What Dreams We Have
The Wright Brothers and Their Hometown of Dayton, Ohio
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If I were giving a young man advice on how he might succeed in life," Wilbur Wright once remarked, "I would say to him, 'Pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.'" Mr. Wright might have gone one step farther, and suggested that Dayton, Ohio, the city where he spent all of his adult life, had served as an extraordinarily effected springboard to success for his brother and himself.

On the one hand, the Dayton of 1900 was, quite literally, the average American city. The precise center of U.S. population had passed right over the top of Dayton in 1870. Thirty years later, the 1900 census placed Dayton at the statistical center of the top ten cities in the state (5th) and the top 100 cities in the nation (45th). You just can't get much closer to the statistical center of middle America than turn-of-the-century Dayton.

In the fall of 1896, the citizens of the Gem City, as it was already known, were enthusiastic participants in the three-day celebration commemorating the centennial of Dayton. They restored the Newcom Tavern, the oldest surviving structure in town, and moved it from its original site to Van Cleve Park, on the banks of the Miami River, as a memorial to their pioneer forebears. They turned out in huge numbers to enjoy a series of fine parades, and a pageant, "Daytonia," retracing the 100-year history of Dayton.

But if the Daytonians of 1896 celebrated the past, they also sensed that there were forces at work transforming their city into a place that was very far from average. At the end of its first century, Dayton was poised on the brink of unprecedented expansion and prosperity. The population of the city had doubled in the decade between 1870 and 1880, then increased another 60% to reach 80,000 in 1896. Daytonians found employment in the literally hundreds of factories, machine shops and foundries that dotted the city. Dayton was a national center for the production of farm implements, bicycles, metal castings and railroad cars.

The National Cash Register Company — "The Cash" — had already emerged as Dayton's largest employer. John H. Patterson had purchased James Ritty's patents for "the incorruptible cashier" in 1883. Just seven years later, the man who would teach the entire nation the meaning of the word salesmanship, was shipping 13,500 cash registers a year to the far ends of the globe. Patterson placed special emphasis on patents, and was an important factor in building Dayton's reputation as a center for innovation and creativity in technology and commerce. According to the U.S. Patent Office, Dayton had ranked fifth in the nation in terms of patents granted per capita as early as 1870. Twenty years later, it led the nation.

In the book that you hold in your hands, historian Ann Honious has done a fine job of portraying the lives of the three most famous Americans to emerge from the rich and complex environment that was turn-of-thecentury Dayton. "Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Negro poet, and I were close friends in our school days," Orville Wright explained many years later. The two probably met for the first time in the fall of 1885, when Orville enrolled in the seventh grade following the return of the Wright family to Dayton after several years of living in other parts of the Middle West. His classmate, Paul Dunbar, had begun his education at the segregated "colored grade school" on Fifth Street. So few African American children continued beyond the elementary grades, however, that Dayton's intermediate school was integrated until 1887. Paul Dunbar was simply allowed to move on to Central High School, the last of what must have been a mere handful of Black Daytonians to benefit from integrated schools before Dayton descended into the age of Jim Crow.

Orville Wright and his friend Dunbar both dropped out of school in 1889, between their junior and senior years. Orville set himself up as a printer, in partnership with his older brother Wilbur. Among other projects, they subsidized and published the Dayton Tattler, a five-column weekly newspaper edited by Dunbar, as Orville put it, "... for people of his race." The partnership lasted "...as long as our financial resources permitted of it," Orville remarked, "which was not very long."

Unlike Orville, Dunbar returned to Central High School and graduated with the class of '91. Far from simply scrapping through, he wrote the class song, edited the school newspaper, and served as president of both the School Society and the Philomatheon literary club. If Dunbar hoped that a sterling high school record might qualify the son of slaves for a white-collar job that would enable him to exercise his literary gifts, however, he was sadly mistaken. Earning four dollars a week as an elevator operator at the Callahan building, he struggled to find outlets for his poetry, and published his first book of verse, Oak and Ivy (1892), at his own expense. Four years later he emerged as a national literary celebrity on the basis of William Dean Howells extraordinarily positive review of Dunbar's second book, Majors and Minors.

The poet left Dayton in 1896, the year of the great centennial, determined to earn fame and fortune in the larger world. Over the next decade he would produce ten volumes of poetry, four novels, four books of short stories, five musical plays, and an assortment of essays and articles for journals ranging from the Saturday Evening Post to Harper's Weekly. Exhausted and suffering from alcoholism, he died of tuberculosis in 1906 in the West Dayton home that he had purchased for his mother.

There is no evidence that Dunbar ever saw Wilbur and Orville Wright fly. At the time of his death, they were still regarded as somewhat mysterious figures by their fellow Daytonians. When Dunbar had left town in 1896, the Wrights were still neighborhood businessmen, running their printing operation as well as a small scale bicycle sales, repair and fabrication facility. By 1900 they had become "infected," as Wilbur explained to one of their earliest correspondents, "with the belief that flight is possible to man." Between 1899 and 1905, they produced a series of six flying machines: one kite (1899), three gliders (1900, 1901, 1902), and three powered airplanes (1903, 1904, 1905). In six short years, they had moved from a small kite that could be maneuvered at will to the world's first practical airplane.

Incredibly, almost no one in Dayton, or anywhere else, fully appreciated the magnitude of the Wright achievement. By the fall of 1905, the brothers were flying circles over a swampy pasture eight miles east of Dayton, remaining in the air for up to forty minutes at a time, and attracting almost no attention. They did not emerge as the first great heroes of the new century until 1908, when they made their first public flights from a race track near Le Mans, France, and from the parade ground at Ft. Myer, Virginia. As in the case of Paul Dunbar, Daytonians wanted to be certain what the rest of the world thought of the Wright brothers before they were fully prepared to celebrate their achievement.

Those turn-of-the-century optimists who had faith in the future of the Gem City were right. The invention of the airplane represented a major step in the transformation of Dayton. Over the next two decades, Charles Kettering, Col. Edward Deeds, Arthur Morgan and others would cement the image of Dayton as a place that encouraged new ideas and technical innovation. By 1920, the typical American town of 1896 had been transformed into a world center of innovation. Dayton was the town where good ideas came from.

Ann Honious has produced the sort of genuinely useful study that one should expect of a National Park Service historian. She provides a solid examination of the development of an important and little known or understood historic district, and insight into the unique impact of the place on the people who lived and worked there. Ultimately, she helps us to understand the extent to which these three friends reshaped the image of their hometown, quite as much as they were shaped by it. She deserves our thanks and our congratulations for helping us to better understand Dayton, and the three extraordinary friends who called the place home.

Tom D. Crouch
Senior Chief Curator
National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian Institution
June 12, 1998


What Dreams We Have
©2003 Ann Honious.
Published by Eastern National

honious/introduction.htm — 18-Feb-2004