Chapter II – BACKGROUND
Certain traits that were to show in Wilbur and Orville Wright – the pioneering urge, the gift for original thinking, and mechanical aptitude – were all in their ancestry.
Take, for example, their grandfather, John G. Koerner. Native of a German village, near Schleiz, he became so bitterly opposed to German militarism and autocracy that he determined to migrate to the United States. He sailed from Bremen to Baltimore early in 1818 and went to live in Virginia. Besides gaining recognition in the United States for his mechanical ability and for the superior quality of farm wagons and carriages he manufactured, he became known, too, as a person who did his own thinking He did not accept all that he heard or read. Indeed, he seems to have been a “character.” It was his habit to read newspapers aloud to his family, and when, as invariably happened, he came to something that interested him because of approval, disapproval, or for any other reason, he would interpolate comment without changing his tone or rate of utterance. It was impossible for a listener to tell just how much that he seemed to be reading was actually in the paper and which ideas were his own. One by one, members of his family would study the paper afterward to see if various surprising statements were really there. No matter how commonplace a newspaper article may have been, it was never colorless as he read it.
His wife, the former Catherine Fry, American born, also came of pioneer ancestry, from the German language section of Switzerland. Their daughter, Susan Catherine Koerner, was born April 30, 1831, when they lived at Hillsboro. Loudoun County, Virginia, but the family moved to Union County, Indiana, shortly after that – at a time when there was still pioneering life in the Hoosier country. The Koerner farm became a rather impressive one for those times. There were finally a dozen or fourteen buildings, including the carriage shop, all conspicuous for their workmanlike construction and orderliness. John Koerner lived to the age of eighty-six.
Perhaps the most interesting pioneer of all in the Wright brothers’ ancestry was Catharine (Benham) Van Cleve, the first white woman to set foot in Dayton. Her husband, John Van Cleve, whom she had married in New Jersey, was a descendant of a Van Cleve who had come from Holland to Long Island before 1650. When he proposed, a few years after their marriage, that they should settle in the almost unexplored virgin forest region of Ohio, she liked the adventurous idea. They migrated to Cincinnati – then called Losantiville – in 1790. Within two years after their arrival, John Van Cleve was killed by Indians. His widow married Samuel Thompson and, in April, 1796, they decided to try their luck at a settlement about to be established, fifty miles to the north. The place had just been named in honor of Jonathan Dayton, a Revolutionary soldier. Three groups of people arranged to make the trip at about the same time. So unsettled was the country, and so nearly non-existent were the wagon trails, that the party which included Catharine Van Cleve Thompson preferred to travel in a flat-bottomed boat on the Miami River. The others went by land. Though the boat trip took about ten days, that group was the first to arrive. Among those in the boat were some of the Van Cleve children; another of them was in one of the overland parties. A Van Cleve son, Benjamin, became the first postmaster at Dayton, the first school teacher, and also the first county clerk. His marriage at Dayton in August, 1800, to Mary Whitten, was the first recorded in Montgomery County.
Margaret Van Cleve, a sister of Benjamin, had stayed in Cincinnati, because she was about to be married – to George Reeder, later an innkeeper. They had a daughter, Catharine, who became the wife of Dan Wright (not named Daniel, but plain Dan, as was also his father), who had come to Centerville, Ohio, near Dayton, in 1811. It was of this union that Milton Wright, father of Wilbur and Orville, was born – in a log cabin in Rush County, Indiana, November 17, 1828.
Dan Wright’s ancestry could be traced back to one John Wright, known to have bought Kelvedon Hall, in Essex County, England, in 1538. A less remote ancestor, Samuel Wright, had migrated to America in 1636, and settled at Springfield, Mass.
At the time of his marriage, Dan Wright was employed in a distillery. But he evidently did not feel comfortable over his occupation and quit the distillery job to devote his whole attention to farming. Moreover, he “got religion” and would no longer even sell his corn to distillers. Perhaps it was because of the strong religious feeling of Dan Wright that his son, Milton at the age of eighteen, had joined the United Brethren church.
Milton Wright attended a small college in near-by Hartsville, Indiana, and at the age of twenty-two he received from the United Brethren church his certificate entitling him to preach. But he did not at once actively enter the ministry. The pioneer urge was in him and he went to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, where for two years he was a teacher in a small college conducted under the auspices of the church. It was three or four years after finishing his course at Hartsville that he met the young woman, a student there, who was to become his wife. Mutual friends had spoken to him of Susan Catherine Koerner, of how charming, how “smart” she was, and when he found an opportunity to be introduced to her, he was by no means disinclined to make her acquaintance. They were married on November 24, 1859, a week after his thirty-first birthday.
During the first few years after their marriage, the Milton Wrights lived at several different places in Indiana. Their first child, Reuchlin, was born in March, 1861, on a farm near Fairmont County, at the home of his grandparents. When Wilbur was born, April 16, 1867, the family was living on a small farm the father had bought near the village of Millville, eight miles east of New Castle. Wilbur was named for Wilbur Fiske, a churchman whom the father admired; but his name did not include the Fiske. None of the Wright children ever had a middle name.
For a year, the Rev. Milton Wright was a minister of a church at Hartsville, and also taught in the college he had attended there. Then, in June, 1869, he became editor of the Religious Telescope, a United Brethren weekly, at Dayton, the home of those pioneer ancestors.
A year or more after their arrival for their first stay in Dayton, the Wright family bought, while it was still under construction, a modest seven-room house at 7 Hawthorne Street. This was on the West Side, across the Miami River, and about a mile from the main business section. Here Orville Wright – named for Orville Dewey, a Unitarian minister – was born on August 19, 1871; and his sister, Katharine, three years later to the day.
