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Authors: Tom D. Crouch

The Bishop's Boys

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THE BISHOP’S BOYS

Wilbur and Orville Wright, at the height of their fame, pose informally on the rear porch at 7 Hawthorn Street in June 1909. Typically, Orville’s modish suit, wingtip shoes, and Argyll stockings contrast with his brother’s austere dark suit and high button shoes.

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

Prologue

BOOK ONE: FAMILY

1
. Taking Up the Cross

2
. Milton and Susan

3
. The Preacher’s Kids

4
. Moving On

5
. Times of Trial

6
. The Ties That Bind

7
. A Business for Brothers

8
. Bicycles Built by Two

9
. Home Fires

BOOK TWO: WINGS

10
. The Year of the Flying Machines

11
. Octave Chanute

12
. Windmills of the Mind

13
. “A Fractious Horse”

14
. “Kitty Hawk, O Kitty”

15
. “Not within a Thousand Years …”

16
. Tunnel Vision

17
. All Doubts Resolved

18
. Europe Discovers the Wrights

19
. Success

20
. The Prairie Patch

BOOK THREE: THE WORLD

21
. “A Machine of Practical Utility”

22
. “Fliers or Liars”

23
. Rival Wings

24
. Wealth and Fame

25
. The Return to Kitty Hawk

26
. The Unveiling

27
. Fort Myer

28
. Pomp and Circumstance

29
. The Wright Company

30
. Of Politics and Patents

31
. “The Montebank Game”

32
. “A Short Life …”

33
. The End of an Era

34
. Carrying on Alone

35
. The Smithsonian Feud

36
. Of Men and Monuments

37
. The Final Chapter

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Copyright Page

Acknowledgments are a special problem when a book has been in the making as long as this one, but there is no doubt where my greatest debts lie. Any author assessing the Wright brothers must be forever grateful to a pair of early scholars, Marvin W. McFarland and Charles Harvard Gibbs-Smith. That is especially true in my case—both were friends, guides, and mentors.

The members of the Wright family have extended themselves on my behalf for over ten years. The best I can offer is the book itself, along with my thanks, to: Ivonette Wright Miller and Harold Miller; Susan and Horace Wright; Wilkinson and Marion Wright. Thanks also to John Jameson, who gave his time generously over the telephone. Mrs. Elizabeth Rehling, daughter of Agnes Osborn and an old friend of the family, shared her mother’s memories, and her correspondence with Katharine Wright.

Rick Young, a fellow Wright scholar, has for years been willing to drop everything for a discussion of some obscure point relating to the Wrights. He invited me to assist in building a replica of the 1902 glider. The hours spent helping to fly that machine—and lugging it back up the slope for the next try—have added to my understanding of what the Wrights accomplished, and how they lived and worked on the Outer Banks. For that, and for his friendship, my thanks. Ken Kellett, who built and flies a replica of the 1903 airplane, also provided an opportunity to crew that machine.

Howard Wolko, special assistant for technology with the Aeronautics
Department of the National Air and Space Museum, helped me to understand how an airplane flies, and how the Wrights designed their machines; he also allowed me to serve as his partner in a recreation of the 1901 wind-tunnel experiments. Others who have made important contributions include Eugene Husting, Peter Jakab, Richard Hallion, Dr. Douglas Robinson, and John Gillikin.

As always, I am indebted to librarians. Patrick Nolan and his colleagues at the Wright State University Archives deserve special thanks for their assistance and courtesy. The staff of the Dayton and Montgomery County Public Library also went far out of their way to help. In addition, my thanks to: the staff of the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress; the Library and Archives staff of the National Air and Space Museum; the crew at the Library of the National Museum of American History; and Bill Diess and his colleagues at the Smithsonian Archives.

It is customary to include one’s wife and children in the list of acknowledgments. Those who have not lived through the process of writing a book may not realize the price family members pay for the finished product. Nancy, Bruce, Abby, and Nate—thanks.

Tom D. Crouch

Fairfax, Virginia

December 30, 1989

THE BISHOP’S BOYS
Prologue
May 25, 1910

E
arly on the morning of May 25, 1910, three passengers stepped off the Dayton, Springfield and Urbana interurban at a simple wooden platform marked Simms Station. They had ridden the eight miles out from their home in Dayton, Ohio, in less than half an hour. The trip had become a part of the fabric of their daily lives during the past six years, but for Wilbur and Orville Wright and their father Milton, this was a special day.

They waited for the train to pull away, then crossed the road and walked through the gate into the field that everyone in this part of Greene County knew as Huffman Prairie. The hangar door was open, and a small party of workmen were already wheeling out an airplane. It was one of the new machines, a Model B. Milton thought the craft looked smaller than the 1905 Flyer he had seen the boys fly here so often; it didn’t have the big elevator out front. This one had wheels, as well. The days of catapulting the machine down a long track and into the air were gone forever.

Orville, who was doing all the flying now, went to work immediately. Wilbur stayed with his father, explaining the preparations needed to get the machine safely into the air. They were at it all day. Orville made fourteen flights before dusk, most of them training hops to give the three new men, Frank Coffyn, Art Welsh, and Ralph Johnstone, an opportunity to get the feel of the controls. Johnstone would be dead within six months; Welsh had just over two years to live.

Late that afternoon, Wilbur took a seat on the exposed lower wing next to his brother. They circled the field for just over six minutes. It was the only time they would ever fly together, something they had promised their father they would never do. Just this once, for the sake of history, he had relented.

Then it was Milton’s turn. The old man had never flown before. The opportunity had always been there—he had simply never asked. Now he climbed up next to his youngest son for the first time. They remained aloft for 6 minutes, 55 seconds, never climbing above 350 feet. Orville had been unnecessarily worried about his father’s reaction. At one point during the flight Milton leaned close to his son’s ear and shouted above the combined roar of engine, propellers, and slipstream: “Higher, Orville. Higher.”
1

On that spring morning in 1910 Milton Wright was eighty-one years old, but an observer might have put him as much as a decade younger. He stood ramrod straight and had the look of an Old Testament patriarch, with his neatly trimmed white beard and clear, penetrating eyes.

No pictures were taken that day, but it is safe to assume that Milton wore a plain black suit and hat with a white shirt and tie, the clergyman’s uniform. He had scarcely stepped out of his door dressed in any other way since his ordination as a minister over half a century before.

From his clothes, he could have been a simple country parson, retired after a lifetime of tending his flock. In fact, Bishop Milton Wright is remembered today as the most controversial figure in the history of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Small wonder. He created a permanent national schism in the church over a matter of principle; waged a decade-long courtroom struggle with old friends and colleagues for the control of church property; then threatened to create a second split in the church branch he had led away from the original group.

He was a man who refused to recognize shades of gray. Negotiation and compromise were not in his vocabulary. Once he had decided on a course of action, he could not be moved.

Milton had inherited that strength of will and dedication to principle from his father, and passed it on to his own children. He had taught them that the world was not a friendly place for honest men and women. Temptations beckoned. Unscrupulous persons lay in wait,
eager to take advantage of the weak and the unwary. Friends would fall away in times of trial, accepting the easier road of accommodation with error and injustice. Ultimately, the strength of family bonds offered the only real support one could hope for in life.

Wilbur and Orville Wright, his two youngest sons, had based their lives on the principles laid down by their father. It was Milton’s proudest boast that they continued to make their home “beneath the paternal roof.” Neither of them would ever marry, nor find better friends or stauncher supporters than the members of their own family circle.

The world looked at these two men and saw a corporate entity: the Wright brothers. Indeed, their ability to function as a team was nothing short of extraordinary. Their father had once told a reporter they were “as inseparable as twins.” Perhaps so, but they remained very different men. They understood that fact—it was one of the secrets of their success. Each of them was prepared to rely on the other’s strengths and to compensate for his weaknesses.

In the spring of 1910, Orville was thirty-eight years old. He stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed one hundred forty pounds. Wilbur, aged forty-three, was an inch and a half taller and weighed, usually, a pound or two less. His bony, angular frame made him seem much taller and thinner than he was.

You had to look closely to notice the family resemblance. Orville was on the pale side, with dark hair, “getting very thin to the crown,” as one reporter noted. He had sported a reddish mustache since high school. Once full, almost a handlebar, it was now clipped short, just bushy enough to cover a pair of very thin lips that turned up at one corner when he smiled. “The jaws are never clenched,” a friend noticed, “as one would expect to be the case with a man of determination.” George Burba, a Dayton reporter, described his hands as “small, and uncallused.”
2

He was very particular about his appearance. This family paid a good deal of attention to the proprieties of dress. During their “scientific vacations” at Kitty Hawk, where the local hostesses were pleased when summer dinner guests arrived wearing shoes, the Wrights had faced the grit and wind of each new day with a clean tie and fresh celluloid collar.

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