The author at his desk at The Henry Ford. / Photo by Jeanine Head Miller
I grew up on Detroit’s far west side, just north of Dearborn, during the 1950s and 1960s. History was always my favorite subject, and I fondly remember school field trips to what was then called Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. I can trace my interest in American history to those visits and remember thinking how great it would be to work there someday.
I graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in history. My original intention was to become a history teacher, but with teaching positions few and far between in those days, I ended up accepting a position in the mortgage department of Comerica Bank and stayed there for nearly 30 years.
I retired in 2008 and became a volunteer at The Henry Ford. After three years of doing computer data entry in the marketing department and helping at special events like Maker Faire, Old Car Festival, and Motor Muster, I met Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. Jeanie was looking for a volunteer curatorial research assistant to work with her in the Historical Resources department. She was willing to take a chance on me, even though my professional life had been spent in banking, not historical research. The learning curve was steep, but with Jeanie’s knowledge and patience, I learned the ropes.
My primary focus as a volunteer has been to research the lives of some of the people who owned, made, or used the objects in The Henry Ford’s collection. Most of them were ordinary people, using these objects as part of their everyday activities.
Uncovering People’s Stories
I first look for clues in the object’s accession file—a file that contains whatever information we know about the object. Sometimes I find letters from the donor, often a descendent of the original owner, providing some family history and information about the maker or owner of the object, or how it may have been used. More often, though, there may be only a few clues—a name or a place. From these clues, I start my search to learn more about the background of the individual or family and the context of the object.
The advent of the Internet and genealogy websites like Ancestry.com—with access to census records, city directories, birth and death records, and other information—make researching the life of someone born more than a hundred years ago much easier. The census records are a particularly valuable tool in my research. They provide information about a person’s occupation, age, place of birth, marital status, immigration status, place of residence, home ownership, and more. The census also lists all the people living in the same home and their relationship to the head of the household.
Sites like Newspapers.com, with its access to many newspapers nationwide, can provide a wealth of information. I often find marriage and birth announcements, obituaries, and other information. Local historical societies are also a great research resource. I encounter other dedicated volunteers willing to search local records for information on people I am searching for—information not available online.
Conrad Hoffman’s Violin
Violin used by Conrad Ambrose Hoffman, 1793. / THF180694
A few years ago, The Henry Ford acquired a violin used by Conrad Ambrose Hoffman (1839–1916), a musician and teacher from Pontiac, Michigan. The violin had been made in 1793 by Czech violin maker Johann Michael Willer (1753–1826). The family not only donated Hoffman’s violin and bow, but also related archival materials, including concert programs, sheet music and librettos, calling cards, and stationery.
These materials helped provide some information about Hoffman. But further research in sources like Ancestry.com, Newspapers.com, and the Palmer Family Papers: 1853–1940 at University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library helped me enrich Hoffman’s story.
The United States census records for Conrad Hoffman revealed that he was born in New York in 1839, but moved to Oakland County, Michigan, with his family by 1840. His father, Ambrose D. Hoffman (1806–1881), made his living as a farmer and cooper. The 1870 census revealed that 31-year-old Hoffman was employed as a music teacher and was living at the family home in Pontiac, Michigan, with his parents and two sisters.
Most of the information I discovered about Hoffman’s life as a musician and teacher came from a biography that I found on Google Books, Biographical Sketches of Leading Citizens of Oakland County, Michigan, published in 1903. The account recalled Hoffman’s early interest in music, the musical abilities of his mother and sisters, and his study of the violin as a young boy—including his traveling to Dresden, Germany, to study music at the Dresden Conservatorium.
Hoffman and his orchestra performed at Clinton Hall in Pontiac, Michigan, on May 27, 1868. / THF279100
Hoffman’s biography also revealed that he served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a musician with the 15th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. In the years following the war, Hoffman organized an orchestra in the Pontiac area.
Conrad Hoffman performed at this concert at the Music Hall in Holly, Michigan, on May 24, 1866. / THF279106
Concert programs from the 1860s and 1870s document Hoffman’s performances in places like Birmingham, Holly, and Pontiac, Michigan. He performed as a solo violinist, as well as aconductor.
