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Day the Wrights Came Home

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, January 4, 1931


Day the Wrights Came Home

By Howard Burba


     No one will dispute the age-old declaration that an open confession is good for the soul.  That is why Dayton has always found comfort in confessing that there was a time when she thought the Wright boys, Wilbur and Orville, were crazy.  But since that bright, sunny day at Lemans, France, the day their airplane played around in the air for an entire hour, Dayton has recognized her error and made all due and proper amends for it.

     This shall be no attempt to detail the story of the Wrights nor the birth of the airplane.  That has been done by more capable writers.  But this series of red-letter events in Dayton would not be complete without rewriting the story of those two hectic days, June 17 and 18, 1909, when Dayton went crazy over the Wright brothers.

     Seven days before the date set for welcoming the return of the city’s two most distinguished sons from triumphs in France, they had landed on home shores and been tendered a gracious reception by President Taft in the East Room of the White House.  They had been advised that their home city had for weeks past been arranging a public celebration that would eclipse in point of enthusiasm anything in the nature of a home-coming ever to be staged in the middlewest.  We have it on pretty good authority that it wasn’t exactly to their liking, but they had to come home.  So they smiled their approval, and the committee in charge of the celebration went right on with its plans.

     J. Sprigg McMahon had been chosen chairman of the general committee, and on the first page of The News for several days preceding the date of the celebration he caused this announcement to be published in bold letters above his signature:



     “It is the earnest desire of the committee having in charge the Wright Brothers’ Home Celebration, that it be opened up on Thursday morning June 17, with enthusiasm.  We have arranged for two modern cannon at the militia encampment, which will be fired at intervals, beginning at 9 a. m. to announce the opening of the celebration.  The committee requests all factories and others having whistles or bells to blow or ring them for a period not to exceed 10 minutes, commencing at 9 a.m.

     Citizens of Dayton really did not need that invitation, for no power on earth could have stifled the pent-up enthusiasm that marked the opening hours of the celebration.  The event had been widely advertised, and while the celebration would in itself have served to draw thousands from outside the city’s gates, the whispered promise that an airplane flight by one of the Wrights “might” be a crowning feature of it simply caused all sign boards on all roads to turn and point to Dayton.

     At no time in the entire history of Dayton, and that includes all of the years through which she has passed up to this moment, has there been anything to approach the beauty and magnificence of the decorations.  Skilled artisans had designed and constructed a “Court of Honor,” extending along Main st. from Third st. to the river.  On each side stood snow-white columns bearing aloft the colors of the nation.  At the four corners of the court were marbled pedestals, canopied, their four Ionic columns guarding the heroic figures in the center.  Trailing from column to column along the entire distance of the Court of Honor were myriads of electric lights, a veritable rope of diamonds and tinted gems.  Back of it all and over it and above it were the decorations, waving in riotous disregard of tints, yet blending in a symphony of color.

     The soldiers’ monument—a fitting piece to cap these decorations—was surrounded by graceful staffs, each bearing the banner which the soldiers followed. But all of the decorations, all of the art, was not spent on the monument and the Court of Honor.  In every portion of the business section of the city appeared the same degree of taste.  Along the banks of the river, where a gorgeous fireworks program was carried out the first night of the celebration, and on both sides of Main st., facing the Court of Honor, stands capable of seating many thousands of people had been erected.

     Thirty thousand dollars represented the exact cost of that celebration, insofar as the city’s own treasury was concerned. But private citizens and public-spirited merchants went into their own pockets heavily, until final estimates placed the actual expenditure at approximately $50,000.  Back of it all was the hand of a loved and lamented citizen, one whose good works must forever stand as a monument to his memory—Edwin E. Burkhart, mayor of Dayton at the time of the celebration.  And aiding him in this particular undertaking history will always record with a full measure of credit the names of John R. Flotron, Charles W. Slagle, Edgar W. Ellis, John A. McGee, C. A. Craighead, E. S. Reynolds, H. E. Talbott, R. R. Dickey, E. W. Hanley, R.R. Nevin, G. W. Shroyer, Fred H. Rike, Walter Worman, E. G. Pease, George B. Smith, Ezra M. Kuhns, Leopold Rauh, Horace A. Irwin, A. M. Kittredge, Torrence Huffman, W. B. Gebhart, R. P. Burkhart, E. A. Deeds, John H. Patterson, J. Sprigg McMahon, A. E. Thomas, Charles G. Stoddard, F. T. Huffman, J. P. Kiefaber, E. B. Grimes, O B. Brown, Cyrus E. Mead, Isaac Kinsey, E. F. Kimmell, C. T. Freeman, E. J. Brown, Charles H. Dustin.

     Up from Ft. Thomas came a regiment of regulars—for Uncle Sam was also taking a personal interest in the celebration.  It’s true that he had been reluctant to recognize genius as presented by the Wright brothers; he had withheld financial aid just at a time when it was absolutely necessary to develop that genius.  He had even been so shortsighted as to permit the original airplane to be shipped to France where a more sympathetic people lent encouragement that really did far more than their own government offered to do toward developing the flying art.

     The soldiers were encamped at the fairgrounds for several days before the celebration, and lent a colorful tinge to the festive event.

    Then the city awoke on the morning of the first day of the celebration to find the skies weeping with joy.  But even the weather man has a way of co-operating when it is absolutely necessary to the happiness of an entire community.  So after the dust of rural highways had been settled—and they were to be heavily laden that day with horse-drawn traffic—the gentle rain served only to wash down the streets inside the city and freshen the atmosphere.  By 9 o’clock, when the first salute of cannon echoed at the fairgrounds announced the official opening of the celebration the sun was struggling masterfully to smile upon the scene.

