Meeting Wilbur and Orville
To understand the brothers, one historian found that what you know is less important than who you know.
- By Tom D. Crouch
- Air & Space magazine, March 2003
(Page 2 of 4)
I called Mrs. Miller the next time I was home visiting my parents in the Dayton area. She invited a young grad student whom she had never met into her home, and she turned me loose to dig through the boxes in her basement. There were priceless family papers: the diary that Wilbur and Orville’s father, Bishop Milton Wright, had kept for over half a century; family correspondence and genealogical records dating back to the early 19th century; the report cards and school papers of all the Wright children, including the inventors of the airplane; original photographs; box after box of financial records; and most of the Wright brothers’ library, complete with their handwritten notations on important aeronautical papers. I was only faintly aware of it at the time, but my career was born in that basement.
More important than all of that was the opportunity to sit at the kitchen table at the end of the day and have tea and cookies with a woman who could remember the day, just before Christmas, 1903, when Wilbur and Orville returned in triumph from Kitty Hawk. The inventors of the airplane were her babysitters. They had built and flown little helicopter models to entertain her. She had flown with her uncle Orville in 1911; been married in his Dayton home, Hawthorn Hill, seven years later; and served as his unofficial hostess for two decades. Her husband was one of the executors of Orville Wright’s estate.
While I was always conscious of the fact that Mrs. Miller had once lived right around the corner from her uncles, aunt, and grandfather, the reality of the thing occasionally came to me with stunning clarity. Working my way through a box of Wright papers at the Library of Congress one day, I came across a small notebook in which Orville Wright had kept the all-important record of their 1902 glider flights; on its pasteboard back cover, printed twice in childish block letters, was the name “Ivonette.” I immediately called Mrs. Miller and asked her about it. She remembered, as she always did. She had turned six that year, and had started school. Her uncle had asked her what she was learning. She replied that she could write her name. Come over here, he said, offering a knee, and show me. And now I held that long-ago signature in my hand. I knew the woman that little girl had become. To this day, it takes my breath away.
Her memories were a priceless gift, freely given. She offered me insight that I could have obtained in no other way. Sometimes understanding came at surprising moments. Once, when I was scheduled to come home to Dayton to give a talk at Wright State University, she called and suggested that this time, instead of staying with my parents, she would arrange for me to spend the night in Hawthorn Hill, now VIP quarters for the National Cash Register Company.
It was a wonderful experience. I got to sleep in Orville’s bed, bathe in his famous circular shower, and prowl his study, the only room in the house that remained as it had been at the time of his death in 1948. I pored over a scrapbook that I had never seen. I sat in his reading chair. He had drilled a vertical hole in one arm of an overstuffed chair and inserted the long pole of a music stand that he used to hold his book. There, on the side table, as though he had just stepped out of the room, were his reading glasses, with one temple removed so that he could put them on and take them off more efficiently.
Before the house was built, Orville had gone over every inch of the blueprints with the architect and made a great many changes. He had sketched details just the way he wanted them, including the way in which the carpet was to fit around the hearth. When the specially woven carpet arrived from Europe and did not fit, he sent it back.
Ivonette explained that when Orville lived here, there had been a cistern on the roof to collect rain water, which was piped through the back of the ice box so that he could have ice water constantly on tap. The only controls for the furnace were in his bedroom. He took great delight in the fact that he was the only one who could master the intricacies of the plumbing and electrical systems. Sitting there that evening, it occurred to me for the first time that this house had been Orville Wright’s machine for living. He had only really been comfortable in an environment that he had designed himself and which he could completely control. For a biographer, it was a defining moment, one of the many that I owed to Mrs. Miller.
She introduced me to other members of her family. I met her younger brother, Horace “Bus” Wright, and his wife Susan. In 1911, when he was 10, Bus traveled to Kitty Hawk with his uncle to test what proved to be the first glider in history to achieve soaring flight. On one of those flights Orville remained in the air for nine minutes and 45 seconds, a record that would stand for a decade.