The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright

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Overview

“It takes only nineteen seconds to walk the distance of the first powered flight. But when I was there the wind was up and cold on my face, and I felt as if I’d entered the black-and-white photograph I’d been seeing all my life. The sand is light gray, there’s a spill of surf in the distance. Wilbur, running at the right of the plane, and Orville, the pilot, are in dark suits. The propellers blur against the sky as the machine rises. . . .”

So begins Noah Adams’s adventure in search of Wilbur and Orville Wright,...
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Overview

“It takes only nineteen seconds to walk the distance of the first powered flight. But when I was there the wind was up and cold on my face, and I felt as if I’d entered the black-and-white photograph I’d been seeing all my life. The sand is light gray, there’s a spill of surf in the distance. Wilbur, running at the right of the plane, and Orville, the pilot, are in dark suits. The propellers blur against the sky as the machine rises. . . .”

So begins Noah Adams’s adventure in search of Wilbur and Orville Wright, a journey that takes him across the country as he follows in the footsteps of the famous brothers in an attempt to know them more deeply, not just as inventors and pilots but as individuals as well.

Adams, one of our most distinctive and talented storytellers, traveled thousands of miles and interviewed scores of experts and individuals to piece together his story. He finds a local boat captain to ferry him to Kitty Hawk, along the same route that Wilbur took in 1900, and spends several days talking with descendants of the families who first welcomed the Wright brothers a century ago and helped them conduct their gliding experiments. To experience first-hand the thrill of being in the air, Adams himself goes hang-gliding in the Outer Banks.

To understand the aerodynamics of lift and drag and how the famous 1903 plane was constructed, he visits Ken Hyde, a Virginia pilot and vintage aircraft builder who is creating the world’s most accurate reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer. Adams goes to the prop shop and handles the tools and materials that the Wrights used to build their gliders and planes, and later hevisits the wind tunnel at Langley Air Force Base where Hyde’s reproduction was tested for the first time.

He also travels to France to visit the old racetrack at Le Mans where Wilbur startled the European aviation community with his demonstration flights in 1908, and he spends a few days at Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Fly-in, where builders of experimental aircraft and owners of vintage planes gather every year to dazzle the crowds. Adams himself takes to the air in a restored Ford Tri-Motor, America’s first airliner, which took its maiden flight seventy years ago.

In Adams’s book we encounter the Wright brothers in a way that no writer has introduced them before. Through the lens of his own experiences as well as original reporting, letters, diaries, and other primary source material, he helps us understand the talent and intensity of the brothers and their family, including the fascinating, deeply complex, and at times tragic bond between Orville and Katharine, his younger sister.

