“I never met, never saw Curtiss,” says George Winters, 89, who now lives in nearby Bath, where he worked during World War II building aircraft parts for machinist Henry Kleckler. “He practically worshiped Glenn Curtiss,” says Winters. Really, Winters shouts it, because he’s nearly deaf. “Kleckler worked for Curtiss before World War I. He was the man who designed the OX-5 engine [which powered the Curtiss Jenny]. Curtiss went broke and he had to lay off his help. Kleckler was more interested in the work part than the pay part, so he kept on working and Curtiss kept on giving him his worthless stock. But the war came along and Curtiss got a big contract and the stock became very valuable. Kleckler, he made a lot of money from that ‘worthless’ stock.”
Near where the factory once stood, now a parking lot and playground, is the site of Curtiss’ home. The house burned down in the 1960s, but 84-year-old Marcel Rouin Jr. remembers it well. “I saw him when I was nine years old,” he recalls. “There was a tree right next to his house where he used to live. He was very famous then. A bunch of his friends were in the house; we were up in this tree eating cherries. He came out with about four of these men and watched us eat. Didn’t bother them a bit.”
States and I arrive at the gates of what was once the Mercury Aircraft Company; now it’s a company that makes computer covers, doors, frames, and no aircraft whatsoever. We can’t get too close because we’re on private property, States explains. So we remain inside the idling station wagon, ready to burn rubber if someone sees us, while she points out items of interest.
“That’s the barn you see in the background of the photograph,” States says, nodding to the red barn up ahead, which appears in a classic image of aviation history: the June Bug making the trophy-winning one-kilometer flight.
At the foot of Kill Devil Hill, builders used the Wrights’ pictures as references to erect a replica of the brothers’ camp as it stood in 1903: the shack they slept in, the Flyer’s hangar, and the wooden rail they used for launching. Here, by contrast, only grass sprouts from the now-plowed-under racetrack from which Curtiss took off. There used to be a New York State Historical Marker nearby, but it went missing a short time back. Under a shade tree sits a wooden picnic table with flaking paint.
The barn is also visible from Michael Doyle’s office in the Pleasant Valley Wine Company. Doyle, tall with dark brown hair, is the winery’s president, and he also owns the 26 condominiums being built on the banks of Keuka Lake, and the H&B Railroad, which means he is the one who owns the 11 acres of land that the Friends of Hammondsport want to buy. Doyle is unmoved by the Friends’ campaign. “The hill across from the museum is owned by the town,” he says. “It’s 180 acres, part of the original farm sold to the museum. They could name that for Glenn Curtiss.” (Later, I ask Marcia States about this suggestion; she says that this piece of land already has the town barn and a bus garage, plus “it’s not easily accessible…. There’s a road but it’s very difficult to get to. It’s land that is not usable for a park.”)
Doyle continues: “There are so many parks around for the 2,400 souls who live in the town of Urbana [to which the village of Hammondsport belongs], I don’t think we need any more.” Doyle says he wants to hold on to the land, maybe build a new railroad of some kind. “Just to kind of keep it in play,” he says. “I’d like to re-create some kind of passenger service on it.”
Geoffrey Grimsman has a different vision. “Perhaps we can let another person stand on the bank and stare out at the lake and dream of great things,” he says.
States and I drive to Pleasant Valley Cemetery and get out to pay our respects at the shady Curtiss grave site. There is a large family stone bearing the name “Curtiss,” but the inventor’s headstone is of modest size. Very few folks in Hammondsport have any memories of the day Curtiss was buried, 76 years ago. “I was six years old in ’30,” says Carl Slater, “and my brothers knew that Curtiss had died. They assumed he was going to be buried in Hammondsport Cemetery. We started out walking to the hill to watch the funeral and when got there we found out that he was to be buried in Pleasant Valley.”
It was not long after the cherry-tree incident, but Marcel Rouin can just barely remember the burial. “I remember seeing things dropped from airplanes,” he struggles to recall. “Maybe it was Lindbergh or somebody else, a message or something. I can’t remember what the day was like—I think it was in the spring or summer.” It was late July. Ten airplanes circled the cemetery, and each swooped down and dropped flowers.
States drives us back into Hammondsport, past the unmarked house in which Curtiss was born and where he lay in state after his death following an appendectomy, at the age of 52. A later owner screened in the porch and painted the place dark brown.
I ask States if she thinks the Friends of Hammondsport will ultimately prevail, and will manage to raise the additional $1.2 million needed in the time they have left.
“I hope so,” she says, and pauses. “My grandmother called him ‘Our Glenn Curtiss.’ She loved him. Couldn’t stand his motorcycle though.” She lets out a breath. “I rue the day this all gets developed.”