The Wright Brothers Ice Cream Shop in Dayton has a rich history and an uncertain future
December 17 is Wright Brothers Day, and President Biden has issued a proclamation saying so. It was 118 years ago when the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk North Carolina. The Wright Brothers, as Daytonians know, grew up west of the Great Miami River in the neighborhood off of West Third Street. It was a booming, prosperous area – an economic force in the late 1800s and early 1900s. You could get everything you needed within a few blocks.
Once they graduated from high school, they became innovative entrepreneurs and as their skills and interests evolved, the Wrights occupied eight different office spaces over 25 years.
The first two spaces were print shops, a traditional business but in about five years, they turned their attention turned to the latest in personal transportation the bicycle - and opened their first Cycle Shop.
The Gem City Ice Cream Building, the one Dayton city could well demolish, was their third space. The derelict building still includes the front facade of the building as it was when the Wrights were there. It was the first of five bike shops. They were there less than a year. From 1895 -1896 they even opened a short-lived bike showroom in downtown Dayton, where the Schuster Center is today.
In the next few years, as their interest in flight grew, their space needs changed, and their bike shops evolved. The Wright Cycle Shop, which stood at 1127 West Third Street, was their fifth and final and most significant bike shop. There they made their wind tunnel experiments and from there they travelled to Kitty Hawk where they flew for the first time. At 1127 west third, they perfected the aeroplane, propellers and balance, while flying at Huffman Prairie. During that time their cycle shop was the center of the aviation world.
In this building, where so much took place, they were renters, putting their money into invention. In the 1930s Henry Ford acquired the deeds to the last cycle shop and the house they lived in at 7 Hawthorn Street and moved them to his Inventors museum in Dearborn Michigan called Greenfield Village along with the home and labs of Thomas Edison and Luther Burbank to name a couple others.
There was some outcry in Dayton, but not enough to stop the transaction.
In the 1980s the founders of Aviation Trail in Dayton, a non-profit, happened across a photo from nearly 100 years before which had in the background the fourth Wright Cycle Company shop at 22 South Williams Street.
They dug into their own pockets and saved what was headed for demolition and started the resurrection of the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood and helped launch the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.
The efforts of Aviation Trail and NAHA and the National Park is why we have the legacy preserved here as well as it is and there are more preservation projects in the works, like the Wright Aeroplane Company factory buildings further out on West Third - but not the Gem City Ice Cream building site.
The time to save that building was years before this last gasp. The structure has been falling apart for decades and will likely collapse soon. The wrecking ball will assure that no one will get hurt when it falls in.
It seems to me, the efforts to memorialize a site of importance to the Wright legacy should always have been focused on the site of their fifth shop at 1127 West Third Street, still an empty lot since the 1930s, where so much took place to change our world.
Orville and Wilbur Wright were frugal and efficient in their work, often reusing bits and pieces of an earlier experiment and incorporating that piece into the next challenge, instead of making a new part. That is why there aren’t a whole lot of artifacts from their inventive works prior to success in 1903.
They were always pressing forward. I suspect that when they moved from the Gem City Ice Cream site they never looked back. Something to think about.
Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com
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