The Flyers is a wonderfully rich narrative that brings an unprecedented spirit of immediacy to one of history’s most dramatic stories.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Adams, cohost of NPR's All Things Considered and author of Piano Lessons, sets out to learn about the Wright Brothers, their family and why they loved to fly so much. Adams visits all the spots important to the brothers, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where they flew gliders, to France; Dayton, Ohio; and New York. The most appealing part of the book is the look at the close relationship between Orville, Wilbur and their sister Katherine. Following the death of their mother, the three were devoted to one another and planned on living together. In fact, after Wilbur's death, when Katherine announced her plans to marry, at age 50, Orville was devastated and ended up not seeing his sister until she was on her deathbed a few years later. Adams uses letters and diaries to describe the lives of the Wrights; some of these details are not widely included in other books that focus on their inventions and accomplishments. Adams intersperses his personal musings as he re-creates the travels of the Wrights: "Wilbur's Arlington Hotel is gone, replaced by a three-story condominium, the La Casita. I put up at the Comfort Inn, out at the bypass. I had plans for my own boat trip, leaving at first light." In the end, he's a personable guide into the Wright Brothers' world, offering a refreshing look at these aviation pioneers. (Oct.) Forecast: Timed to the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk, along with national appearances, sales should be strong, particularly in such regions as North Carolina and Ohio. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
NPR correspondent Adams's popular travelog account of the well-thumbed Wright Brothers story fills a niche in centenary historiography. Eschewing the largely biographical and technical approaches taken by other contributors, the author's fast-paced, impressionistic narrative fans reader interest by highlighting the triumphs and quixotic personalities of his subjects and their nuclear family at the expense of setbacks in the field and dry laboratory experiments. He ends where he begins, with the brothers' final successful flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. Sandwiched in between are Adams's poignant visit to the Wright plots at Woodland Cemetery, retracing of the Wrights' arduous journeys to North Carolina's Outer Banks, hang-gliding experiments near Kitty Hawk, visit to the original Huffman Prarie site near Dayton, tramping over Wilbur's several flying fields in France, trip to Governor's Island in New York in remembrance of Wilbur's part in the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration, and nostalgic tour of the family home, Hawthorn Hill. Although Wright followers will find nothing new in this book, it is nevertheless an entertaining read. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03; see also the reviews of Walt Burton and Owen Findsen's The Wright Brothers Legacy and Flight, p. 75.-Ed.]-John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
NPR correspondent Adams (Far Appalachia, 2001, etc.) celebrates the brothers from Dayton, Ohio, and events that changed the world, beginning with the first flight at Kitty Hawk 100 years ago. The author is a firm believer in the technique of absorbing the dry facts of research material and then revisiting key venues at which historical events took place in order to receive whatever evocations remain firsthand. To wit: Kitty Hawk, of course, and Huffman Prairie near Dayton (first airfield in the US), forgotten airfields in France, or Governors Island in New York Harbor, site of a memorable 1909 air show and competition. This may engender inspiration but also, in Adams’s case, the kind of lilting, almost stream-of-consciousness digression that plays charmingly on the radio but not necessarily to readers hungry for keener insight into the principal subjects. The author does not, for instance, analyze methodologies the Wrights employed to obtain useful aerodynamic data that initially lay far beyond the scope of their limited background (neither was college educated or technically trained). Instead, actual correspondence among the brothers, their father, and their devoted sister Katharine is "played" to indicate what may have been running through Orville or Wilbur’s mind at "this very spot." Adams aims for immediacy and awe, not necessarily revelation. The closeness of Katharine, unwed until she was 52, to her lifelong bachelor brothers (particularly to Orville after Wilbur’s death) is mentioned without the insinuations others have offered. The Wrights’ obsession to protect and extend their patents is duly noted, but not the extent of their legalistic hounding of rivals like Glenn Curtiss,which some historians consider to have actually retarded aviation technology. Still, a clear portrait emerges of the tenacity and homespun intelligence shared by brothers who pushed modest ambitions well beyond what either had dared dream. Pleasant and unchallenging. Author tour. Agent: Jonathon Lazear
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400049127
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/7/2003
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.66 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Noah Adams, the longtime host of All Things Considered, is a correspondent for National Public Radio. He is the author of Piano Lessons, Far Appalachia, and Saint Croix Notes. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife, Neenah Ellis.
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Read an Excerpt

WOODLAND CEMETERY

I know where all the bodies are buried," Jim Sandegren tells me, laughing, as we walk up one of the cemetery roads. He also knows the names of all the trees. This was a rural cemetery, laid out over a farmer's uncut hillsides a mile from downtown Dayton. Sandegren is the staff horticulturist. He has thirty thousand trees and a hundred thousand souls to look after.

"Here's where the Wright brothers are." He points to a granite monument with the carved family name, overlooking five graves. "People on tours especially are amazed. They expect to see something much more grand and glorious than this, and I always say that the Wrights probably felt what they did was monument enough. No two people ever lived, I mean short of Jesus, would have had a greater impact on the numbers of people than Wilbur and Orville did."

Sandegren wears work boots and a blue-and-white striped shirt with jim over a pocket that contains reading glasses, pen, a plastic calendar. Every day he takes a diagnostic walk through the cemetery woods, touching limbs, feathering leaves through his fingers. He says his biggest problem is keeping the trees safe from the mowers and string trimmers. The tricolor beech is a favorite-he shows me one that's a century old. Now, in midsummer, the variegated leaves have a reddish tint, soon to change to creamy pink and white, then green in the fall. And sassafras trees-one of them is an Ohio State Champion. "I have never seen the big sassafras to the extent that we have here," Sandegren says. "I love the tree. You know it was the original material for root beer? The flavoring?" He cracks off a piece ofbark and a clean, lemony aroma floats out. "When we dig a grave close to a sassafras tree, invariably we'll get into the roots and they're very pungent. A lot of the guys will take them and wash them and make tea, like a spring tonic."

