HAMMONDSPORT’S Village Tavern, the proverbial clean well-lighted place, sits just north of the town square. On the walls hang pictures of Curtiss, protégé Blanche Scott, and lots of Curtiss aircraft imagery. A pusher propeller, on loan from the museum, is on one wall, while from the ceiling hang models of Curtiss airplanes. Paul Geisz, the ex-cop, is the tavern’s most recent owner.
Before the lunch rush, Geoffrey Grimsman sits just inside the door at a round table. A motion picture set designer who has a vacation home in Hammondsport, Grimsman is blond with intense blue eyes. As we drink coffee, he brings up a recent visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He says the Friends’ park fight is a lot like that. Not like the battle itself, but the more recent dispute between those who want to leave the battlefield as it has been preserved, and those who want to surround it with strip malls and hotels.
The Friends recently tried to raise the money through a referendum, which was voted on in July 2004. “The cost per taxpayer would amount to a 12-pack of Pepsi or Coke a month,” he says.
“For how long?” I ask.
“Twenty years,” he replies.
That’s a lot of soda.
A little more than 800 voters cast ballots, and the measure was defeated by 43 votes. The same people voted funds for a new library. (“In the age of the Internet?” Grimsman asks.) “A park would be somewhat instrumental in leveling the historical playing field,” he says. Curtiss’ contributions to making the airplane practical—the seaplanes, the engines, the formation of the Aerial Experiment Association with Alexander Graham Bell, the World War I Jenny JN-4 trainer—all have been eclipsed by the accomplishments of the Wrights, say supporters.
Grimsman notes that Curtiss was more open with his inventions than his competitors were: “The Wrights said, ‘Let’s see if it works and then we’ll tell everybody.’ Curtiss said, ‘Let’s tell everybody and see if it works.’ ”
Now, the way I see it, the Wrights weren’t that secretive. They recruited a few local lifeguards to witness the 1903 first flights. And the brothers did not object when sightseers would watch them fly at Huffman Prairie in Dayton in the early years of their experimentation. Once they even invited members of the press to come out and witness a few launches. The first published account of the Wrights making a powered flight appeared in 1905, three years before the brothers’ first official flight. But as I said, I’m a Wright guy.
Later that day, I meet another one of the Friends, Marcia States, who’s short and sturdy and blonde. She picks me up at the tavern in her dilapidated 1993 Ford Escort station wagon, which is filled with campaign signs (she’s running for county legislator; I find out later that she lost) and drives me north. She turns right by the remaining pillars of the Garrett Warehouse, then right again, and parks in front of the village hall. It’s an old building, but not a charming one. It was once a school and looks like it. Curtiss himself used to attend classes here. There’s no sign saying that, of course. But later Carl Slater tells me that his father went to school there too, maybe a decade after Curtiss. “Once, as he walked down the street, he saw three men coming the other direction: Curtiss he knew by sight; the other was Alexander Graham Bell, and then Henry Ford.”
Today the ancient classrooms contain mostly village government offices. One houses the soon-to-move library, which is packed to the rafters with books.
I get to talking with Town Supervisor Richard Gardiner, a retired math teacher with thinning gray hair and glasses who is wearing a white short-sleeve shirt and tie. I ask why the Glenn Curtiss Museum had moved out. “The building’s too restricted in space,” he explains. “They couldn’t display the airplanes with their wings on.”
Today the museum is located half a mile south of Hammondsport. It has a 1912 Curtiss pusher, a 1917 Jenny, and two flying boats: a 1913 Model E and a 1919 Seagull. It also owns a handful of aircraft from the Curtiss-Wright company. Director Trafford Doherty says the museum is not involved in the Friends’ efforts. “We had Marcia States in the museum for the first time about five, six weeks ago,” he says. “We had a nice talk; she’s very interested in local history. None of the other [Friends] have been here. They’re interested in their park.”
Gardiner and I turn to the failed park referendum.
“My hope is that people will re-vote it,” Gardiner says. “I believe this time it will pass. They’ll see the [Garrett Warehouse] coming down at the lake and so now they’ve seen a part of the lake they’ve never seen before.” The warehouse had blocked the view since the second decade of the last century.
States and I get back in her car and head for the exact place where Curtiss flew the June Bug that day in 1908. Along the way she drives through an area that once held the Curtiss factory, a building that evokes the fondest memories for the people who were alive back then.