
I can't tell how much we appreciate it. Not so much from a financial standpoint, but the evidence of their love, sympathy, and respect for an old, worn out preacher whom they had known for 37 years and when I had served them as Pastor 20 years and been with them in 27 and 28 protracted meetings. We two old feeble ones now, not able to do anything to earn a living, know how to appreciate kindness. Now, late in he evening of life, I feel sure God's promises will hold good when He said: "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee."
Such happenings make me very anxious, if I was physically able, to visit all my dear friends over the county, but I have no idea this can ever be and can only pray God's blessings on all of them.
Reverend Thomas McAdams Post lived another six and a half years. He died in Edgewood, Texas, September 22, 1931. His wife, Ceney, died February 12, 1936 in Grand Saline, Texas.
Another set of tombstones in the Corinth cemetery marks the graves of T. R. Laine and his wife Pollie. T. R. was born on December 18, 1842, and died February 25, 1882. Pollie was born April 12, 1847 and outlived her husband by almost 18 years, dying on December 14, 1899. They had four children, the eldest, a daughter, May, who was born June 24, 1873. The next child was a son they named David J., born on January 13, 1877. On December 4, 1890, May Laine married Reverend T.M. Post's son William Francis, with whom she would have seven children, and her brother David Laine would marry one Katie Quindlen and father four children, the eldest being a daughter, Edna Mae, born on September 12, 1909.
When William Francis Post and May Laine were first married, they purchased a brushy, unimproved, sandy patch of 50 acres at Corinth. Even by the standards of the time, this was a very small farm, but it was probably all the young couple could afford. On this acreage, William built a very simple boxed house with just two rooms and a front porch. Arthur Post described it as being covered with homemade boards, and having a mud chimney with hearth and fireplace made of undressed rocks. Above the fireplace was a mantel that held an old striking clock, a kerosene lamp, assorted medicine bottles, and a box of matches, among sundry other items. A rickety fence enclosed the kitchen garden. In front of the house were some oak and hickory trees; a swing hung from one of them. Beyond that, at a clearing, stood some black walnut trees that in the fall provided plenty of nuts to crack and eat.
It was here that the couple's first five children, James, Arthur, Joe, Wiley, and Mary, were born. Here the family lived until 1901 except for part of one year.
That year was 1898, and while very little changed in Corinth, Texas, the world outside continued its march into what is called history, or sometimes even progress. President McKinley was in the White House and Theodore Roosevelt was his Assistant Secretary of the Navy. There was diplomatic trouble with Spain. On February 12, the U.S. battleship Maine on a so-called friendly visit to Cuba, lay at anchor in Havana Harbor. An unexplained explosion aboard the battleship killed some 250 men and officers, precipitating the 112-day Spanish-American War. Commodore Dewey, commanding the U.S. Pacific fleet, steamed on orders toward the Spain-held Philippine Islands. Entering Manila Bay, he faced Spanish warships. He issued the now famous order to his flagship's captain: "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley!" The result of the ensuing American bombardment was the destruction of all ten ships in the Spanish squadron. By the Treaty of Paris that December, Spain lost Cuba to independence, and ceded the Philippines to the United States for a $20-million price. It was later revealed that in this brief war more American soldiers died from consuming contaminated meat than from battle wounds.
That same year, in Geneva, Switzerland, Italian anarchist Luigi Luccheni stabbed to death while visiting Austrian Empress Elizabeth, a committed advocate of women's rights and equality. In France, novelist Emile Zola published his famous J'accuse, which finally forced his government to grant Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus a new trial. Though it would be established beyond the slightest doubt that the captain, accused of espionage for Germany, was the innocent victim of an anti-Semitic plot hatched by two fellow officers, Dreyfus would not be released from the penal colony on Devil's Island for another eight years. Polish-born Marja Sklodowska Curie and her French husband Pierre meanwhile isolated radium, the first radioactive element, and in Germany, an opium derivative, introduced under its own name, heroin, was openly sold as a cough suppressant by a reputable, almost fifty-year-old pharmaceutical company known as Friedrich Bayer & Co.
In the United States a new breakfast cereal, corn flakes, appeared on grocers' shelves for the first time. Trying to break into a market directed solely toward wheat breakfast cereals, they made an unfortunate debut, as they quickly turned rancid. Also in 1898, the United States manufactured almost 1,000 automobiles, and a Greater New York City, with the recent inclusion of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, could now claim almost three-and-a-half million inhabitants. According to sheet music sales, one of that year's most popular songs was English-American composer James Thornton's "When You Were Sweet Sixteen."