I ask about the gravedigger's work, how it's done these days. "We have a thirty-six-inch backhoe. Sometimes it'll be gravelly, which causes cave-ins, and you have to get down in the hole, which represents a certain amount of hazard, but nobody's going to be working by themselves."

"How deep?"

"You put thirty inches of material on top and the casket's about thirty-two inches, so roughly between five and six feet. But you've noticed these hills we've got here-sometimes you'll get eighteen inches of dirt on one end of a casket and six foot on the other."

The Wright family plot is on a slight downslope, fifty yards below a road that runs along Woodland Cemetery's top ridge. The grave markers sit together in a modest-sized rectangular space, and it would be reasonable to think of Orville standing here with a pencil and graph paper, deciding who would end up where. An engineer, drawing an airplane, sketching a gravesite-the aim is for the elegant, economical line. The family monument, shoulder-high and four feet wide, stands at the high end of the plot. The letters wright emerge from the granite front. The parents' headstones are centered in the grass below: Susan C. Wright and Milton Wright. And in a row farther on, the three children: Wilbur Wright, Katharine Wright Haskell, and Orville Wright. All the stones are small, low, and rounded-"pillow markers" they're called by cemetarians-and bear the same style of raised letters and numbers.

I'm confused about where to stand. "Where are the graves, actually?" I ask Jim. "I don't want to be standing on top of Wilbur here."

"The bodies are behind the headstones," he said. "You view the body over the headstone, so it's really a footstone."

There were two older Wright brothers, Reuchlin, buried in Kansas City, and Lorin, who's with his own family here at Woodland. And two other siblings, twins, who died in infancy. They had long lain under a single marker in another Dayton cemetery, and when the Wright descendants learned that grave was being neglected, Jim Sandegren volunteered to go dig up the remains and bring them to Woodland. He did so alone, without ceremony or publicity. He said what he found wouldn't fill a coffee can, just some discolored earth. He reburied the twins at the base of the family monument, and propped up their tombstone:

OTIS & IDA
Children of
Milton & Susan C.
WRIGHT
DIED
March 1870
ages
13 & 18 days

People often leave money on the Wrights' headstones. On this day, on Wilbur's, I count five dimes, twenty-three pennies, and a precisely placed acorn. Jim says he picks up the coins, saving them in his desk to buy flowers for the Wrights.

The grave of Paul Laurence Dunbar is in this same cemetery section, under a shimmering golden willow. Both of Dunbar's parents had been slaves in Kentucky. He was raised by his mother, Mrs. Matilda Dunbar, on Dayton's West Side, and he went to high school with Orville. The Wrights published Dunbar's earliest poetry in the weekly neighborhood newspaper they'd started in 1889, as part of their home-based printing business. Paul Dunbar became famous for his use of African-American dialect-he read for Queen Victoria in London-but felt he had more to offer in classic poetry and fiction. He died of tuberculosis, unhappy, a drinker, at thirty-three.

The Dunbar monument is a rough granite boulder, with a Tiffany-made bronze plaque now softened by verdigris, which carries a stanza of his poetry:

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch'll go a-singing as it pass;
An' w'en I's a-layin' low
I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin' "Sleep, my honey, tek' yo' res' at las'."

The most visited grave at Woodland Cemetery belongs not to the Wright Brothers, or Paul Dunbar, or the beloved hometown humor columnist Erma Bombeck, but to a young boy named Johnny Morehouse. When people stop at the cemetery's main gate they most often ask-especially if they have children in the car-"Where's the Boy and his Dog?"

The answer could be "Take the first right and then the first left and when you start laughing you're there." Those directions will lead you to the statue of a dog, which happens on this day to be wearing surfer sunglasses. Then you notice: an American flag, an angel, a blue pinwheel, a baseball, a yellow toy dump truck, a teddy bear with a green hat, golden and purple and red plastic flowers, an assortment of big-eyed Beanie Babies-all but covering up a sleeping stone boy wearing a blue-and-white plaid tam o'shanter.

Jim says, "Kids will come and leave a toy or a bag of pebbles, special things. Sometimes they'll trade, and take something home to play with for a while."

