Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, Dayton, Ohio
The connections are a bit tenuous, and sometimes appear a little forced, but one can start to understand why this park incorporates what it does. There are two main threads stitched together in this park - One is the life and work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a black poet often referred to as the Poet Laureate of Black culture. The other is the history of Orville and Wilbur Wright as they struggle, and succeed, to conquer the problem of flight. The two threads cross a couple of times in historical accident, but I think, maybe, there’s a bigger way these three men are connected and it is in that way that this park becomes even more remarkable.
The designation ‘National Historical Park’ is not a common one. In fact, this is only the third one we’ve been to. Chaco Culture park, in Northwestern New Mexico was my first one and I spent four days there marveling at the work of Native Americans dating back a millennium or more. I got goosebumps one day as I began to appreciate their accomplishments. I also decided that National Historical Parks deserved at least a
couple of days to adequately explore.
The second one was a week or so ago when we stopped at the George Rogers Clark NHP. That one was, well, a comparative disappointment. Although there are several other state and local historical sites listed in the brochure for that park, only one of them is run by the National Park Service and it is less of a historical park than an elaborate memorial erected to honor an important revolutionary war historical figure. You can see the entire park in a single two-hour stop. To me the park was mislabeled.
Dayton Aviation Heritage is more of an Historical Park as the designation was intended - a collection of related sites all maintained by the park service to communicate a common message. There are six different locations in this park and only two of them are close enough to walk between. So the easiest way to see them is by car. One of the sites, The Wright Company Factory - the first factory in the country built to construct airplanes - is a recent acquisition to the park and is not yet open to the public. Two of the sites, the Wright
Brothers Aviation Center in Carillon Historical Park, and Hawthorn Hill, are affiliated with the NPS, but are maintained and operated by a separate, local non-profit organization. As a result they charge an admission fee. Another one, the Huffman Prairie Flying Field, is located on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and requires a bit of extra driving. (Note: the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which, apparently, houses a massive collection of military flying machines is NOT part of this NPS park. There is no reason, of course, that you can’t go see it at the same time you are taking in the Historical Park. However, I am told by a former pilot that you need at least several days to appreciate this museum. I suppose if you are a pilot that would be true, but since my interests are smaller in scope, and confined to the NPS parks, I’ve opted not to include that museum. I know Andy will be very disappointed in me.)
We started the tour, and I think it is a good place to start, at the Wright Cycle Company and Visitor Center which is located (at South Williams and East Third Streets) in what
used to be the west-side of downtown Dayton. This is the main visitor center. They have a thirty minute film and multiple rooms of exhibits which outline the history of both the development of free flight, and of Dunbar’s life and works. As school children, we learn that the first flight occurred at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, over the sands of the Outer Banks. And that is certainly true. But Kitty Hawk was selected by the Wright Brothers as the place to test their designs because the National Weather Service suggested it as a quiet place, granting a high degree of privacy, while also providing sustained winds of about twenty mph. Almost all of the design and development work actually took place in, and around, Dayton.
I’ve always been interested in how ideas develop, and, while hard work and native intelligence is important, it is also true that a lot of times luck and the confluence of bigger currents makes things happen. I think the exhibits here do a very good job of defining how the time really was appropriate to solve the problem of flight. Three very significant events were coming together which helped inspire the Wright Brothers.
One was the development of the internal combustion engine which meant that machines could have their own source of power. The second was the renewed interest in traveling by air which found expression in the balloon transports, dirigibles, that were being developed in Europe. Finally, and surprisingly, the bicycle craze was important because, even at great cost, people were interested in moving themselves. By the late 1890s, over a million bicycles had been sold in the U.S. to a population of just 63 million - that’s more than a fad.
The Wright Brothers started in printing, then moved into selling and servicing bicycles. It was the bicycle technology that sparked their interest in solving the flying problem. Using engineering solutions from the bicycle world, they developed solutions to the problems of lift and drag required to get an airplane into the air. But the big problem was controlling it once it was flying. That took a huge amount of effort, a lot of it trial and error, but they eventually found the solution. I’ve purchased yet another book about their lives and am looking forward to understanding in more detail their creative approach. At this first stop, you see
a recreation of one of their bicycle repair shops - they had four of them over time - and a display of a large number of artifacts from that time.