The world's total population in 1898 was estimated at 1.6 billion, most of which lived in poverty.
There is no doubt that few, if any, of those news-making accounts ever reached the American public, but William Francis Post's family had a subscription to a Dallas newspaper, and parents and children both kept fairly well abreast of world eventsat least those that the newspaper thought important enough to warrant space. Arthur Houston Post, the family chronicler, claimed that the newspaper coming to their home made him and his siblings aware that a vastly different world lay out there, and that Corinth was merely a speck in that world. Between what the older boys heard their parents discuss after reading the newspapers, and what they had learned in geography at school, they decided on a project of their own. It would show that their little farm was part of a great globe, called earth.
Alongside one edge of their section of land ran a single lane road, rarely used by carts or riders. Collecting pieces of planks and using axle grease for paint, the older boys now put up signs indicating the distances to nearby villages and towns. Not having any concept of mileage, they would ask their parents and then put down their answers. If the father said that he thought they were seventy miles from Dallas, the children would dutifully paint an arrow in the approximate direction and print "Dallas70 miles."
The previous summer, the one of 1897, the children's horizon had been even further expanded. Feeling that the farm was in good enough shape to be left to nature, William and May had loaded a covered wagon with all sorts of camping equipment and supplies and taken the children on a two-week camping trip to Bowie County, near Texarkana, to visit relatives. There was fishing and hunting along the way and it left the familyas Arthur would later record"so satisfied, it left us unsatisfied." Another, much longer trip was planned for the entire summer of 1898.
William Post rented his farm out to a sharecropper for the season and thus relieved of any care directed his full attention to the upcoming vacation. Another couple, Oscar and Alma Darnell, asked to join the family on this journey, which was to extend northward into the Indian Territory that nine years later would become the state of Oklahoma. The men intended to work some along the way, to earn money to cover expenses. The two families, each with children, would camp out, cook over open fires and try to live off whatever provisions they had brought along. In addition, there would be plenty of fine fishing, and unrestricted hunting for small game, deer, and wild turkeys. There was talk of selling some homemade glue along the way to raise further funds. Slowly the plans were transformed into reality, and on the set date, two covered wagons left Corinth.
With no highways or major roads or even wagon trails in the area in those days, the two wagons had to make their own tracks as they headed in a northerly direction. Bridges were also scarce, so small rivers had to be crossed at fords, and when the wagoneers confronted the wide Red River into the Indian Territory, they had to seek out a ferry.
Records available show that the two families were most congenial, that even the two sets of children had no disagreements or fights. In fact, the only reported unpleasantness on the entire trip was the children's constant encounters with chiggers while playing in the tall grass. There was a short-lived scare when, while camping along a little stream and fishing, an Indian hunting party came by. No words were exchanged. The two families breathed with relief when the Indians simply rode on without incident.
The weeks went by and eventually the Darnell family decided that it was time to get back home. At the banks of the Red River, the two families parted, with the Post group deciding to return at a more leisurely pace. May was pregnant again, but there was really no reason to rush back to Corinth.
Back in Texas, near Denison, the Posts found a most friendly farm family by the name of Hardeman. Old man Hardeman pitched up a tent for the Post family to camp on his property, and William worked for him into the fall. The rapport that developed between the two families was astounding. The Hardemans had a modern farm, with more conveniences than the Posts had seen, or could have afforded. They showered the children with presents and made the family feel as if this were their home, too. The Posts stayed there until the harvest was in and then prepared to leave. Of course William was paid for his work, and well paid, at that. However, since William was an honorable man there is no doubt that he worked hard and was well worth his pay. Arthur remembered the stay with the Hardeman family:
The wages my Daddy made there no doubt came in quite handy. I was too young to think about that item. But one thing I am pleased to remember was the mutual good feeling which obviously came to exist between that family and my parents. We never saw them before, nor since, but they were long remembered by us for their kindness.
The Post family traveled back to their own little farm in Corinth, where on November 22, 1898 May was delivered of her fourth boy who was named Wiley Hardeman Post. His middle name was carefully chosen to honor the family that had shown so much kindness that year. The reason or origin for the name `Wiley' has never been explained. In Corinth, Wiley was simply one of the `Post boys,' and nobody bothered about where a name might come from, or what it meant.
In Corinth, too, the children first learned that they were expected to help with the work around the farm, and there was plenty of it. Even the youngest was not too young to learn what a hoe was for, when crabgrass and weeds threatened to take over in the corn and cotton fields, in the potato and melon patches, or in the kitchen garden and orchards. However, all was not drudgery. The children still found time to play; especially in the long summer days after all the chores had been done. One favorite pastime was to take an axe and cut down some smooth hickory bushes to make bows and arrows, or to carve whistles or shrill flutes. There was swimming and fishing, and all the usual games that children play, or make up. The Post children had to invent their own variations, as they had no neighbor children to play or fight with.