The dog is poised in vigil, his left foreleg arched over the body of the child. The name johnny morehouse is on the pedestal. Jim tells me the story: "Johnny Morehouse was a five-year-old boy in 1860 and he ran the neighborhoods freely. I've never heard anybody say what his dog's name was. Johnny was playing around the canal and got too close and got into the water and into trouble and his dog jumped in and pulled him out, but not in time to save his life. But the dog laid the boy on the ground and was so protective that he crouched over the body just like you see it in the statue and wouldn't even let the authorities touch it."

I ask, "Johnny Morehouse is really buried here?"

"Oh yes. And it was even said that later the dog would come to the cemetery and lay down beside the grave."

The City Vault is next on Jim's tour. He'll take schoolkids inside and recite poems about bats, watching the youngsters' eyes widen and gleam. He unlocks the building for me with a clank and wheeeek of the steel door.

"This vault is made of Dayton Formation limestone," he says. "It was built by James Wuichet in 1847 for twenty dollars, and he took that in the form of a twelve-grave lot."

The style is vaguely Egyptian, with two columns in front presuming to hold up the roof. The limestone is streaked with rain and age, returning to the earth.

We step inside. The air is dark-dusty and heavy.

"They used to keep bodies in here, you can see the brackets and beams and cleats along the side? Maybe twenty-four caskets at a time."

In the nineteenth century the winters were colder, Jim maintains, and sometimes you had to wait for a thaw so you could dig the grave. Then he pauses: "The not-so-nice explanation involves the body snatchers." People called the grave robbers "resurrectionists." They sold bodies to medical schools for study-by one physician's estimate, five thousand bodies in Ohio between 1811 and 1881. They opened the coffin, then dragged the corpse out, leaving the clothes behind, and replaced the earth and sod.

Jim says, "So what they decided was to put the deceased in this vault for two or three weeks and give the body time to deteriorate to the point where it wouldn't be of any value and then take it out and bury it."

B B

A Gypsy gravesite stands atop one of the small hills in the cemetery. There are many caskets in an underground vault, below a monument to King Levi and Queen Matilda Stanley. Levi's father, Owen Stanley, had been a Gypsy leader in England before settling in Dayton. When Queen Matilda was buried at Woodland in 1878, one newspaper counted a thousand carriages in the procession from downtown; she'd been Gypsy Queen of the United States and it was a gathering of the tribe.

"The Stanley tribe had camps and farms north of town," says Jim. "In fact, there's two streets out there, one is Gypsy Street and one is Nomad Street, and they stayed there in cold weather. In the summertime they traveled, went around door to door sharpening kitchen knives; they were tinsmiths and coopers and horse traders. The women dressed very well. They had jewelry and lots of it, and when they went out they put it all on."

Some of the older people of Dayton might steer you toward Elizabeth Richter's monument. Professionally she was known as "Lib Hedges." She owned the Bon Ton Hotel, one of twenty maisons de joie in Dayton in the 1890s-the names of the madams would be painted on red glass over the front doors: Cleo LaBelle, Ferne DeMarr, Flo Dowdie . . . It is said that Lib Hedges-generous with charities and flood relief-was worth half a million dollars when she died. She invested in real estate and took pride in finding houses for her girls when they left to be married. She also provided burial benefits when there was no known family, and now alongside Ms. Hedges's monument at Woodland are two small headstones bearing only the names Lora and Maud.

Jim and I walk on, past the graves of nineteen Revolutionary War veterans, past the curving ranks of Civil War headstones, past the old potter's field, called the Dayton City Lot. On every hillside can be found victims of the Great Flood of 1913, and the influenza epidemic in 1918. And you'll recognize the prominent Dayton names: Charles Kettering invented the automobile self-starter, for Cadillac. John Patterson perfected the selling of cash registers and led NCR into a data-processing future. Former Ohio governor James Cox founded a chain of newspapers and radio and TV stations. George Huffman made sewing machines, then Huffy bicycles. In the community of spirit that is Woodland Cemetery, the Wright brothers are among their peers. Dayton, Ohio, in 1900, led the nation in per capita patent grants.

