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A New Story to Add to the Wright Archives

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News
on December 17, 1994



Roz Young


            Today is the 91st anniversary of a special event in the lives of two Dayton boys on the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C.

            We have a new story to add to the archives.

            "I remember when Wilbur and Orville Wright brought their first airplane to the state fair at Punxatawney, Pa.," begins a letter in the mail. "I must have been about 5 at the time. I was born in 1903. Does that sound about right?

            "The plane looked for all the world like an enlarged box kite and just about as frail. There was much excitement and conjecture, even betting on the ability of getting this thing to fly. Naysayers were in the majority. I was among them. I had seen too many disasters of box kites that my brothers had constructed. And their overconfident manner before the crash. Yes, I had seen too many of these things crash after a good sendoff to think this one was going to do any better.

            "They pushed it and rolled it to the edge of a cliff, a natural rift along the hillside and inside the fairgrounds. We waited. Finally Barney Oldfield bravely occupied the only seat that I saw, started the engine, which set the fans spinning and the wheels tuning with Barney doing his best at steering while several stalwart men pushed on it at the rear. It made the trip to the edge of the cliff when - well, of course it crashed into splinters at the bottom of the ravine below. No one really expected it to fly. And I never learned if Mr. Oldfield or anyone got hurt. There was little publicity about this. We never learned more than what we witnessed. But I can still see the distressed manner of those two hopeful, confident boys, Orville and Wilbur Wright."

            Did this really happen, I asked myself and set about to find out. It could not have happened in 1908 when the letter writer was 5, because Orville and Wilbur did not organize their company for exhibition flying until 1910.

            And in the list of members of the exhibition team, the name of Barney Oldfield does not appear. Six of the nine men on the team died in aircraft accidents, and the Wrights dissolved the team in 1911.

            Barney Oldfield, the Ohio boy who after starting as a bicycle racer, switched to motor cars, became the speed king of the world when he raced his white Benz on March 16, 1906, beating the previous world's record by roaring down Daytona Beach at 137.7 mph.

            In those days state and county fairs lasted three days, and farm families packed their wagon and camped out at the fairgrounds for a weekend of entertainment. On Fridays there were sack races, soft ball, wrestling contests, square dancing and a balloon ascension. On Saturdays there were steer roping, livestock and baked good judging and a flying machine exhibition in which an aviator swooped over the fairgrounds waving at the gaping crowds. On Sundays the fair's attractions were the local trotting horse races, followed by the long-awaited and much advertised appearance of Barney Oldfield, his Benz Blitzen and his act.

            Barney's publicity man, Will Pickens, announced through a megaphone that "despite a rough track and unfavorable conditions, Mr. Oldfield will attempt to set a new world's record at the risk of his life."

            The race was in three 5-mile heats against several drivers. Oldfield owned all the cars in the race and paid the drivers. He always won the first heat breaking his own world's record, as Pickens announced "by a slim margin." Then his star driver, Ben Kersher, driving "The Flying Dutchman," took the second heat by a car's length. In the third heat Barney passed Ben and then Ben passed Barney. The lead changed several times, but at the last split second Barney roared around Ben to win. The crowd loved it; their hero had won and they had seen some great demonstrations of timing and driving skill.

            Barney Oldfield made enough money at fairs to go into private business in 1911, opening a saloon in Los Angeles.

            It well may have been that our correspondent saw Barney Oldfield at the Punxatawney fair, and she also may have seen an aviator crash, but it wasn't the Wright brothers or their plane. It is difficult to tell a nonagenarian that her memory has played a trick on her, but these things happen. Besides, her reminiscence did give us a glimpse into a past we would not otherwise have had.

            Will Pickens dreamed up an exhibition in 1914 that pitted Lincoln Beachey, an aviation daredevil flyer, against Barney Oldfield in his racing car. He advertised the races, which were held in fairgrounds all over the country, as "The Demon of the Sky vs. The Daredevil of the Earth for the Championship of the Universe!" Beachey flew around the race track as Oldfield drove under him. At some fairgrounds Oldfield won; at others Beachey won. The spectators did not know the outcomes were contrived. One newspaper reporter wrote, "Oldfield's auto seemed like a frightened rabbit scurrying away from the big bird of prey directly above it. At times there scarcely seemed but a few inches of sky between the fearless motorist's head and the wheels of the plane.

            At the end of the 1914 fair season they had a profit of $250,000.

            In the Wright chronology published by the Library of Congress is this entry under the year 1914: August 1. Orville attends exhibition flying by Lincoln Beachey and Barney Oldfield at Dayton fairgrounds.

            I'm a little surprised at Orville. Beachey flew a Curtiss plane, anathema to the Wrights, and Barney Oldfield was a notable boozer, also anathema to the Wrights.