This series of articles by Roz Young dealt with Mabel Beck’s life with the Wright Brothers.
The articles appeared in the Dayton Daily News from November 20, 1993 to March 12, 1994.
MABEL BECK'S STORY PART OF THE WRIGHT BROTHERS' HISTORY
November 20, 1993
The 90th anniversary of the famous day at Kitty Hawk will be observed with more than usual ceremony on Dec. 17.
Woven into the well-documented annals of the Wright brothers is the story of one woman who appears but briefly in any of the biographies about them, yet she was privy for almost 40 years to all their comings and goings and especially to all of Orville's affairs, business and private.
This is her story.
For the most part, the houses in the third block of West Babbitt Street are tall, two-story frame doubles built on small lots. The street is in McPherson Town, close to the Great Miami River. The houses date from the late 19th century.
In 1910 number 220 was the home of Charles Beck, a machinist, his wife Lena and their two daughters, 30-year-old Edna, who was Charles Beck's daughter by a previous marriage, and 20-year-old Mabel. The Becks had moved to Dayton from Middletown in 1897.
Mabel probably attended Steele High School although a search of the Steele records has not found her name among the graduates. She was likely in the class of 1907; Steele was the only Dayton high school at the time; Stivers opened in fall of 1906 but did not have a senior class in 1907.
She worked for three years as a saleslady at Mose Cohen's Men's Furnishings and Hats. The store was on the ground floor of the U.B. Building on the northeast corner of Fourth and Main, and every day except Sunday Mabel walked two blocks from her house to Main Street, two blocks south to the Main Street bridge, past Monument, First, Second, and Third to Fourth Street.
Mabel had brown hair and dark eyes, and although she was short and tended toward plumpness, she was the prettiest of the girls who worked for Mose Cohen.
On the 13th floor of the U.B. Building the Wright Aeronautical Company had its offices. In the three years since the first flight at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur and Orville Wright had organized the company to manufacture and market their planes, searching out buyers in this country and abroad. In March 1910, they decided they needed to publicize their business by developing teams of fliers who would compete in exhibitions and prize contests. They hired A. Roy Knabenshue, an aerial showman, to arrange bookings and supervise logistics. Orville would select the team members and teach them to fly at Simms Station on Huffman Prairie.
Knabenshue shopped at Mose Cohen's store. The young woman who waited on him for shirts and hats impressed him with her efficiency.
"I need to hire a secretary," he told her one day. "I like your looks and the way you do your work. But you would have to type and write shorthand."
Mabel wanted the job. "I'd love to have the job," she said."I would be glad to go to business college in night school and take typing and shorthand. Would that be satisfactory?"
He agreed that it would. Accordingly on April 4, 1910, she enrolled at the Jacobs Business College, and began her work for Knabenshue.
When she first began at the Wright Company, Wilbur Wright was out of town most of the time, testifying in patent suits and traveling on selling trips in Europe. Orville conducted flight training programs for Army and Navy officers and for civilian flying enthusiasts.
While workmen were making Huffman Prairie ready for flying, Orville went to a field at Montgomery, Ala., to teach the first student pilots. By May 10 Huffman Prairie was ready, and he transferred the flying school there. Among the first flyers were Walter Brookins, Arch Hoxey, Art L. Welsh, Duval la Chapelle, Spencer Crane, A.L. Davis, Frank Coffyn, Ralph Johnstone, Phil Parmelee, Cliff Turpin, Howard Gill and Leonard Bonney.
Spencer, Crane, la Chappel and Davis flunked the course, but Davis remained with the team as a mechanic.
The Wright team flew its first exhibition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway June 13-June 18, 1910 and took part in many contests and meets during the next few years.
Early in 1912 Knabenshue left the Wright Company, and Mabel became Wilbur's secretary.
Her association with him, however, was short. In April 1912, while he was on a business trip to Philadelphia, Wilbur became ill from eating contaminated shellfish. By the time he arrived home in Dayton on May 2, he felt well enough to go on a family picnic to Hawthorn Hill, the site on which the Wrights planned to build a new home. On his return from the picnic, he developed a fever. The doctor diagnosed his illness as malarial fever, but Wilbur continued working for a few days.
On May 8 Dr. D.B. Conklin changed his diagnosis to typhoid fever. His health deteriorated, and on May 10 Wilbur, sensing that his illness was grave, called Ezra B. Kuhns, a lawyer and high school classmate of Orville, and Mabel to come to the house on Hawthorn Street. Kuhns acted as witness while Wilbur dictated his will to Mabel. (Ed Kuhns, who practices law in downtown Dayton, is the nephew of Ezra Kuhns. "I have a framed copy of Wilbur's will hanging in my office," he said one day on the bus recently. "It's a one-page document in my uncle's handwriting."