As I walk the narrow cemetery roadways in the afternoon's slanting light, I am reminded of the tragedy of Wilbur's death. His hearse, drawn by white horses, passed along this way, after an open-casket viewing in a downtown church. The Dayton Daily News reported, "Thousands Follow Sad Cortege." His brother Orville said that day, "Wilbur had plans that no one will be able to carry into execution."

Of the three youngest Wrights, Wilbur was the first to die, at forty-five. And his life had been just about to change-the difficult, often dangerous years of developing and testing and selling airplanes would be coming to an end.

In the spring of 1911, the year before his death, Wilbur traveled to England, France, then Germany, fulfilling the Wrights' contracts to train pilots, and watching after several patent-infringement lawsuits. He was angered by "scoundrels and thieves" who would attempt to steal the brothers' ideas, and he wrote Orville in June to say that if it weren't for the patent fights and their obligation to investors, he'd be ready to quit. "If I could get free from business with the money we already have in hand I would rather do it than continue in business at a considerable profit."

Wilbur was tired of traveling, and he missed his family. In 1911 he wrote from Berlin to his sister Katharine: "The papers report temperatures ranging from 105 to 110 degrees in America. I hope you have got poor old daddy's fan going for him all night. . . . Don't let him shut off the fan during the nights to save money. . . ."

I found a sparse but moving narrative of Wilbur's final months in Bishop Wright's Diaries: 1857-1917, a volume that runs to 850 pages. The bishop kept notes in a long succession of small, leatherbound journals. He'd remark on his travels and his preaching, his sons' aviation endeavors, Katharine's teaching career, and who came to dinner and what they talked about. These are among the entries that lead up to and culminate with his son's death:

Monday, January 1, 1912: "It is a bright cool-like day. This is the eighty-fourth First Day of the Year I have seen. They have been years of toil, but little physical pain. Not a year has been devoid of much happiness."

Thursday, January 11: "Wilbur went in the afternoon to New York City."

Saturday, January 13: "I was cleaning up my closet. Katharine went to Columbus, to visit the College Club. She reached home at midnight. I sat up till she came home. The mercury ran down to about zero."

Thursday, April 18: ". . . the number lost on the Titanic seems larger than before. Wilbur started to New York to make a contract with the Aero Club."

Thursday, May 2: "Wilbur began to have typhoid fever; first diagnosed, by Dr. D. B. Conklin, as probably malarial fever, and later as a typhoidal fever."

Tuesday, May 7: "Wilbur is better. But still has considerable fever."

Friday, May 10: "I took Lorin . . . we staid to see the Ringling parade. . . . Many wagons and nice horses, several open carriages with bears, wild cats, hyenas, leopards, tigers, lions and lionesses. A dozen camels, twenty odd elephants, a steam whistle. Wilbur still has high fever."
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Table of Contents

Preface
Ch. 1 Woodland Cemetery 1
Ch. 2 To Kitty Hawk 19
Ch. 3 Pilots and Planes 41
Ch. 4 Huffman Prairie 59
Ch. 5 Above France 75
Ch. 6 Fort Myer 93
Ch. 7 New York Harbor 115
Ch. 8 The Oshkosh Air Show 133
Ch. 9 Hawthorn Hill 157
Ch. 10 First Flight 181
Author's Note 203
Bibliography 207
Credits 211
Index 215
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First Chapter

WOODLAND CEMETERY

I know where all the bodies are buried," Jim Sandegren tells me, laughing, as we walk up one of the cemetery roads. He also knows the names of all the trees. This was a rural cemetery, laid out over a farmer's uncut hillsides a mile from downtown Dayton. Sandegren is the staff horticulturist. He has thirty thousand trees and a hundred thousand souls to look after.

"Here's where the Wright brothers are." He points to a granite monument with the carved family name, overlooking five graves. "People on tours especially are amazed. They expect to see something much more grand and glorious than this, and I always say that the Wrights probably felt what they did was monument enough. No two people ever lived, I mean short of Jesus, would have had a greater impact on the numbers of people than Wilbur and Orville did."

Sandegren wears work boots and a blue-and-white striped shirt with jim over a pocket that contains reading glasses, pen, a plastic calendar. Every day he takes a diagnostic walk through the cemetery woods, touching limbs, feathering leaves through his fingers. He says his biggest problem is keeping the trees safe from the mowers and string trimmers. The tricolor beech is a favorite-he shows me one that's a century old. Now, in midsummer, the variegated leaves have a reddish tint, soon to change to creamy pink and white, then green in the fall. And sassafras trees-one of them is an Ohio State Champion. "I have never seen the big sassafras to the extent that we have here," Sandegren says. "I love the tree. You know it was the original material for root beer? The flavoring?" He cracks off a piece of bark and a clean, lemony aroma floats out."When we dig a grave close to a sassafras tree, invariably we'll get into the roots and they're very pungent. A lot of the guys will take them and wash them and make tea, like a spring tonic."

I ask about the gravedigger's work, how it's done these days. "We have a thirty-six-inch backhoe. Sometimes it'll be gravelly, which causes cave-ins, and you have to get down in the hole, which represents a certain amount of hazard, but nobody's going to be working by themselves."

"How deep?"

"You put thirty inches of material on top and the casket's about thirty-two inches, so roughly between five and six feet. But you've noticed these hills we've got here-sometimes you'll get eighteen inches of dirt on one end of a casket and six foot on the other."

The Wright family plot is on a slight downslope, fifty yards below a road that runs along Woodland Cemetery's top ridge. The grave markers sit together in a modest-sized rectangular space, and it would be reasonable to think of Orville standing here with a pencil and graph paper, deciding who would end up where. An engineer, drawing an airplane, sketching a gravesite-the aim is for the elegant, economical line. The family monument, shoulder-high and four feet wide, stands at the high end of the plot. The letters wright emerge from the granite front. The parents' headstones are centered in the grass below: Susan C. Wright and Milton Wright. And in a row farther on, the three children: Wilbur Wright, Katharine Wright Haskell, and Orville Wright. All the stones are small, low, and rounded-"pillow markers" they're called by cemetarians-and bear the same style of raised letters and numbers.

I'm confused about where to stand. "Where are the graves, actually?" I ask Jim. "I don't want to be standing on top of Wilbur here."

"The bodies are behind the headstones," he said. "You view the body over the headstone, so it's really a footstone."

There were two older Wright brothers, Reuchlin, buried in Kansas City, and Lorin, who's with his own family here at Woodland. And two other siblings, twins, who died in infancy. They had long lain under a single marker in another Dayton cemetery, and when the Wright descendants learned that grave was being neglected, Jim Sandegren volunteered to go dig up the remains and bring them to Woodland. He did so alone, without ceremony or publicity. He said what he found wouldn't fill a coffee can, just some discolored earth. He reburied the twins at the base of the family monument, and propped up their tombstone:

OTIS & IDA
Children of
Milton & Susan C.
WRIGHT
DIED
March 1870
ages
13 & 18 days

People often leave money on the Wrights' headstones. On this day, on Wilbur's, I count five dimes, twenty-three pennies, and a precisely placed acorn. Jim says he picks up the coins, saving them in his desk to buy flowers for the Wrights.

The grave of Paul Laurence Dunbar is in this same cemetery section, under a shimmering golden willow. Both of Dunbar's parents had been slaves in Kentucky. He was raised by his mother, Mrs. Matilda Dunbar, on Dayton's West Side, and he went to high school with Orville. The Wrights published Dunbar's earliest poetry in the weekly neighborhood newspaper they'd started in 1889, as part of their home-based printing business. Paul Dunbar became famous for his use of African-American dialect-he read for Queen Victoria in London-but felt he had more to offer in classic poetry and fiction. He died of tuberculosis, unhappy, a drinker, at thirty-three.

The Dunbar monument is a rough granite boulder, with a Tiffany-made bronze plaque now softened by verdigris, which carries a stanza of his poetry:

Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch'll go a-singing as it pass;
An' w'en I's a-layin' low
I kin hyeah it as it go
Singin' "Sleep, my honey, tek' yo' res' at las'."

The most visited grave at Woodland Cemetery belongs not to the Wright Brothers, or Paul Dunbar, or the beloved hometown humor columnist Erma Bombeck, but to a young boy named Johnny Morehouse. When people stop at the cemetery's main gate they most often ask-especially if they have children in the car-"Where's the Boy and his Dog?"