I discovered through a marriage announcement, published in the Detroit Free Press on September 25, 1900, that Conrad Hoffman married for the first time at the age of 60. His bride was childhood friend and pianist Philomela Cowles Palmer (1851–1930). Philomela was thedaughter of Charles Henry Palmer (1814–1887) of Pontiac, an entrepreneur who was instrumental in helping develop Michigan’s copper industry.
Conrad Hoffman died in 1916. His obituary, found on Newspapers.com, was published in the Detroit Free Press on December 9, 1916. The obituary described Mr. Hoffman as a well-known violinist, the owner of a collection of old violins, and the instructor of several of the best-known Michigan violinists and violin teachers.
Audrey Wilder’s Dress
Audrey Wilder’s blue 1920s dress is second from the right.
In the fall of 2019, Jeanie Miller asked me to find out what I could about the life of Audrey Kenyon Wilder (1896–1979) of Albion, Michigan. Jeanie planned to use Wilder’s 1920s dress for an exhibit called What We Wore: A Matter of Emphasis in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. My task was to find out as much as I could about Wilder to help tell the story of the dress and the woman who wore it.
The donor correspondence in the accession file for Wilder’s dress provided just a few clues—her name and place of residence. I guessed Audrey Wilder’s birth date would be about 1900, based on the age of the dress. I was able to find four-year-old Wilder in the 1900 U.S. Census, living with her parents at the home of her paternal grandparents in Albion, Michigan. Her father was the owner of a lumber yard in Albion.
Yearbooks from high schools and colleges, which I found on Ancestry.com, provided information about Wilder’s education and career. I learned that she graduated from Albion High School in 1914, Albion College in 1918, and earned a master's degree from Columbia University in 1921. Wilder began teaching English at Albion College that same year.
In 1928, Audrey Wilder left Albion College to serve as Dean of Women at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. I was able to find an article written about her on Google Books, which shed some light on Audrey’s life and activities during this period of her life. The November 1935 issue of her college sorority newsletter, Anchora of Delta Gamma,publisheda story about Audrey’s life and career, entitled “Audrey Kenyon Wilder, Ohio Northern’s Dynamic Dean.” She is described as a woman “of exquisite grooming” and as having established the first social hall for women on the Ohio Northern campus, providing a setting for the female students on campus to hold teas, receptions, and co-ed dinners.
Dress owned by Audrey Wilder, 1927–1929 / THF177877
Tying an object to the story of its owner is the goal of my research. It is not hard to imagine Audrey Kenyon Wilder, the dynamic dean of exquisite grooming, attending a campus social function wearing the dress which is now part of the collection at The Henry Ford.
“Shopping” for the Collection
At times, I have assisted the curatorial staff in locating items for the museum’s collection. The curators identify a desired object and I then search eBay and other Internet sites to try to locate one in good condition. I then show the possibilities to the curator or curators, who select and acquire the object. These Internet sites make the search easier, but it often requires patient searching—sometimes for months.
Amelia Earhart brand overnight case made by the Orenstein Trunk Company, 1943–1950. / THF169109
One example is an Amelia Earhart brand suitcase. Earhart endorsed various products, including a line of luggage, in order to finance her aviation activities. I searched for six months and found one in like-new condition with the original price tag and keys! Though this example dates from the decade following Earhart’s disappearance, it attests to the staying power of the Earhart brand—this luggage line sold well for decades. This suitcase is on display in the museum’s Heroes of the Sky exhibit, in the section dedicated to Amelia Earhart.
I could not have asked for a more rewarding and interesting way to spend some of my time during my retirement years. I was finally able to find that “job” that I thoroughly enjoy and never get tired of. With millions of artifacts in the collection at The Henry Ford, there is always another life to explore and, for me, another adventure.
Gil Gallagher is Curatorial Research Volunteer at The Henry Ford.
The Dayton-Wright RB-1 is a dramatic presence in Heroes of the Sky. / THF39666
“Racing breeds innovation.” It’s a time-tested saying that we often associate with auto racing, where things like rear-view mirrors and disc brakes proved themselves on the track before making their way into production cars. But that line holds just as true for early airplane racing. The proof is in competition craft like the 1920 Dayton-Wright RB-1.
Above all else, the RB-1 was built for speed. Designers Howard M. Rinehart (the “R” in “RB-1”) and Milton C. Baumann (the “B”) designed the airplane specifically to compete in the 1920 Gordon Bennett Air Race in France. First staged in 1909, the Bennett race was the premier venue for showcasing the latest in aircraft design and aviation technology. The competitions were held annually through 1913, but World War I forced a pause. The 1920 Bennett race, held in Orléans and Étampes, France, marked the first (and, as it turned out, last) running after the wartime hiatus.
Rods and linkages moved flaps that changed the shape of the RB-1’s wing. / THF1463
Rinehart and Baumann gave the RB-1 several features—taken for granted today—that were absolutely cutting edge for the time. To start, it was a monoplane (single wing) design in an age when double wing biplanes dominated. The RB-1’s wing was cantilevered, meaning that it was entirely self-supporting via an internal framework. The wing didn’t require struts or cables to hold it in place. Both the wing and fuselage (the body of the plane) were made from laminated balsa wood covered with plywood and varnished linen. The designers equipped the RB-1’s wing with flaps on the front leading and rear trailing edges. Moving the flaps changed the wing’s camber—the shape of its curve. The flaps hung down during takeoffs and landings to produce maximum lift at low speeds, and they turned up flush with the wing during flight to reduce drag at high speeds.
Rinehart and Baumann realized that the wheels and struts used in an airplane’s landing gear produced significant wind resistance. They solved that problem with a pair of retractable wheels that could be pulled up into the fuselage when the plane was in flight. The RB-1 is believed to have been the first land-based airplane to use retractable landing gear. (Some earlier floatplanes—airplanes equipped with pontoons for water-based operation—had auxiliary retractable wheels.) The RB-1’s wing flaps and wheels were interlocked. When the pilot turned a hand crank on the control panel, the flaps and wheels moved simultaneously—wheels and flaps up after takeoff, or wheels and flaps down for landing.
The pilot’s view—or lack thereof—from the RB-1’s cockpit. / THF15954
Rinehart and Baumann also gave the RB-1 an enclosed cockpit. This further reduced drag, but at a significant cost. The design left the pilot with absolutely no forward vision, and with only limited lateral vision through a set of portholes on either side of the fuselage. The pilot had to fly in a zigzag pattern to see what was ahead.
The RB-1’s specifications were as impressive for 1920 as its appearance. The plane was equipped with an inline six-cylinder, water-cooled engine capable of 250 horsepower. Top speed recorded in competition was 165 miles per hour, but observers at the time thought the RB-1 was capable of 190 or even 200 miles per hour. The airplane measured 22 feet, 6 inches long, with a wingspan of 23 feet, 3 inches. The plane measured 6 feet, 2 inches high at its tallest point. Range was estimated at 275 miles—though that would’ve been cut considerably when flying at top speed.
The Dayton-Wright Company of Dayton, Ohio, built the RB-1. Dayton-Wright had been founded by a group of Dayton-area investors in 1917. Orville Wright served as a consultant to the firm, and he lent it the use of his name, but beyond that Dayton-Wright had no connection to the Wright brothers or their earlier Wright Company. (Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912, and Orville Wright largely retired from business a few years later.) General Motors purchased the Dayton-Wright Company in 1919.
Howard Rinehart demonstrates the strength of the RB-1’s cantilevered wing. / THF270970
The work of piloting the RB-1 in the Gordon Bennett Air Race fell to Howard Rinehart. He had learned to fly in 1914 and, by the time the RB-1 project came together, Rinehart’s resume included stints as an exhibition flyer, a flight instructor, and a test pilot. Rinehart was a capable and experienced pilot well suited for the demanding Bennett competition, and the RB-1 was as fine an airplane as one could wish in 1920. When Rinehart took off on race day, September 28, 1920, he was America’s best chance to take the Bennett Trophy back from French pilot Maurice Prevost, who’d won the 1913 contest. But, in the words of poet Robert Burns, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.”