During the family’s absence in Cedar Rapids and Richmond, the Hawthorne Street house was rented, but the Wright family was once again to live there, for in June, 1884, the Rev. Milton Wright’s work brought him from Richmond back to Dayton. When sixteen months later, the tenant’s lease expired and they were settled again at 7 Hawthorne Street, all the family felt that they were where they belonged.
The family’s return to Dayton was a few days before Wilbur would have been graduated from high school at Richmond. With the final year of the course so nearly completed, he would have received his diploma if he had been present with his class on commencement day. But Wilbur did not consider the mere diploma itself important enough to justify a trip back to Richmond, even though the distance was less than fifty miles. His decision was a subject for family talks and all agreed that Wilbur should do as he thought best. The father felt, as did the others, that receiving a diploma was ceremonial and less important than the actually education gained.
Wilbur decided to take a special course at the high school in Dayton the next year. He wished especially to continue the study of Greek, and to learn trigonometry.
Orville had been in the sixth grade at Richmond, but a week or two before the end of the year he got into a bit of mischief that caused his teacher, Miss Bond, to dismiss him. She said he could not return to school until either his father or mother came with him to guarantee that his deportment would improve. But his father was away from home at the time, and his mother was too busy packing for the move to Dayton to take time for consultation with that teacher. Orville simply stayed out of school for the rest of the year.
When he entered school in Dayton the next September, with no certificate to show that he had completed the sixth grade, it looked as if he might have to be in that grade for another year. But Orville was so violent and uncompromising in his protests that the school authorities said he might try the seventh grade until they could see how well he got along. At the end of the year he passed into the eighth grade with the highest mark in arithmetic in the city.
When Orville entered the eighth grade, Miss Jennings, who taught grammar, evidently thought she detected something mischievous about him and assigned him to a front seat in her class.
The next year, the same teacher had been promoted to the high school, as a teacher of algebra, and again she put Orville up in front where she could keep an eye on him. Orville’s front seats became a subject for family jests.
Later on in his high school course, Orville was demonstrating a problem on geometry on the blackboard, when his teacher, Miss Wilson, pointed out that though he had the correct answer, he evidently had not followed the textbook.
“I got it out of another book – Wentworth’s geometry,” Orville explained. And he added: “I get a lot of good stuff from Wentworth.”
Instead of complimenting him on having enough interest in the subject to consult another source, the teacher chided him for referring to what she called “a beautiful science” as “stuff.”
Orville had no compunction about telling at meal times of such episodes. He knew he wouldn’t be scolded. It was simply good conversational material and would provoke sympathetic laughter.
The family was interested, too, in the inventiveness of the boys. Lorin had once invented an improvement on a hay-baling machine. Wilbur had designed and built a practical device for folding paper. This was while he had the contract for folding the entire weekly issue of an eight-page church paper. He had found the hand work tedious and got up a machine that could be worked by a foot-treadle.
For a long time the mechanical ability that had aroused the most family admiration, though, was in the mother. Susan Koerner Wright was more than ordinarily resourceful in adapting house tools or utensils to unexpected uses. She was clever at designing clothes too; and once she had built a sled for the two older boys. As her family used to say, she “could mend anything.”
The mother, however, was not long to be spared to her family, On July 4, 1889, or less than four years after the return to Hawthorne Street, she died. During the latter years of her life, Wilbur was much with his mother, and devoted himself almost constantly to her care, for he too at that time was an invalid, unable to engage in much outdoor activity.
Wilbur’s illness was in consequence of an accident. While playing a game of shinny, on skates, he was hit in the face with a shinny club. The blow knocked out his upper front teeth. He began to suffer from a heart disorder from which he did not completely recover for several years.
After the death of the mother, and the departure of the two older brothers to establish homes of their own, the other members of the Wright family were all the more drawn together. Whatever one of them was doing interested all. And all – especially Wilbur – did much reading.
Two groups of books were in the home, one in Bishop Wright’s study upstairs, and another, used by the family, downstairs in the living room. Nearly all of the books in the father’s library were “very serious,” but Wilbur often dipped into them, though the father made no effort to direct or control what anyone’s reading. Downstairs, however, were the books that both Wilbur and Orville liked best. These included a set of Washington Irving’s works, both Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairy tales, Plutarch’s Lives, a set of the Spectator, a set of Addison’s essays, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a set of Sir Walter Scott, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Green’s History of England, Guizot’s France, an incomplete set of Nathanial Hawthorne, and a set in which was Marey’s Animal Mechanism. Here also were a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Chambers’ Encyclopedia. The Britannica was an edition of the late 70’s and the Chambers’ Encyclopaedia was an early edition. Though Wilbur was the great reader, Orville was not far behind him. He was fascinated by scientific articles in the encyclopedia almost from the time he learned to read.
Wilbur and Orville from time to time contributed to the family comfort in a substantial way. They built a spacious front porch, and all the lathe work for the posts they did themselves. Then they remodeled the interior of the house, changing the arrangement of the rooms. Other members of the family felt as much pride in such handiwork as if they had done it themselves.
More than their sturdy, intelligent, pioneer ancestry, it was probably the kind of home they lived in that had most to do with what the younger brothers were later to achieve. Orville expressed that with deep conviction many years afterward. A friend of his had remarked to him: “Even though what you accomplished was without the idea of making money, the fact remains that the Wright brothers will always be favorite examples of how American lads with no special advantages can get ahead.”
“But,” said Orville seriously, “that isn’t true. Because, you see, we did have special advantages.”
“What special advantages do you mean?”
“Simply that we were lucky enough to grow up in a home environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”
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