The answer could be "Take the first right and then the first left and when you start laughing you're there." Those directions will lead you to the statue of a dog, which happens on this day to be wearing surfer sunglasses. Then you notice: an American flag, an angel, a blue pinwheel, a baseball, a yellow toy dump truck, a teddy bear with a green hat, golden and purple and red plastic flowers, an assortment of big-eyed Beanie Babies-all but covering up a sleeping stone boy wearing a blue-and-white plaid tam o'shanter.

Jim says, "Kids will come and leave a toy or a bag of pebbles, special things. Sometimes they'll trade, and take something home to play with for a while."

The dog is poised in vigil, his left foreleg arched over the body of the child. The name johnny morehouse is on the pedestal. Jim tells me the story: "Johnny Morehouse was a five-year-old boy in 1860 and he ran the neighborhoods freely. I've never heard anybody say what his dog's name was. Johnny was playing around the canal and got too close and got into the water and into trouble and his dog jumped in and pulled him out, but not in time to save his life. But the dog laid the boy on the ground and was so protective that he crouched over the body just like you see it in the statue and wouldn't even let the authorities touch it."

I ask, "Johnny Morehouse is really buried here?"

"Oh yes. And it was even said that later the dog would come to the cemetery and lay down beside the grave."

The City Vault is next on Jim's tour. He'll take schoolkids inside and recite poems about bats, watching the youngsters' eyes widen and gleam. He unlocks the building for me with a clank and wheeeek of the steel door.

"This vault is made of Dayton Formation limestone," he says. "It was built by James Wuichet in 1847 for twenty dollars, and he took that in the form of a twelve-grave lot."

The style is vaguely Egyptian, with two columns in front presuming to hold up the roof. The limestone is streaked with rain and age, returning to the earth.

We step inside. The air is dark-dusty and heavy.

"They used to keep bodies in here, you can see the brackets and beams and cleats along the side? Maybe twenty-four caskets at a time."

In the nineteenth century the winters were colder, Jim maintains, and sometimes you had to wait for a thaw so you could dig the grave. Then he pauses: "The not-so-nice explanation involves the body snatchers." People called the grave robbers "resurrectionists." They sold bodies to medical schools for study-by one physician's estimate, five thousand bodies in Ohio between 1811 and 1881. They opened the coffin, then dragged the corpse out, leaving the clothes behind, and replaced the earth and sod.

Jim says, "So what they decided was to put the deceased in this vault for two or three weeks and give the body time to deteriorate to the point where it wouldn't be of any value and then take it out and bury it."

B B

A Gypsy gravesite stands atop one of the small hills in the cemetery. There are many caskets in an underground vault, below a monument to King Levi and Queen Matilda Stanley. Levi's father, Owen Stanley, had been a Gypsy leader in England before settling in Dayton. When Queen Matilda was buried at Woodland in 1878, one newspaper counted a thousand carriages in the procession from downtown; she'd been Gypsy Queen of the United States and it was a gathering of the tribe.

"The Stanley tribe had camps and farms north of town," says Jim. "In fact, there's two streets out there, one is Gypsy Street and one is Nomad Street, and they stayed there in cold weather. In the summertime they traveled, went around door to door sharpening kitchen knives; they were tinsmiths and coopers and horse traders. The women dressed very well. They had jewelry and lots of it, and when they went out they put it all on."

Some of the older people of Dayton might steer you toward Elizabeth Richter's monument. Professionally she was known as "Lib Hedges." She owned the Bon Ton Hotel, one of twenty maisons de joie in Dayton in the 1890s-the names of the madams would be painted on red glass over the front doors: Cleo LaBelle, Ferne DeMarr, Flo Dowdie . . . It is said that Lib Hedges-generous with charities and flood relief-was worth half a million dollars when she died. She invested in real estate and took pride in finding houses for her girls when they left to be married. She also provided burial benefits when there was no known family, and now alongside Ms. Hedges's monument at Woodland are two small headstones bearing only the names Lora and Maud.