Despite all the doctors could do, Wilbur's health continued to fail, and at 3:15 on the morning of May 30, 1912, he died.
Next week: Mabel gets a new job.
WILBUR'S DEATH LEFT MABEL TO INSINUATE HERSELF INTO ORVILLE'S LIFE
November 27, 1993
'The death of brother Wilbur has been an irreparable blow to all of us," Orville told a Dayton Journal reporter after Wilbur's funeral. "How it will affect our organization at this time I cannot say. It comes as a fearful shock right when we were in the midst of plans for a future bright with promise."
Orville became president of the Wright Company and asked Mabel to remain as his secretary. He had no interest in manufacturing airplanes and within a few years sold the company to a syndicate of eastern businessmen. He continued to work on aeronautical experiments out of his old office in the bicycle shop until 1924 when he built a laboratory and office at 15 N. Broadway.
Mabel's father died in 1922, and after that her employer became the only man in her life. Fiercely devoted to him, she developed into a woman with a forceful character, acting as a buffer between Orville and the rest of the world. Anybody - whether business associates or family members - who wished to speak with Orville at his office had to go through Mabel first, and her attitude made it difficult, particularly for many of his business associates.
Earl Findley, a New York Herald reporter, for example, had published many stories about the Wright brothers long before the advent of Mabel Beck, and he and Orville had become friends. In 1915 Orville, reluctantly giving in to the repeated requests by his sister Katharine and by many book publishers, agreed to allow a biography of the brothers to be written. He did not want to write it himself, and so he turned to Earl Findley. With Orville's approval Findley asked another reporter, John R. McMahon, to help him.
The two interviewed Orville, his father Milton and his sister. Mabel Beck had all the notes, diaries and other Wright papers in her files and knew as much about them as Orville did. She decided how much access Findley and McMahon could have to the papers, which annoyed them greatly. But Mabel was a personage to be reckoned with, and they knew better than to complain about her to Orville.
They worked for six months on the first draft of the book and sent it to Orville for his approval.
At the time he read the manuscript, he was in bed with severe back pains. "This manuscript is too personal and chatty," he told Mabel. "Send it back. I would rather have the sciatica."
Mabel sent it back and told them exactly what Orville said.
Findley and McMahon were crushed. They had worked long and hard on the book and they both needed the money they had expected to make on it. Later Findley became editor of U.S. Aviation News, and it was in the pages of his magazine that most of Orville's writings first appeared. In 1929, 14 years after the sciatica incident, McMahon published his rewritten version in a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly. Orville was outraged and when he heard that McMahon was preparing the articles to be published in a book, he asked Findley to stop him.
Findley, still hurt at Orville's rejection, did try but was unable to persuade NcMahon. Little, Brown and Co. published the book over Orville's objections.
Marj Heyduck, longtime Journal Herald columnist, wrote in 1948, "Thoughts while walking along Main Street . . . noticed Miss Mabel Beck, secretary for many years to Orville Wright, striding alone . . . was about to say 'Hello' but the words stuck . . . for so many years, Miss B. guarded the famous inventor's office door so well that only the most persistent of reporters could get her to open the door an inch, or only enough to say, 'No, you cannot see Mr. Wright' . . . after being rebuffed so many times, it is hard to break the pattern . . . Swallowed the 'Hello.' '
Fred C. Kelly, a Xenia reporter and one whom Orville considered a friend, wrote the authorized biography with Orville's cooperation. It was first published in 1943. Kelly said that Mabel had complete charge of the papers, and she let him see only what she chose to and often hindered his work.
Not only did Mabel act as a dragon defending her lair as far as the world was concerned, she also treated members of the family with truculence.
In her memoir Ivonette Wright Miller, niece of the brothers, wrote, "She felt the power of her position and seemed to want to alienate everyone from Orville in order to have his full attention to herself."
Niece Sue Wright once had her car serviced at a garage near the laboratory. Since she had a long wait, she decided to wait in a comfortable place. She rang the bell at the laboratory. Mabel opened the door.
"Is Uncle Orv here?" Sue asked.
Mabel frowned. "You mean Mr. Wright?" she asked coldly. "Wait here. I will see if he is in."
She disappeared into Orville's office. Sue said she heard her say to him, "It's Sue."
