By the spring of 1909, Orville and Wilbur Wright had shown in a series of European exhibitions that powered flight was real and safe. When they returned to the United States, their hometown of Dayton threw a party like it never had, before or since.
On June 17-18, 1909, the entire city stopped to celebrate the brothers in a massive outpouring of respect.
Here are 15 reasons it was the biggest party in the city's history.
The anticipation built for months. In April, the Dayton Daily News reported that Lyman H. Howe would be in town to showcase his "moving pictures" of Wilbur Wright's exhibitions at Le Mans, France. The Daily News gave away seven box parties to the Victoria Theater show in a contest asking readers to submit their best 10-word welcome telegrams for the Wrights.
A large planning committee was put together. Citizens were told on May 5 that the committee in charge of organizing the celebration had given it a name and estimated that it would cost $15,000.
Estimating size. The organizing committee ordered 100,000 buttons to sell at 5 cents apiece to help cover the cost. They began selling the buttons about a month before the celebration so as many people as possible would be wearing them when the Wrights arrived.
There were engraved invitations. Literally. The organizing committee sent them to President William Howard Taft, every member of Taft's cabinet, all Ohio Congressional delegates, all Supreme Court justices and other Washington officials.
An American flag made up of an estimated 2,000 children stands behind Orville, Wilbur and Bishop Milton Wright on stage at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds during their homecoming celebration in Dayton in June 1909. (Courtesy of Special Collections and Archive, Wright State University)
The Wrights received a personal invitation. A group that included organizing committee chairman J. Sprigg McMahon, son of U.S. Rep. John A. McMahon, and Dayton Mayor Edward E. Burkhart met personally with the Wrights in May to invite them to the celebration.
The city had built a love for flight. Two days before the celebration began, the Dayton Daily News printed a full-page advertisement announcing that, in honor of the Wright brothers' return, it would do the world's first airship delivery route. It said that "Cromwell Dixon, the famous boy aeronaut, will fly his monster air craft over the city of Dayton Wednesday afternoon, starting from Lakeside Park and dropping miniature balloons along the route. Each balloon will have a card attached entitling anyone capturing a balloon to a free copy of the News. Hand the card to any newsboy."
It completely took over the news. On June 16, the day before the celebration began, the Dayton Daily News devoted seven full pages exclusively to content related to the Wright brothers. It included stories about the biggest celebrations in city history, famous Daytonians, the background of flight progress, American inventions and the Wright brothers and their family.
The parade went for two miles. On the celebration's first morning, people started lining the route at 11 a.m. and stayed in their spots. A reporter described the scene: "Swaying forms of thousands upon thousands of individuals were stacked like sardines in a box. A moving picture of human forms presenting a living, moving kaladiscope view. Eager eyes bulging almost out of their sockets rolled right and left to see the great allegorical specimen as it slowly moved by keeping march to the many bands."
Up close with the Wrights. On the first day, a reception was held at the YMCA during which the Wrights took individual congratulations from thousands in attendance and "had a pleasant word for each," the Dayton Daily News reported.
First speeches. Wilbur Wright spoke to a gathering at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in what was called his first extended remarks since the brothers became widely famous. "A feeling of pride seizes me as I receive these tokens of recognition from the nation, state and city, to all of which we owe allegiance." Orville Wright followed his brother by saying, "I want to add my personal thanks for the honors bestowed and I only hope that our work is commensurate with the honors bestowed upon us."
The flag of children. A "living flag" of 2,000 children was created by ordering the children correctly in colored clothes. They sang several patriotic songs as the Wrights looked on.
Room for laughter. Ohio Gov. Judson Harmon spoke at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and brought out Ohio medals to present to the Wrights. "Ohio gave the Wright boys. She gave the flying machine. Both are complete. And when she does things she doesn't do them by halves. No siree, and these medals are complete." But then, when he went to take the medals out of the box, they were fastened too tightly to remove. Neither he nor his staff could get them out for a few minutes.
Words of widom. At one point, someone made a comment to Wilbur Wright that the brothers were finally able to figure out that the flying machine needed both power and resistance. "Yes," Wilbur said, "in aeronautics we must have something to push against or we cannot go up. And in the game of life it is the same way."
The beautiful flames. The Dayton Gas & Fuel Co. erected two large pipes to produce flames. They were 78 feet high and six inches in diameter and created flames 50 feet in the air. They were placed at the corners of Main and Monument, and Main and Warren.
Up-close look at the benefits of new transportation. One of the oxen used during the two days of parades stopped at one inopportune point and sprawled out on the ground. A newspaper account noted that the actions "convinced the spectators to a man that the airship and automobile are better means of travel than the old 'overland limited,' drawn by cattle."
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