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Editorial: The other Wrights? Family of aviators attended, taught at Hartsville College


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RECENT attention given Columbus for the seven National Historic Landmarks within the city limits stirred some community pride in at least one resident of the town of Hartsville.

Paul Lock, who has lived in the eastern Bartholomew County area for approximately 10 years, has suggested that Hartsville needs to toot its own horn a bit more loudly in celebrating its historical heritage.

“Hartsville City Park sports two historical markers, one for a local soldier of Civil War fame, Private Barton W. Mitchell,” he wrote recently. “The second is for ... Hartsville College. The school was located on Hartsville’s south side close to the cemetery. However, there is no historical marker to mention the most important family ever to live in our county, the Milton Wright family, for their contributions to early aviation.”

In his mention of Milton Wright, Paul is referring to the father of Orville and Wilbur, acknowledged for history’s first powered flight and considered by many to be the parents of aviation.

The connection of the Wright family to Hartsville and its former college is pretty well-documented in Bartholomew County history. The exact details, however, have become so twisted in the telling and retelling of the story that fact has been replaced with myth.

Paul’s right in that Hartsville should celebrate the family, but the famous Wrights — Wilbur and Orville — had little to nothing in the way of a Hartsville connection.

In fact, Wilbur is the only one of the boys to have lived in Hartsville. He came here before his first birthday in 1868 and was whisked away before he celebrated his second in 1869. So far as any available records can attest, Orville never resided in Hartsville.

Even if someone wanted to capitalize on Wilbur’s connection to Hartsville, there’s little to write home about.

Consider the one recorded paragraph about Wilbur and Hartsville that appeared in the New Castle Daily Times on June 11, 1909, six years after the brothers’ initial flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.:

“As the family removed to Hartsville in September 1868, this son’s life in his natal home was brief. Early incidents relating to him, though interesting to the family, are not important enough to justify publication.”

Nevertheless, people through the years have made much of a Hartsville connection to the Wright brothers.

I remember running down a report in 1990 that while removing a wall in First Baptist Church in Hartsville, workers had come across signatures in the wood — one of which was clearly that of someone named Orville.

There was a great deal of excitement about the find and a lot of speculation that the Orville in question could possibly have been the famous Wright brother. The excitement was short-lived because alongside the Orville signature was the date of 1897. Orville would have been well into his 20s and well-established in Dayton, Ohio, where he and Wilbur would do much of the preliminary work on their flying machine.

Another Wilbur and Orville “sighting” can be traced to the recollections of a former Columbus mayor named William Beck (1894-98), who attended Hartsville College in the 1880s. In local newspaper clippings from 1908, Beck recalled his college days and associating with Wilbur and Orville, even going so far as to recount that Wilbur had been a member of the school choir and that Orville also went by the name of Lorin.

There’s a grain of truth to that story, but only a grain. In truth, neither Wilbur nor Orville had bothered to get a high school diploma and certainly didn’t attend Hartsville College.

The grain of truth is that there were two Wright brothers who did attend Hartsville from 1881 to 1883 — the same years Beck was in attendance — but they were named Reuchlin and Lorin. They were Wilbur and Orville’s older brothers.

The most direct connections of the Wright family to Hartsville are the parents, Milton and Susan.

Milton had enrolled in Hartsville College as a student in 1850. It was there that he met his future wife. After completing his studies, he was ordained a minister in the United Brethren Church — which oversaw the Bartholomew County school — and served in several functions with the church through the 1860s.

In 1868 he took on dual roles — as a teacher at Hartsville College and minister for the local United Brethren Church.

Both duties would last only a year. In 1869 he was offered a position as editor of a weekly church paper in Dayton, Ohio. It was there that the family would settle in for a long stay, briefly interrupted on occasion for other assignments but none which drew him back to Hartsville.

Things went downhill for the college following the departure of the Wrights. There was a bitter division within the United Brethren Church, which eventually led to a schism. The college itself hit hard financial times and eventually closed.

Church leaders debated what to do about the shuttered building, and there was even talk in late 1897 of selling the property to the Methodist Church.

Ecumenism wasn’t widespread among religious groups in the late 1890s, and according to legend, one former worker at the school on hearing of a potential sale to another church body said, “I’ll burn it down before we sell it to the blankety-blank Methodists.”

Sure enough, the college did burn to the ground on the evening of Jan. 30, 1898. Officials attributed the cause to arson.

The only thing left of Hartsville College and its connection to the Wright family is a bunch of memories.

It is true that the Wright brothers — sons of Milton and Susan Wright — did attend Hartsville College and did live in Hartsville. They just weren’t the famous Wright brothers.

Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at harry@therepublic.com.

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