Meeting Wilbur and Orville

To understand the brothers, one historian found that what you know is less important than who you know.

Orville Wright (seated at right, with Wilbur) wears what’s known as “the Chevron,” a thick mustache that covers the top of the upper lip. “He had sported a reddish mustache since high school,” writes Tom Crouch in his 2003 book The Bishop’s Boys. “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. He was the enthusiast of the pair, ever on fire with new inventions, and the optimist as well, the one who always saw the brighter side.”

There was a (small) outcry when Orville didn't make The Art of Manliness’ list of “35 Manliest Mustaches of All Time.” The father of aviation lost out to a puppet—the Swedish Chef from "the Muppet Show"—and a cartoon character, Yosemite Sam. (Courtesy NASM.)
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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.

I treasured a friendship with the late Wilkinson Wright, the son of Ivonette’s older brother Milton. When he was a young man in the 1930s, “Wick” and his cousins had spent summers with Orville at his vacation home on an island in Canada’s Georgian Bay. As he told it, however, there was little vacationing going on. “Uncle Orv” kept his grandnephews busy shifting the location of buildings on the island, building a “junction railroad” to bring luggage up from the beach to cabins on the bluff, and performing general chores.

The opportunity to know members of the Wright family, their wives, children, and grandchildren, has been one of the great pleasures of my professional life. It occurred to me many years ago that I knew far more about their family than I did about my own. Relatives further back than my grandparents are only names to me, or unfamiliar faces in fading photographs. I can, on the other hand, recite from memory much of the Wright lineage back to the 17th century. I can tell you something about the personalities of family members, including the two Wright brothers you never hear mentioned—Ivonette’s dad, Lorin, and first-born Reuchlin. I can tell you how they lived and died, their triumphs and disasters. I have read the letters and diaries of generations of Wrights. I am certain that Orville Wright, that most private of men, would be very unhappy knowing how familiar I am with his inner life and that of the other members of his family. He did what he could to discourage would-be biographers. I find it hard to believe that he would accept anyone as nosy as I am.

For all of that, I would know more. Several years ago one of my favorites of the present generation of the Wright family introduced me to an audience as “our family Boswell.” I could not have been more proud. At the same time, I have had none of the advantages James Boswell had in spending years in the constant company of the writer Samuel Johnson. He traveled with him, discussed everything under the sun, met his friends and family. I would be happy just to spend an afternoon in the company of Wilbur and Orville.

As noted, I would not choose a time when they were preoccupied with their experiments. Rather, I would stroll into the Wright Cycle shop at 1127 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio, on any afternoon in early August 1899. Just three months before, the brothers had announced their interest in flight for the first time in a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information on the state of the aeronautical arts. Recognizing that other pioneers had built wings that would lift them into the air, and that propulsion was an issue that could wait, they quickly decided to focus on aeronautical control.

About Tom Crouch

Tom Crouch is a senior curator in the National Air and Space Museum’s aeronautics department. An historian of early flight, he is the author of The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

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