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The plane in this photo resembles the Wright brothers, but it has ailerons, which likely iden­tifies it as from a com­petitor, Glenn Curtiss. Courtesy | Mitchell Research Center

Monster trucks, country con­certs, and horse races: Over the 167 years of its history, the Hillsdale County Fair has seen all sorts of attrac­tions.

Old news­paper clips even report that Wilbur and Orville Wright, the brothers who became the first to fly an air­plane in 1903, per­formed a demon­stration at the Hillsdale County Fair more than a century ago, according to Cinda Walton, the fair’s his­torian. That, however, may only be a legend, Wright-brothers experts told The Col­legian.

“It’s not true,” said Stephen Wright, the great-grand­nephew of the brothers. “They never flew there in Hillsdale County.”

Edward Roach, the his­torian at the Dayton Avi­ation Her­itage National His­torical Park in Dayton, Ohio, agreed: “There’s lots of these rumors or legends that get out. Everyone wants to lay claim to them.”

News­paper articles offer several dif­ferent accounts of the alleged show, Walton said. Some say both brothers, others just one of the two, took off from, flew around, and landed in the inner oval of the track on the fair­grounds in an early version of their flying machine. Reports included four pos­sible years for the visit: 1904, 1905, 1910, and 1915.

Most com­monly cited are 1904 and 1905, but Roach said the brothers were not in the business of doing such demon­stra­tions at the time, less than a year or two after their four suc­cessful flights at Kitty Hawk, North Car­olina. The brothers were still tin­kering with their invention at that point, flying only at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, said Tom Crouch, the senior curator of aero­nautics at the Smith­sonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Wash­ington, D.C. The tech­nology was not yet ready for aerial per­for­mances.

“And they were being very secretive about their work — they wanted to patent what they’d done, and they didn’t want others stealing their idea before it was patented,” Roach said.

Other accounts of the Hillsdale per­for­mance even allege the original plane that took off in North Car­olina was the one flown at the county fair. That flying machine, however, crashed after its fourth suc­cessful flight at Kitty Hawk and did not fly again.

Although 1910 is the most likely year that a Wright-brothers plane would have flown in Hillsdale, there is no record of the visit in the Wright Co.’s accounting ledger, according to Roach.

During 1910 and 1911, the Wright Co. did have an exhi­bition team that traveled across the world, including to fairs, to show the miracle of flight and dabble in tricks such as circles and corkscrews — in planes without seat­belts or oxygen masks.

“If you start going up to a certain height, the amount of oxygen decreases, and you would black out,” Roach said. “Without a seatbelt, your life span is not going to be too long, and many lost control and did crash. It was a very dan­gerous occu­pation to be in at that time.”

Several pilots did die, and the brothers shut down the exhi­bi­tions for safety reasons about a year after they began.

“Glenn Curtiss’ company was doing exhi­bi­tions, too,” Stephen Wright said. “The pilots were becoming more and more like dare­devils, so Wilbur and Orville turned it off. It was all about safety for them.”

Although the ledger does not mention a per­for­mance in Hillsdale, the exhi­bition team flew a total of six times in Michigan in Battle Creek, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Saginaw.

By 1915, the avi­ation world had taken off, and the Wrights were no longer leaders in their field. Wilbur Wright died in 1912 at the age of 45 from typhoid fever. Orville Wright, mean­while, was busy in court pro­tecting their patents from com­petitor Glenn Curtiss. He, however, had sus­tained an injury to a nerve in the back of his leg after an accident in 1908 during a demon­stration for the U.S. Army. As a result, Orville Wright did not do much more flying after that, and his final takeoff was in 1918, Roach said.

The Mitchell Research Center has two photos with cap­tions ref­er­encing the brothers’ sup­posed visit. Crouch said one of the photos shows a plane with ailerons, which helped control the plane. The Wright brothers’ planes did not have ailerons, but Curtiss’ did.

According to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Ham­mond­sport, New York, there is no record of the company per­forming a demon­stration in Hillsdale County. However, Art Smith of Fort Wayne, Indiana, built his own plane based on the Curtiss design and reportedly flew over the city of Hillsdale at least twice. He gained national attention when he and his girl­friend had an aerial elopement and the couple crashed into a field near Oak Grove Cemetery. They were sent to a local hotel for treatment and married.

The other photo from the research center does depict a Wright plane, likely a Model A built from 1907 – 1909, Crouch said. Its caption, however, makes it unclear if the photo is from the alleged visit to Hillsdale and dates the exhi­bition to 1904 or 1905.

“I guar­antee that they didn’t fly any­where but Kitty Hawk or Huffman Prairie before the summer of 1908,” Crouch said.