"She never would speak to any of us if we met on the street," Sue recalls.
It may have been that Mabel entertained thoughts of marriage with Orville. "She even tried to push her way into Orville's household, but she quickly ran into spunky little Carrie (Carrie Grumbach, Orville's housekeeper)," wrote Ivonette, "who was a match for her. Carrie told Mr. Orv if 'that woman' ever came in the front door of the house, she would go out the back."
Orville had an understanding, probably never expressed, with his sister Katharine that they would always live together. For years he lived exactly the kind of life he liked with Mabel in the office and Katharine at home. But Katharine married in 1926. He never spoke to her again until she lay dying. Some family members believed Mabel was at the bottom of the estrangement. At home he remained a kindly uncle to his nieces and nephews, but at the office he turned more and more to faithful Mabel.
Most biographers of the Wrights tell with glee of the time Orville bought an IBM typewriter. He took it apart to see how it was made, but he couldn't get it back together again. "Call a repairman," he said to Mabel.
When the repairman came, he said, "I can repair typewriters, but I can't assemble them." He took the pieces away in a bushel basket.
Orville had bought the typewriter for Mabel.
In the early 1940s the city of Dayton after much political maneuvering arranged for superhighway Rt. 75 to pass over the city near the Miami River. The Beck's house, in which they had lived 46 years, was one of those razed to make way for the road. With the money received from the city and some help from Orville, Mabel bought a two-story brick home at 116 Acacia Drive. Mabel, Edna and their mother Lena moved into the new home early in 1942. In May, shortly after they moved, Lena, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 90.
Mabel bought a lot in Woodland Cemetery and had a bench put up so she could visit her mother's grave in comfort. (Her father was buried in Middletown.)
Over the years those who knew Orville wondered whether there was ever any affection between he and Mabel, but what went on within the walls of the laboratory office remained only speculation.
Well, not quite.
Next week: A secret revealed.
ORVILLE DID MORE THAN INVENT IN HIS SHOP - YEARS CAN'T ERASE MEMORIES
December 4, 1993
Some of the windows in the building at 15 N. Broadway were on the ground level, and small boys in the neighborhood often applied their noses on the glass to see what was going on inside. Orville told Dr. Charles L. Seasholes, pastor of the First Baptist Church, that one day when he was working at a machine, he heard two of the boys talking.
"What is Mr. Wright doing?" one of them asked.
"He's inventing, " the other replied.
One of the neighborhood boys who looked in the windows was John Wohlslagel, now a retired Wright-Patterson Air Force Base engineering technician.
When John was a boy, he lived on West Second Street near Broadway about a city block from Orville Wright's office and lab.
The neighborhood was made up of poor Hungarian and German immigrant families.
"We were all on public assistance in those days," John said, "and mostly we ate beans and cheese. I never had any lunch money, and for years my lunch consisted of a bowl of prunes. I was the most regular boy in Edison School."
John's father, a toolmaker, was unable to hold a regular job after he lost a leg. During Prohibition he made some money by making bootleg whiskey in the basement of their house.
"We had a wicker baby buggy," John recalls. "My father put a false bottom in it, and that's where he stowed his whiskey bottles. He put the baby in it and wheeled the buggy around the neighborhood, making his deliveries."
When John was 13 years old, he had a job working after school and on Saturdays and Sunday mornings for Gus Stathes, who owned a dry-cleaning shop and shoe stand on West Third around the corner from the laboratory. John's job was to run errands for Gus and to shine shoes.
Orville Wright was one of his customers.
"During the three years I shined Orville Wright's shoes, I got to know him rather well," John said. "He was always dressed to perfection; he usually wore a black suit and black shoes; his shirt was white with a stiff collar.
"Shoe shines at that time were five cents, and Mr. Wright usually tipped a nickel. He was most particular about the shine and inspected his shoes all around the soles and heels before he paid me.
"Orville Wright's office was not on street level. The front entrance was recessed, and there were stairs to the front door. The office part of the building was made with red wire-cut bricks with deep-set mortar joints. The shop part of the building was of cement blocks on street level.
"When Mr. Wright had the shop windows open, I would sit for hours and watch him tinker with some type of equipment on long tables. He always wore a long white smock when he worked in his lab.
"One day when I was walking down the alley along the side of Mr. Wright's office and lab, I had the urge to peek into his office. I got a finger-hold and a good toe-hold with my worn gym shoes. I got up to the window sill and peeked in.
