Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
THE BOYS BROKE THEIR LITTLE GAS MOTOR
The diary of a bishop of the United Brethren Church includes an amusing notation dated Friday, December 13, 1903: "Weather mild. Wrote letters. Called at Seitters’ to see Mrs. Agnes Swank in the afternoon. Mr. Larue died suddenly this morning. I called there a few minutes. The boys broke their little gas motor in the afternoon……"
The motor was a gasoline engine. The boys were the bishop’s sons, and their names would become famous, as they were Wilbur and Orville Wright, who were in the process of developing a new machine which would successfully fly on December 17th.
Amidst reflecting on the weather, current politics and church-related visits, Bishop Milton Wright made the innocent comment as though his sons were little boys playing with a toy. It was "just another day" in the life of the inventors and another busy day for Bishop Wright.
Milton believed in the validity of the inspired word of God and involved himself in many forms of writing. He was editor of the Religious Telescope and publisher of the Christian Conservator and the Richmond Star. He kept diaries and also wrote many letters and pamphlets. His sons also kept a journal of their labors and accomplishments.
Typical of many men a century ago, Bishop Wright kept iron-clad control over his family. Even when they were in their 30s, Orville and Wilbur were still considered "the bishop’s boys."
Their mother, Susan Catherine Koerner Wright, gave in to her husband’s whims with grace and dignity. She was well educated at Hartsville College, was talented with her hands, and could repair almost anything.
The children bonded in close-knit fashion and the Bishop tolerated their indifference toward religion as a trade off for strict parental control. He loved his family in his own way, providing comfort and encouragement, but he expected exactness and perfection.
Orville and Wilbur opened a bicycle business while they worked to solve the problems of flight. Orville and Wilbur were not Methodists, however. Sometimes the press identified them as such, but it was another fifty years before Methodists merged with enough groups to include their father’s denomination.
Milton Wright was bishop of the United Brethren denomination, but became leader of a separate United Brethren group, splitting from the main body in 1889, that remained an unmerged denomination. The controversy was over membership in secret societies such as the Freemasons, the proper way to modify the church’s constitution, and a few other issues that caused the United Brethren to form liberal and conservative blocs.
Bishop Wright was leader of the conservative group. The Wright-led faction became the Church of the United Brethren in Christ based in Huntington, Indiana. Roots of the group are in the Mennonite, Moravian and German Reformed communities of Pennsylvania.
The term Brethren identifies the group with other Christian groups of common origin, such as the "Dunkers" or "Dunkards." This was a movement out of Germany associated with piety and was part of a spiritual awakening. They baptized one another by immersion, face down, three times in a flowing stream.
The Dunkards avoided narcotics, including tobacco and did not use instrumental music in God’s house. They observed the Lord’s Supper as a full meal with soup, with bread and cup after the meal, which was held once in spring and again in fall. Ministers received no salary and members were not allowed to participate in politics, take an oath, or affiliate with lodges. They wouldn’t fight in the Revolutionary War and Indians soon learned they were passive, so their homes were continually raided. After three raids, one member armed himself with a gun for protection and was excommunicated from his church.
Much of the history of the frontier is written by Presbyterian or Congregational ministers, so not much is known about the Dunkards. Primitive Baptists and early Methodist circuit riders preached fire and brimstone, and were nearly as radical as the Dunkards. The Church of the Brethren had many similarities.
In spite of being oppressive in his devotion to his family, Orville and Wilbur developed close bonds with their father and consulted him on every matter. It was a combination of family pressure and encouragement that kept them experimenting, and paved the way to triumph.
By 1903, several pioneers who attempted flight in Europe had been killed, causing others to abandon their work. The Wright brothers were modest men and knew that they were at least ten years ahead of their competitors. With hard work and correct decisions, plus a little luck, they succeeded at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903. In spite of their accomplishments, the story of their flight received little attention at the time.
They systematically kept journals of all their projects and photographed the tests of their machines. In 1900, Wilbur wrote to his father expressing the hope of "achieving fame and fortune" from their experiments. Orville and Wilbur requested a patent for a "flying machine" 9 months before their first flight, which was recorded in Orville’s diary. The craft soared to an altitude of 10 feet and traveled 120 feet, landing 12 seconds after takeoff. After two more test flights, the boys telegrammed their father, instructing him to "inform the press."
In 1900, Wilbur Wright wrote to French aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, "flight is possible to man….(and) I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life."
In the fall of 1902, Bishop Milton Wright stood behind the pulpit at the Blue Point Church in western Van Buren County, and told the congregation how his sons Orville and Wilbur were neglecting their bicycle business in a foolish attempt to invent a flying airplane.
The world knows that the boys made history in December, 1903 by thrusting the first heavier-than-air manned craft off the ground. The historical flight was against the context of their family and background. If their father had been a kinder person, Orville and Wilbur would have passed into history as two dull bicycle makers in Dayton, and man would wait another ten years to get off the ground!
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick