The young brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright opened a bicycle sales and repair shop in 1892, and later began to build their own bicycles. They also designed and built printing presses, using the profits from their labors to fund their earliest experimentations in aeronautics. In 1903, at their camp near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the brothers achieved a major breakthrough: the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight.
At first, many people doubted the Wright brothers’ claims of success, as other aviation pioneers around the globe struggled to make their own flights. But with largely triumphant trials in Europe and the United States, the brothers had established themselves at the forefront of aviation by late 1909, when they incorporated the Wright Company.
The following year, the Wrights built the company’s first factory building on West Third Street near Abbey Avenue in Dayton, right near their bicycle shop. They added a second building in 1911, and also established a flying field and flight school at Huffman Prairie, a pasture near Dayton. Among those who trained at the facility was Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who would go on to command U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II and became the first general of the U.S. Air Force.
After 1909, Wilbur gave up flying and concentrated on business and legal activities, including numerous lawsuits filed against rival aviation builders the brothers felt had infringed on their patent rights. Though courts in France and the United States held up the Wright brothers’ positions in nearly every case, the defendants were able to avoid making any substantial payments. Exhausted from his efforts, and battling typhoid fever, Wilbur died in 1912 at just 45 years old.
Orville assumed leadership of the Wright Company, but ended up selling it in 1915 to a group of financiers. He established his own Wright Aeronautical Library, seeking to concentrate on scientific research, but also devoted himself to defending his and his brother’s reputation as the inventors of the airplane. Orville died in 1948, having lived to see the advent of jet propulsion and the first flight to break the sound barrier, among other advances.
Meanwhile, the original Wright Company buildings in Dayton had become the nucleus of the Delphi Home Avenue Plant, a 54-acre auto-manufacturing complex. That company closed in 2008, and the entire site was razed, except for a single row of structures that included the two original aviation factory buildings.
To honor the Wright brothers’ pioneering achievements, and celebrate Dayton’s reputation as the “birthplace of aviation,” the non-profit National Aviation Heritage Alliance (NAHA), an affiliate of the National Park Service, has been working with the state of Ohio, the city of Dayton and others to preserve the original Wright Company factory and ensure its place in history. NAHA is negotiating with the current property owner, Home Avenue Redevelopment LLC, to buy the 54-acre site, which would then become part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
So far, the NAHA has raised about $2 million of the $4 million the organization estimates it will need to purchase the property, fortify the buildings and start redevelopment of the surrounding site. Of that $2 million, the city of Dayton put down $500,000 and the state of Ohio $1 million. Dayton, like many cities in the Rust Belt, was hit hard by the disappearance of many manufacturing jobs over the late 20th century, as well as by the 2008 recession, and supporters of the project hope that aviation tourism can help bring additional resources to the city.
One high-profile booster of the fight to save the Wrights’ factory is the historian David McCullough, who published a bestselling biography of the Wright brothers in 2015. Earlier this year, McCullough toured the historic factory and filmed an interview. “Who were these people that actually built the airplanes, and how were they the same as people today, and how were they different than people today?”