"Here is what I saw: Mr. Wright was sitting in his office chair facing North Broadway. He had his white smock on. There was Mabel Beck, sitting across Orville's lap, facing me. She had on a long-sleeved, light-colored blouse and a dark skirt.
"The reason she couldn't see me was because her eyes were closed. She and Orville were kissing."
John was aghast at the sight.
"My eyes got big as saucers, and I dropped to the alley and I ran as hard as I could for about half a block," he said.
He never told any of his playmates or his folks at home what he had seen. In fact, he never told anybody for almost 60 years.
And now he has told us.
Next week: Mabel's story continues.
MABEL ALONE AFTER ORVILLE'S DEATH
December 11, 1993
In October 1947, Orville suffered a slight heart attack while running up the steps of the headquarters building at NCR. It was not a serious attack, and he was released from the hospital after four days.
On the morning of Jan. 27, 1948, he and Mabel were working in the laboratory when he stopped talking and slumped in his desk chair. Mabel saw at once that something grave had happened, and she called Dr. Allen Horwitz, who had an office across the street.
He came at once and saw that Orville had had a stroke. He immediately called an ambulance and then Orville's physician and told him what had happened and that Orville would arrive shortly at Miami Valley Hospital. Mabel then called Carrie Grumbach at Hawthorn Hill, and she arrived at the laboratory before the ambulance did and went with him to the hospital. Mabel was left alone in the laboratory.
She never saw him alive again. Orville died of the stroke three days later. He was 77.
The family assumed that Mabel would be the executor of his estate. After his funeral they waited for her to produce the will. They heard nothing from her but silence.
After a few days Ivonette's husband, Harold Miller, went to the bank to look for the will in Orville's safety box. Bank officials told him to check with Orville's attorney, Charles Funkhouser. He had the will in his files and to everyone's surprise, Orville had named not Mabel but Harold and another nephew, Harold Steeper, executors.
Among his bequests was $300,000 to Oberlin College, Katharine's alma mater, and with the requirement the trustees should pay out of the interest annual stipends to some of his relatives, to one friend Ed Sines, to his mechanic Charles Taylor, to his housekeeper Carrie Grumbach, to his laundress Charlotte Jones and to "my trusted secretary" Mabel Beck. He left her $4,000 annually. The others who worked for Orville received less.
Mabel outlived Orville by 11 years, dying in August 1959, at the age of 68. She had suffered from hypertension and cerebral arteriosclerosis for three years and died three days after a cerebral hemorrhage. She left her estate to her sister Edna.
It is intriguing to speculate whether Mabel kept a diary and if she did, what became of it. It seems only natural that a woman associated so closely so long with a world famous inventor would have kept a journal. Her will said, "I request that no appraisal of my personal effects, household goods or furniture be made, and direct that my said representatives carry out such written instructions, in a separate envelope to be found in my safety deposit box, as I may leave with with regard to distribution thereof my relatives and friends."
Did that envelope contain a diary with instructions that said, "Burn my diary"?
She did write one piece that was published. It was requested by Orville's friend Earl Findley and published by him in the December 1954 U.S. Air Services magazine.
Findley requested her to write the article following the return of the first airplane from England and its deposit in the Smithsonian Institution. "We believe the document is of great historical interest," Findley wrote, "first because of its subject and second because Miss Beck is the only person still living who can state these particular facts with the authority of a participant."
In the article she describes how the first airplane, which was wrecked in the second flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17, 1903, was stored in boxes in a shed in the rear of the workshop at 1127 W. Third St. During the 1913 flood the machine, still in the boxes, lay in water for several weeks.
In May 1916, Orville was asked to exhibit the machine at the dedication of some new buildings at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Workmen reassembled it at the Wright factory. The rudders had to be almost entirely rebuilt, and the cloth and main cross-spars of the upper and lower center sections of the wings had to be replaced. The rest of the machine except for the motor were original equipment of the 1903 machine.
It was set up in South Field for two weeks in 1921 for purposes of obtaining testimony in a lawsuit and then returned to the laboratory building, where it remained until Orville sent it to the Science Museum, South Kensington, England.
Orville made up his mind in 1925 to send the machine to England. At that time, wrote Mabel, "the original cloth was in bad shape, very frail and worn from having been handled so much in setting up the machine in various exhibitions. Mr. Wright therefore decided to recover the machine with new cloth.
"Actual work was not started on the machine until December 1926. Jim Jacobs was hired to do the woodwork and assembly, and Mr. Wright and I laid out and cut all the cloth, and I did the sewing. Jacobs later did the crating. Only the three of us had anything to do with the final work on this machine. I arranged for the transportation from Dayton to London."