     At that hour a train arrived from the east bearing the city’s two distinguished sons, Wilbur and Orville Wright, their father, Bishop Wright, and their sister, Miss Katherine.  A delegation of local citizens, forming a reception committee, had met the train at Springfield, and escorted the inventors on to their home city.

     There have been crowds about the Union station—many crowds on many noteworthy occasions.  But never before, and certainly at no time since, has there been anything to equal the mass of people gathered under the sheds, banked on every available foot of street and sidewalk, perched in and on top of every building that afforded a view of the incoming train.  The soldiers earned their keep for while it was a good-natured throng, it certainly was hard to handle.  There could be no greater proof, if the Wright brothers were seeking it, that Dayton had made her confession and that she now was proud of them and back of them, heart and soul.

     And how did Dayton’s distinguished sons take it?  Here is how I told it on that 17th of June, 21 years ago, word for word, and there can be no clearer answer than to repeat those words:

     “So that they could get a glimpse of the decorations, the Court of Honor, the illumination of Library Park and all other things arranged in their honor, Wilbur and Orville Wright, their sister, Miss Katherine, and their brothers, Lorin and Reuschlin Wright, together with the aged Bishop Wright and other members of the family, were taken about the city Wednesday afternoon.

     “The party was in automobiles and in charge of Mayor Burkhart, chairman J. Sprigg McMahon and other members of the committee.  There was not a nook or corner of the city, gaily decked out in their honor, that was not visited by the Wrights.   They were impressed very much with what had been done.

     “It was felt that the Wrights, being occupied with other duties during the two days of the celebration, would not get an opportunity to see the festoonings.  This trip was the result.  They enjoyed the finished achievement of their townsmen.  The Wrights are not of the spontaneous sort.  But they showed in a real and a sincere manner that each and every little tinge of color, each effort in their honor, was actually appreciated.”

     At the fairgrounds, where the formal program was opened, a brief pageant served to introduce the Wright Brothers to the multitude.  It was staged under the title of “Jonathan Dayton’s Proclamation.”  Two heralds, trumpets in hand, approached to the center of the platform, the first bowing before a local citizen selected to enact the role of Jonathan Dayton.

     “I have the honor,” spoke the First Herald, “to announce the approach to our city of two persons, clothed like our own citizens, but coming in chariots without wheels; sailing through the air like birds; piercing the clouds like rays of light; disappearing behind the mists of the dawn, and reappearing with the full light of day; who seem to defy the laws of matter, rising and falling like ships of the sea on the waves of the air.  They appear to have come upon the wings of the morning from the uttermost parts of the earth, and are hailing for permission to alight in our beautiful city, perchance with messages from lands and peoples across the sea.”

     Jonathan Dayton—“Proclaim to these wizards of the air that they are welcome—thrice welcome—to this, their beloved home, now, as well as aforetime, ere Fame had placed her laurels upon their brows; say that we have heard of their prowess and their victory over the intangible winds.  A thousand weary years mankind waited for the coming of such as they; and happy are we that to this city of the fair Miami has been given the honor of their birth and the reflected glory of their achievements.  Since they come with winged feet by way of the stars, they may not need to enter by the city gates, but in token of our welcome, give to each of them the ancient symbol of a city’s guest and fling wide the gates for their prompt admission.  (Hands key to Heralds.)

     First Herald—(To Wilbur)—“I am directed, sir, to confer upon you this token of a city’s welcome to a returning victor.”

     Second Herald—(To Orville)—“And to you, sir, the same; brothers in labor and in triumph, equal honors are on you bestowed.  Long may you live to enjoy your well-earned guerdon.  As for your fame, it will be as universal as the air over which you have triumphed.”

     Jonathan Dayton—(To Herald)—“Go, and with this proclamation proclaim to the four winds of heaven that the festivities of the city of Dayton, in honor of her distinguished sons, are now open; and all men are bidden.”


To Ye Men Of Ye North, Greeting:

     “Know you it has pleased us to deliver ye freedom of this towne unto our worthy sons, Masters Wilbur and Orville Wright, and in signal proof of our love and esteem we command that ye days of celebration be now holden, and that ye gates of ye towne forthwith be opened wide.

     “And all ye friends and stranger people dwelling beyond our northern wills are bidden to come forth and join us in our testimonies and our merry-makings.

     “Given under our official hand and seal this seventeenth day of June, in the year of our Lord, One thousand nine hundred and nine, and of our independence, the one hundred and thirteenth.

                                                                           “JONATHAN DAYTON.”


     The gates were opened, the throng had entered, the celebration that was to proclaim to the world the recognition of the Wrights as the first to fly was on in all its glory.

     That night say the river banks massed with humanity, and one of the most gorgeous displays of pyrotechnics ever witnessed in this country.  The second day brought the big civic parade, in which every institution and public activity was represented.  Brass bands from Dayton and a dozen other cities, long files of soldiers and veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars, school children dressed in immaculate white and floats representing the highest degree of artistic skill wound their way through the Court of Honor in a pageant that was hours in passing.

     From a seat of honor on the reviewing stand in front of the courthouse two silent, unspoken men sat and watched.  On their breasts were the newly-pinned medals of honor of a city, a state and a nation.  In their hearts there was the feeling of triumph that comes to those who have accomplished that which they sought.

     From their lips came no word of acclaim.  Wilbur and Orville Wright were being welcomed home—their hearts were filled to the point where words were impossible.  There are times in some men’s lives when joy reveals itself in tear-bathed eyes.

     There were tears of joy in the eyes of the Wright boys that day.