The second stop on the trip literally shifts gears. It is the home of Paul Laurence Dunbar. There we saw some exhibits on this man and his life, with some quotes from his poetry. The highlight was a ranger-led guided tour of the home where he lived his final years, dying of tuberculosis and attended to by his Mother. Dunbar’s connection to the Wright’s weaves a couple of threads. The first was that he went to high school with one of them and was the only black at Dayton Central High School at the time. When the Wright’s were in the printing business, Dunbar wrote some articles in the newspaper they were publishing. Later, Dunbar had the idea of publishing a daily paper for Dayton’s black community, and the Wright’s did that work for him. There were a couple of more places where their lives crossed, having both came from Dayton’s west side. (We were also told of a connection between Dunbar and Charles Young when we were at
the Charles Young Monument.)
Dunbar wrote in two styles. One was standard English and his poems in that style received critical acclaim from even white writers and publishers. They appeared in Harpers Weekly. The other was in what they call dialect form which is more what made him popular. The dialect form, however, is controversial because it tends to reinforce racial prejudices. His fame and stature rose, and then plummeted. Although never losing a combative spirit, it is clear that he couldn’t compete fairly because of his race. And there is evidence that he died an embittered man.
The third stop on our tour was at the Wright Brothers Aviation Center in Carillon Historical Park. This is an NPS managed site within a locally run historical park. It really was a bit of a surprise for us as we entered the area because, to honor Memorial Day, there was a big event going on with cars parking all over the grass and even a concert last night by the Dayton Symphony Orchestra. Since we weren’t expecting all of that we proceeded to the Carillon Brewery to figure out what we were doing. The Brewery is an 1850s style
brewing operation serving German-style food and beer. Our waitress, dressed appropriately, was a hoot and we had a grand time eating and drinking local creations. We can highly recommend the brewery for its food and ambiance.
Afterwards we toured the park including the Aviation Center. There the highlight is a recreation of the Wright Brothers Flyer III, the plane they used at Kitty Hawk to establish controlled flight. To actually see the plane, even if it is a recreation, is indeed a marvel. And you can see how the bicycle mechanics were applied to solve engineering problems. It was a good way to bring the exhibits of the first stop home.
Hawthorn Hill is the mansion the Wright family built after they became famous and wealthy. It is only available for tours on Saturday and Wednesdays and requires a separate appointment and fee. If we have time this Wednesday we will go back to see it. We also may go out to Wright Patterson to see Huffman Prairie Flying Field, where the Wright Brothers brought back their airplanes for development and testing right here in Dayton.
Admittedly, the linkages between the Wright brothers and Dunbar are kind
of slim. They knew each other in high school, and worked together on a couple of early publishing ventures. But, really, that’s about the extent of their physical connections. So why include them altogether in one park concept? I can’t know the thinking behind Park Service planners. And when you consider that a lot of parks develop out of political reasons instead of real historical or scientific thought, then the ‘Aviation Heritage’ concept does seem a little forced. Why stick a poet in with two bicycle mechanics?
Maybe the reason has something to do with the underlying spirits of these men. The Wright Brothers determination to break the bonds of earthly travel and send men into the air itself represent an obvious freeing of the spirit - an untethering to the bonds of the past. But if you read some of Dunbar’s poetry (yes I bought a small book of his poems as well as the Wright biography), you get a sense that Dunbar was trying to break free of a different kind of bond - the shackles of racial prejudice.
The title of this essay is a line from one of Dunbar’s poems. Here is the last
stanza of a poem called To the South: On its New Slavery. It shows a desire to fly every bit as strong as the Wright Brothers had:
Till then, no more, no more the gladsome song,
Strike only deeper chords, the notes of wrong;
Till then, the sigh, the tear, the oath, the moan,
Till thou, oh, South, and thine, come to thine own.
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