The machine was ready to go in March 1927. It stood in the laboratory until January 1928, when it was torn down and crated. Mabel was custodian, and during Orville's summer vacation in Canada, Mabel went to the laboratory every day to be sure that the plane was all right.
Mabel added one note to this information. "In June 1927, several weeks after the historic flight from New York to Paris, Col. Charles A. Lindbergh was in Dayton on a private visit to Mr. Wright. Very early one morning in order to avoid the crowds that were pursuing him everywhere, Col. Lindbergh, in company with Gen. Gillman, the commanding officer of Wright Field, came out to the laboratory to see the machine. Mr. Wright called me at home about 6:30 a.m., saying that they were coming out and for me to be there. I met Col. Lindbergh at that time."
Next week: We hear from Earl Findley again.
MABLE BECK MEETS HER MATCH
December 18, 1993
Mabel Beck's article about the 1903 plane appeared in the December 1954 U.S. Air Services magazine. In the July issue of the same year appeared an article under the title "Anne O'Hare McCormick."
So evanescent is fame that her name will evoke nothing in the mind of many a reader.
Anne O'Hare was born in 1882 in Yorkshire, England, but came as a child to America with her family and grew up in Columbus. Mary of the Springs.
Her first job after graduation was as associate editor of the Catholic Universe Bulletin, a weekly published in Cleveland. In 1911 she married Francis J. McCormick, a Dayton importer and engineer, and moved to Dayton.
In 1920 she wrote a letter to Carl VanAnda of the New York Times, asking whether she could be a correspondent for the newspaper. He replied she could try.
For 16 years she sent analyses of European politics from abroad and interviews with every head of state in Europe. In 1936 Adolph Ochs appointed her to the New York Times editorial board, the first woman on the board in the paper's history.
In 1937 she was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, awarded for her 1936 dispatches and feature articles from Europe. For many years she wrote two editorials a week for the Times and a three-times-a-week, "Abroad." Of her work Ishbell Ross in Ladies of the Press wrote, "Mrs. McCormick works so quietly that few people ever get to see her in action. She goes into a country, gets to the seat of government, interviews the most important figures, talks to the man in the street and catches the external drama. If there is any question of censorship, she quietly crosses the border and sends her copy from another country."
She received many journalism awards and 16 honorary degrees, including one from the University of Dayton.
She was a member of the editorial board of the New York Times and still writing when she died at 72 in 1954.
"There have been many tributes to Anne O'Hare McCormick, who died on May 29," wrote Earl Findley, the editor in the July 1954 issue of U.S. Air Services . "We would like to add a footnote."
In February 1928, Findley read in the newspaper a little two-line announcement that Orville Wright had sent the 1903 airplane to England.
To Earl that announcement was like a thunderbolt. Orville had stated his intention to send the plane to England in 1925, setting off efforts by scientists, historians, newspaper and magazine writers and prominent citizens to resolve the long-standing feud between the Wrights and the Smithsonian Institution.
Although Orville wanted the 1903 airplane to be housed permanently in the National Air Museum, officials of the institution refused to meet his requirements. He finally became discouraged and shipped the plane to England without a word to anybody.
When Findley read that the airplane had actually been shipped, he immediately sent a telegram to Orville requesting details for publication in U.S. Air Services the next month.
He received no answer. "Several telegrams and one letter of passionate appeal were sent," Findley wrote. "The result was an increasing calm."
How could he persuade Orville to talk?
He knew only one reporter in the world who might get through the formidable barrier of Mabel Beck at the door and interview the reluctant Orville Wright - Anne O'Hare McCormick, who had been a friend of Orville for 14 years when she was his neighbor, living on Forrer Road in Dayton. Findley knew she had just returned from a year in Italy, the Balkans and Russia.
He sent her a telegram explaining the problem. As it happened, Mrs. McCormick was in Dayton at the time on vacation visiting at the home of her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Baggott (Mrs. John C. Baggott), 98 Patterson Road. When Anne telephoned for an interview, Mabel decide she'd better not say no.
Mrs. McCormick spent several hours interviewing him. He asked her to let him read and approve the manuscript before she sent it to Findley.
The next day she took the finished article to Orville, who read it and said it would not do. She talked with him further and went home to write another story.
Orville did not approve the second attempt.
When he turned her third effort down, he said, "I am sorry, but apparently I cannot make you understand why I sent the original ship to England. I have written out a few notes to help you."