Arthur Post recalled that not only were there no neighbor children, but also there were no neighbors for quite some distance, except for his grandfather's farm, which abutted his father's. This grandfather, the Reverend T. M. Post, had, as Arthur described it:
... what it took in those days to make a farm a complete and interesting home. He had horses, mules, cows, goats, hogs, chickens, geese, guineas, and a few ducks. He had a wagon, a buggy, and a few saddles. What delighted me most was their orchard. It was on the right kind of land and they had different varieties of peaches to ripen all through the season, different varieties of apples, red and yellow plums, and some pears. In the woods nearby were wild plums, berries, grapes, and persimmons. Also in the fall, hickory nuts and walnuts. And it was no trouble to go out in the woods and kill squirrels or quail for some wild meat.
While the absence of close neighbors had numerous advantages, it failed to teach the children the social contact with families who were not their relatives. The children felt completely at a loss on those occasions when they visited someone's home in Grand Saline. They found those one-family houses and miniature back yards too restricting, the streets too narrow, and even the limited traffic of a village too heavy. Their conversations were stilted or non-existent, their vocabularies meager, and their interests defined mostly by their own day-to-day existence. The children could not wait to get out of those confining Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes they had been forced into, and return to their borderless farm in Corinth.
The family had a little longhaired red dog, named Fido by someone, though nobody could remember who that had been. His age and breed, too, were never-solved mysteries. The children loved him and though he did not run and play with them, he followed them everywhere as if he had been hired especially to guard them. One very hot summer day, as the children were coming back from the swimming hole in the nearby creek, Fido was bringing up the rear, as if he were herding a gaggle of geese. It was the usual ritualthe children in front, the dog trotting behind them watching for stragglers. Whether it was the excessive heat of the day, his old age, or whether he was just too fat, nobody ever knew, but Fido suddenly dropped without a whimper to the ground and died right in the middle of the sandy path. None of the kids walking ahead realized it until they had reached home. Never again in the whole, wide world, so the children wept, would there be another dog like Fido.
The children also had a little red wagon. It was bought as a plaything, but it was often used for all sorts of practical purposes around the farm. When kindling and stove wood had to be hauled from T. M. Post's house some three hundred yards away, the little wagon was the ideal conveyance. When it was time to go out and gather nuts, the little red wagon always brought the harvest home. When Wiley was still a baby, he had many a ride in it, with one or two of his older brothers pulling it. Once, towing little Joe in the wagon, brothers James and Arthur began to run with him down a smooth incline and the wagon turned over, spilling the boy. He was unhurt but scared and cried all the way home, getting his face dirty in the process. There May held an investigation. She let the older boys off with a reprimand and put them on probation. When Arthur Post mentioned this episode, he failed to explain just what such "probation" entailed.
On his small farm, William Francis Post planted cotton. Cotton requires a lot of work, before and after planting, and even during the long growing season. Still, it was the crop primarily chosen by area farmers, since it had a ready market. It also had a special attraction for insects, whatever the vagaries of the weather, be it late frost or no rain or too much of it. The lush foliage, the mass of blossoms all with nectaries, the long fruiting period, all act as special hosts to five hundred known varieties of destructive parasites, ranging from the notorious boll weevil to aphids. Besides, as cotton is not ready to pick until very late in the season, a farmer has to wait a long time before he can realize any cash. It becomes important, therefore, that he also raise all that he will need until his crop can be sold. He must have pigs, sheep or goats and poultry for meat, a cow or two for milk, cheese, and butter, vegetables and fruits fresh for eating in season and plenty for canning, and others, like potatoes, cabbages, and carrots for storing against the winter months. "Store-boughten" items had to be kept to a minimum and were usually obtained on credit. There were some necessities that just had to be paid for, like shoes and caps, kerosene, flour, sugar, matches, and material to sew clothing, but very few luxuries. How much a family could do without having to spend any money depended on the abilities and ingenuity of the woman of the house. Her natural talents and learned crafts could make the difference between a small farmer surviving or losing his land. If by chance or expert management a family might have some cash left over from the sale of last year's crop, it had to be held in reserve for those never-ending mortgage payments.
Excerpted from FORGOTTEN EAGLE by Bryan B. Sterling & Frances N. Sterling. Copyright © 2001 by Brian B. Sterling and Frances N. Sterling. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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