Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where biplanes soared and motorcycles roared

 Outdoor sculpture depicting Glenn H. Curtiss piloting the June Bug on the first kilometer public flight, July 4, 1908.

Nestled in the valley near Keuka Lake in Hammondsport is the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum of Early Aviation and Local History. It’s waiting for your summer visit.

         Whether you are a tiny tot, home on college vacation or a Korean War veteran, there is something there to catch your fancy. For you skeptics less than enthusiastic about aviation, the museum houses a collection of local artifacts including the beginnings of wine making in the region.
          Better still, it’s history in range of your own backyard.
         “Look at that plane!” shouted a preschooler on his first glance around. Perhaps even the adults were feeling the same heightened pleasure being surrounded by the vintage airplanes, motorcycles, boats and cars showcasing the dawn of aviation in America.
         The plane everyone was gathering around was the June Bug II, the only flying replica dating back to 1908. It was built by volunteers and completed in time for its first flight for the Bicentennial, May 26, 1976. It now rests at the museum for all to marvel. Using the same aerodynamic principles as a modern Cessna, Glenn Curtiss envisioned flight from his sketches shown at the museum.
         Curtiss flew the original June Bug in 1908. It was the world’s first pre-announced flight. The Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk had already made a controlled flight of a manned aircraft; however, they had not allowed a public viewing.
         Later Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart learned to fly in a Jenny, along with hundreds of others filling up logbooks with their flight hours.
         From an early age Curtiss had a fascination with tinkering. He began taking apart and putting back together his mother’s clocks. His sister, Rutha, said that there was always a shower of screws and springs on the floor, and the family had to be careful where they stepped. You learn all this from the displays and accompanying descriptions as you pass by.
         Curtiss had the adventuring spirit, too, and when at work in Rochester at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company at four dollars a week in 1893, he saved enough money to buy a bicycle, and from that point on everything related to speed became his foremost interest. He would take weekend bike jaunts to his grandmother’s home in Hammondsport, and enjoyed bike racing with his friends.
         Interestingly enough there is a small Dansville connection to Curtiss’ story. When he realized a motor would make his bicycle go faster, he invented the Hercules Motorbike in 1902. To test its reliability he completed a 200- mile circuit encompassing Dansville along the route to Attica, Rochester and Canandaigua. Curtiss held the title, “Fastest Man on Earth”, on a motorcycle until 1930.
         For motorcycle enthusiasts there is an ad for a 1948 Whizzer Bike at the cost of ninety-seven dollars and fifty-five cents plus tax that draws you to an actual one in the collection of bikes and motorcycles.        
         The curiosity and ingenuity of Curtiss lives on in the Restoration Shop of the museum. Volunteers are at work during museum hours on Curtiss antiques and replicas, and they welcome visitors to step inside for a closer look. For those who build model airplanes and appreciate the hours and hours of work that each plane takes, seeing actual life-sized models in various stages of completion is more than worthwhile.
         A unique display honoring the ladies of aviation explains their valued role in history. Everyone can take a lesson in risk and self-assurance from these pioneers. Curtiss trained the first woman pilot. Blanche Stuart Scott, a Rochester native.
         Children have opportunities for hands-on experiences including trying out a scale model of an early “Pusher” aircraft, and imagining piloting a plane with their hands and feet at the limited controls. 
         The flow of the museum floor plan directs you in circles with numerous written explanations providing a self-guided visit. The museum displays many Curtiss “firsts” including his successful business ventures in early Florida land development.  Visitors are offered a glimpse into the complicated mind of a remarkable inventor who had a flair for living life to its fullest.
          For hours of operation and more information on The Glenn Curtiss Museum go to its website at
         On the way home don’t forget to look up into the sky, because not far from the museum is the grassy site of the first historic flight that changed aviation forever.