The notes he gave her are the only written statement Orville Wright made on the subject. Earl Findley published "Why the 1903 Wright Airplane is sent to a British Museum" in the March 1928 U.S. Air Services.
The same issue carried Mrs. McCormick's article, the one Orville did not approve.
Their articles on the same subject reflect the styles of the writers. Said Mrs. McCormick, the literary, the graceful writer, "The truth is that the decision. . .was not taken hastily, in a spirit of pique, or without a dignified effort to obtain an investigation of the charges of unfairness made by the Wrights against the Smithsonian. For 10 years Orville Wright said nothing about the old machine gathering dust in the storeroom. He refused all offers to consign it to other museums because he was saving it for the only collection in which it could be properly placed. When finally three years ago he became convinced there was no hope of a change of attitude on the part of the National Museum, and no chance of inquiry into that attitude, he made no announcement of his intention to send the machine abroad. He is not responsible now for the publicity attending its departure. In both cases the news leaked out without his knowledge."
The article that no-frills Orville gave her went right to the point in the first sentence: "I have sent our original 1903 machine to the British National Museum because of the hostile and unfair attitude shown toward us by officials of the Smithsonian Institution."
One further note concludes this sketch of the life of the other woman in Orville Wright's life. Who could have leaked the news about the 1903 airplane, as Mrs. McCormick alleged?
You can depend on it, it wasn't Mabel.
Jan. 22: Tangible evidence of love.
LETTERS OF LOVE - CORRESPONDENCE REVEALS ORVILLE'S FEELINGS FOR MABEL
January 22, 1994
Acacia Drive is a short street that runs uphill from Irving Avenue to Schantz in Oakwood. In 1941 seven families lived on the street. At 110 Acacia were Paul Mader and his wife Frances; Paul was a tool maker at NCR.
Everybody on the street became greatly interested when one morning workmen appeared at the vacant lot next door to the Mader family and after clearing off some of the shrubby growth, began excavating for a basement. It wasn't long before the news spread that Mabel Beck, Orville Wright's secretary, had bought the lot and was building a house.
Mabel lived in her mother's house at 120 W. Babbitt St., but Mrs. Lena Beck was forced to sell it because Route 75 crossed the city at the end of Babbitt and her home had to be razed to make way for it. Mrs. Beck sold her house for $4,000.
Mabel paid $1,000 for the lot on Acacia and hired the most prestigious firm of architects in the city, Schenck and Williams, to draw the plans for the house. It was the same firm that drew the plans for the Wright mansion, Hawthorn Hill, and gossip flew around the neighborhood that Mabel herself could not have had the money to buy the lot, hire the architects and build the house. Speculation was that Orville Wright had provided the money.
The neighbors were even more certain when once the building started, Orville himself drove to the lot on Acacia every working day and supervised the workmen.
The house was ready in 1942. Neighbors watched new pieces of furniture being delivered and observed when the moving van appeared.
No one was more interested than the next-door neighbors, the Maders. The Maders had one daughter, Mary Frances, who was just learning to walk when Mabel Beck, her half sister Edna, and their 92-year-old mother Lena moved in.
Frances took her little girl to call on the Becks, and the two families began a growing friendship. When Frances cooked an especially good dinner, she took part of it to the Becks. She kept them supplied in good German pastries.
Mary Frances grew up as much at home in the Beck house as in her own. As she progressed in school, her parents, who had little formal education, found they were unable to help her with her homework. But Mabel was always willing. "Whenever there is anything you don't understand or need help with," she told Mary Frances, "you bring your books over here and I'll help you."
The Becks, Mary Frances recalls, lived reclusive lives. Lena Beck died shortly after they moved in the new house and the two sisters rarely went out except for visits to Woodland Cemetery. They did not socialize with the other neighbors, but the door was always open to Frances and her daughter.
Orville Wright sometimes called at the Beck home and took Mabel for a ride on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. After he died in 1948 and Mabel's job ended, she spent most of the time at home. "I really loved her," said Mary Frances, "and she was very kind to me."
Mary Frances, who is now Mary Frances Igel, was a junior in high school when Mabel and Edna both died in 1959, and she felt the loss greatly.
The trust department of the Third National Bank administered the Becks' estate, and sent a woman to live in the house on Acacia until the estate was settled and the property sold. She and Mary Frances became friends. "They had a kind of tag sale of the furniture and personal possessions," Mary Frances recalls, "and I helped her get things ready."
In a built-in cupboard on the stair landing they found an interesting cardboard box. It was covered in gray patterned paper with a coat of arms on the top; the inside was lined with gold paper. In the box was a packet of about 15 letters tied with blue ribbon.