Jim and I walk on, past the graves of nineteen Revolutionary War veterans, past the curving ranks of Civil War headstones, past the old potter's field, called the Dayton City Lot. On every hillside can be found victims of the Great Flood of 1913, and the influenza epidemic in 1918. And you'll recognize the prominent Dayton names: Charles Kettering invented the automobile self-starter, for Cadillac. John Patterson perfected the selling of cash registers and led NCR into a data-processing future. Former Ohio governor James Cox founded a chain of newspapers and radio and TV stations. George Huffman made sewing machines, then Huffy bicycles. In the community of spirit that is Woodland Cemetery, the Wright brothers are among their peers. Dayton, Ohio, in 1900, led the nation in per capita patent grants.

As I walk the narrow cemetery roadways in the afternoon's slanting light, I am reminded of the tragedy of Wilbur's death. His hearse, drawn by white horses, passed along this way, after an open-casket viewing in a downtown church. The Dayton Daily News reported, "Thousands Follow Sad Cortege." His brother Orville said that day, "Wilbur had plans that no one will be able to carry into execution."

Of the three youngest Wrights, Wilbur was the first to die, at forty-five. And his life had been just about to change-the difficult, often dangerous years of developing and testing and selling airplanes would be coming to an end.

In the spring of 1911, the year before his death, Wilbur traveled to England, France, then Germany, fulfilling the Wrights' contracts to train pilots, and watching after several patent-infringement lawsuits. He was angered by "scoundrels and thieves" who would attempt to steal the brothers' ideas, and he wrote Orville in June to say that if it weren't for the patent fights and their obligation to investors, he'd be ready to quit. "If I could get free from business with the money we already have in hand I would rather do it than continue in business at a considerable profit."

Wilbur was tired of traveling, and he missed his family. In 1911 he wrote from Berlin to his sister Katharine: "The papers report temperatures ranging from 105 to 110 degrees in America. I hope you have got poor old daddy's fan going for him all night. . . . Don't let him shut off the fan during the nights to save money. . . ."

I found a sparse but moving narrative of Wilbur's final months in Bishop Wright's Diaries: 1857-1917, a volume that runs to 850 pages. The bishop kept notes in a long succession of small, leatherbound journals. He'd remark on his travels and his preaching, his sons' aviation endeavors, Katharine's teaching career, and who came to dinner and what they talked about. These are among the entries that lead up to and culminate with his son's death:

Monday, January 1, 1912: "It is a bright cool-like day. This is the eighty-fourth First Day of the Year I have seen. They have been years of toil, but little physical pain. Not a year has been devoid of much happiness."

Thursday, January 11: "Wilbur went in the afternoon to New York City."

Saturday, January 13: "I was cleaning up my closet. Katharine went to Columbus, to visit the College Club. She reached home at midnight. I sat up till she came home. The mercury ran down to about zero."

Thursday, April 18: ". . . the number lost on the Titanic seems larger than before. Wilbur started to New York to make a contract with the Aero Club."

Thursday, May 2: "Wilbur began to have typhoid fever; first diagnosed, by Dr. D. B. Conklin, as probably malarial fever, and later as a typhoidal fever."

Tuesday, May 7: "Wilbur is better. But still has considerable fever."

Friday, May 10: "I took Lorin . . . we staid to see the Ringling parade. . . . Many wagons and nice horses, several open carriages with bears, wild cats, hyenas, leopards, tigers, lions and lionesses. A dozen camels, twenty odd elephants, a steam whistle. Wilbur still has high fever."

Copyright© 2003 by Noah Adams
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2003

    Read it before you hit the road

    Excellent book. I just returned from an almost 1 month trip to visit many of the places mentioned in this book, and I wish it had been available before I made the trip. I learned even more about the places I had just visited and came to appreciate my trip even more. I also liked the author's writing style, it fit my personality quite well. Of course authors tend to have access to certain activities that us regular folk aren't able to. But for the most part, a regular Joe like me is still able to get close enough to these places and events, that this book can be used as a guide book to many of the Wright Brothers sites around the US and Europe. Of course you don't have to actually hit the road to enjoy the book, there is a lot to learn about the Wright's just by picking it up and reading a chapter. Some of the places visited were Woodland Cemetery, Oshkosh Air Show, Huffman Prairie, Fort Myer, Kitty Hawk, Paris_France and several others that you will discover when you read the book. If you haven't guessed by now I am a Wright Brothers fan of sorts and I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in early aviation history. Well done.

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    Posted July 14, 2010

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