They took the letters downstairs into the living room and read them. The letters were from Orville Wright.
"They were letters such as one dear friend writes to another," said Mary Frances. "They expressed warm feelings and deep regard; there was nothing sentimental in them. I feel they were in the best sense of the word real love letters expressing deep emotion and concern. I always knew that Mabel was devoted to Orville, and that's what these letters showed. I think he was expressing his own devotion in them."
What happened to the letters?
A fire burning in the fireplace. The woman from the bank said she thought to protect the reputation of both Mabel and Orville, they should burn the letters.
They tossed them into the fire and watched the letters burn.
The box was replaced in the wall cupboard where Madelon Chambers found it when she and her husband bought the house from the estate. "There were some Christmas cards left in the box and Valentines," she says. "I didn't even read them. I threw them out. But I kept the box in the cupboard and it has been there ever since."
All that remains to testify to the warm regard Orville had for Mabel is the house, which is in its way a miniature Hawthorn Hill. The front door of the house on Acacia has the same paneling as Hawthorn Hill, and leaded windows on both sides of the door are similar. The woodwork is the same, the door panels to the closets the same, the kitchen cabinets are the same and many of the plumbing fixtures.
Madelon and her husband bought with the house many of the lamps, pictures, rugs and pieces of furniture that Mabel had. The quality of the furnishings is the same as Hawthorn Hill's original furnishings.
One article Mary Frances remembers well: Mabel kept on a table beside her bed a photograph of Orville in a silver frame. His likeness was the last thing she saw at night when she turned out the light, and the first she saw in the morning when she turned it on again.
The story of Orville and Mabel is long since over. The letters are ashes. Only the house on Acacia remains, a tangible evidence of love.
MINING FOR HISTORICAL GOLD - MABEL BECK, ORVILLE WRIGHT STORY NOT OVER YET
March 5, 1994
First of two parts
Digging up bits of Dayton history is just like hunting for gold. A few more nuggets have surfaced in the continuing Mabel Beck story.
Mabel was, as you probably remember, Orville Wright's secretary from the time Wilbur died in 1912 until Orville died in 1948.
One of the real bits of treasure in the search was hearing from Mary Frances Mader Igel, who lived next door to the Becks at 116 Acacia Drive. She told us how when after Edna Beck, Mabel's sister, died, the trust officer for the Third National Bank hired a woman to live in the Beck house until the estate was settled. Mary Frances, who was about 16 at the time, said that she and "the woman from the bank" found a packet of affectionate letters from Orville to Mabel and after they read them, they burned those priceless letters in the fireplace.
Mary Frances could not remember the name of the woman from the bank. Whoever she was, I theorized, she could well be still living.
Mabel had directed in her will that no appraisal of her property or personal effects should be made. She left written instructions in her safety box as to what should be done with her effects. I had high hopes that Mabel had kept a diary of her 36 years with Orville and that perhaps it was in the safety box. It would be great to find even a listing of the contents. Perhaps the woman from the bank would know something about it.
I was, however, unable to find out from the bank the name of the trust officer or the "woman from the bank."
One evening when I was leaving the dining room at the Homestead in Bethany Lutheran Village, Margaret Weller said, "The woman who lived in the Beck house is the mother-in-law of a friend of mine, Shirley Sturtz. She lives on Dorothy Lane."
I felt like a bloodhound on a new trail. "Why, yes," said Shirley Sturtz over the telephone, "my husband's mother, Jessie Sturtz, is the one the bank hired to stay in the Beck house. She is 88 years old now, and she lives in a retirement home in West Milton."
Off to West Milton we all went, and had a good chat with Jessie Sturtz, and from her we have a different portrait of Mabel Beck than the impression one gets from reading about her in the Wright biographies.
The Beck family lived at 220 W. Babbitt St. In 1935 the Sturtz family moved to Babbitt Street, one door from the Becks. They and the Becks became friends. Jessie took care of Lena Beck, the mother, when she was sick, and the Beck girls were very kind to the two little Sturtz boys.
Jessie recalls that sometimes when Mabel's car was in the garage for repairs, Orville would bring her home for lunch and take her back to the office. He was also very kind to the Sturtz boys. When in 1938 the U. S. Post Office issued the first air mail stamps, Orville gave each of the two boys an autographed envelope with one of the first stamps on it and enclosed a contact print of the famous first flight photograph, which he also autographed. "He gave me a lot of other things," Ed Sturtz said, "but most of them got away from me. I still have the steering wheel from the plane Orville was flying at Ft. Myers when it crashed and Lt. Selfridge was killed and Orville was injured."
"You said in the paper that Lena Beck sold the house on Babbitt for $4,000," said Jessie, her dark eyes sparkling. "That's wrong. My husband and I bought it from her for $3,500." She laughed. They bought the house in 1941 "for the sum of $1 and other valuable considerations," according to the bill of sale. I had figured the price from the stamps on the sale document, and I was off $500. The Becks paid $750 for it in 1893.
Jessie kept on helping out at the Beck household after they moved into the new house on Acacia Drive, not only during Lena Beck's last illness, but afterwards until both Mabel and Edna died nearly 20 years later.
"One thing I want to emphasize," said Jessie. "The Beck household was one of love, peace and contentment. They were very close. After work, Mabel and Edna were always at home. They never went anywhere that I know of except to visit their mother's grave at Woodland. Mabel even bought a bench and had it put up. I don't know whether it is still there."
I was able to tell her it is, and she was glad.
Next week: About those letters.
HOUSEKEEPER RECALLS FINAL DAYS OF LIVING IN THE BECK HOUSEHOLD
March 12, 1994
Second of two parts
Jessie Sturtz continued as worker and friend in the Beck household after Mabel died in 1959. One day about three months after Mabel died, Edna said to her, "Jessie, I have a lot of money, and we're going to spend some of it. I want to talk with you about some things on my mind."
"All right," Jessie replied. "Why don't we go out for lunch. You will be my guest."
They had a pleasant lunch, but the conversation did not turn to what Edna had in mind. When it came time to pay the check, Edna protested. But Jessie was firm and paid the bill. Back home, Edna said she had some important things to talk over. "But I feel so tired," she said. "I don't know why I should be so tired."
"Let's put off the talk until tomorrow," Jessie suggested. "You rest this afternoon."
"I believe I'll take a nap," said Edna. After Edna dozed off, Jessie went home.
Next morning the Beck housekeeper telephoned.
"Something terrible has happened to Miss Beck," she said."I don't know what to do."
"I'll be right there."
When Jessie arrived, she discovered Edna in bed, unconscious. She had had a stroke. Jessie called the ambulance, cleaned her up and went along in the ambulance to the hospital."
After a long wait, Jessie was allowed in to see Edna who was under an oxygen tent. Jessie held her hand and sang one of her favorite hymns. A nurse came in and said Jessie must leave. Edna squeezed her hand.
Jessie waited outside the room until a nurse came. "You don't need to wait any longer," she said. "Miss Beck just died."
Jessie called Charles Funkhouser, the Beck attorney. He came to the house with L.E. Marcum, the trust officer. "What will you do for a job now?" Marcum asked her.
"I have never been without a job," Jessie answered. "I will find something."
"The bank will have to hire somebody to stay in the house until the estate is settled," Marcum said. "Would you consider doing that?"
"You would need to be here at night because of the insurance. But you could come and go during the day just as you would from your own home. We'll pay you $35 a week."
Jessie agreed. "One thing I would like to ask," she said. "The Becks never made a fire in the fireplace. But I wonder if I might make one."
"Of course. Make all the fires you like."
That is how a fire happened to be burning in the living room the day Mary Frances Mader read the packet of letters from Orville.
Jessie says she never saw the letters.
She recalls that Charles Funkhouser and Jack Harrington, head of the Lutheran Inner Mission, came to the house, removed all of the personal possessions of Mabel and Edna and took them to Bethany. They took jewelry, clothes and papers. The furniture was left in the house and sold with it to the present occupant, Madelon Chambers.
"I do recall that there were some papers and a photograph album in a storage place on the stair landing," said Jessie, "and Mr. Wright's picture that Mabel kept on her dresser. They took them all away to Bethany, and I don't know what became of them after that."
Neither does anybody else. Charles Funkhouser is dead, but Jack Harrington, 92, lives at Bethany. "I remember going to the Beck house to get the things," he recalls, "but what specifically we took and what became of it I simply can't remember after all these years. I can't tell you whether there was a diary or any letters. I think we turned everything over to Florence Glander, the head of housekeeping, but she is dead."
Mary Frances, who was 16 or 17 at the time, has a distinct memory of the letters and their general content. Jessie does not. We'll leave it at that for the present.
Something may still turn up. At least we know now that although Mabel Beck stood between Orville and the rest of the world and made it difficult for people to see him and treated the rest of the family with hostility, at home she was a kind and loving daughter, sister and neighbor.