Soon after Rinehart left the ground, the RB-1’s variable wing camber system gave him trouble. He could not get the wing flaps moved into racing position. And because the flaps were interconnected with the wheels, he couldn’t get the landing gear pulled completely into the fuselage either. To make things worse, Rinehart started having problems with the control rod. One of its connecting cables broke, and he found himself unable to turn the plane to the left. After about 20 minutes of struggle, Rinehart brought the RB-1 in for a landing. He touched down safely, but his chance for a victory was gone. Newspapers reported that “there were tears in the pilot’s eyes as he stepped from his machine.”
The Dayton-Wright RB-1, photographed in August 1920. / THF270958
In the RB-1’s defense, mechanical problems were common in racing airplanes of that era. For that matter, technical gremlins continue to haunt racing vehicles of all types to this day—it’s just the nature of the game. The RB-1 never raced again. But in the years to come, its innovative features became commonplace.
Following the disappointment in France, Milton Baumann presented the RB-1 to the University of Michigan, his alma mater. It’s possible that engineering students used the aircraft for hands-on experiments. The university gifted the airplane to The Henry Ford in 1940. Knowing that the RB-1 had been modified several times leading up to the Bennett race, and that students may have made further alterations, museum staff members were eager to return the airplane to its race-day configuration. They turned to Charles Kettering, then the general manager of General Motors’ Research Laboratories Division in Detroit, for advice. Gearheads know Kettering for automotive innovations like the electric starter and leaded gasoline. But he was also one of the Dayton-Wright Company’s founders in 1917, and he was involved in the RB-1 project in 1920.
Today visitors will find the Dayton-Wright RB-1 on display in Heroes of the Sky, where it anchors our collection of early record-breaking aircraft. It may not have won any prizes in 1920, but the RB-1 continues to win admiration from those who see it.
The Curtiss JN-4 always turns heads in “Heroes of the Sky.” / THF39670
Walk into the barnstormers section of our Heroes of the Sky exhibit and odds are the first airplane to catch your eye will be our 1917 Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” biplane. Whether it’s the airplane’s inverted attitude, its dangling wing-walker, or its fishy-looking fuselage, there’s a lot to draw your attention. And well there should be. The Curtiss Jenny was among the most significant early American airplanes.
Conceived by British designer Benjamin D. Thomas and built by American aviation entrepreneur Glenn Curtiss, the JN airplanes combined the best elements of Thomas’s earlier Model J and Curtiss’s earlier Model N trainer planes. New variants of the JN were increasingly refined. The fourth in the series, introduced in 1915, was logically designated JN-4. Pilots affectionately nicknamed it the “Jenny.” The inspiration is obvious enough, but even more so if you imagine the formal model name (JN-4) written as many flyers first saw it—with an open-top “4” resembling a “Y.”
This Curtiss JN, circa 1915, left no doubt about its manufacturer’s identity. / THF265971
Despite not being a combat aircraft, the Curtiss Jenny became the iconic American airplane of the First World War. Some 6,000 units were built, and nine of every ten U.S. military pilots learned to fly on a Jenny. The model’s low top speed (about 75 mph) and basic but durable construction were ideal for flight instruction. Dual controls in the front and back seats allowed teacher or student to take charge of the craft at any time.
Our JN-4 is one of approximately 1,200 units built under license by Canadian Aeroplanes, Ltd., of Toronto. In a nod to their Canadian origins, these airplanes were nicknamed “Canucks.” While generally resembling American-built Jennys, the Canadian planes have a different shape to the tailfin and rudder, a refined tail skid, and a control stick rather than the wheel used stateside. (The stick became standard on later American-built Jennys.)
Barnstormer “Jersey” Ringel posed while (sort of) aboard his Jenny about 1921. / THF135786
Following the war, many American pilots were equally desperate to keep flying and to earn a living. “Barnstorming”—performing death-defying aerial stunts for paying crowds—offered a way to do both. Surplus military Jennys could be bought for as little as $300. The same qualities that suited the planes to training—durability and reliability—were just as well-suited to stunt flying. The JN-4 became the quintessential barnstormer’s plane, which explains why our Canuck is featured so prominently in the Heroes of the Sky barnstorming zone. As for the inspiration behind our plane’s paint job… that’s another kettle of fish.
Fishing lures, similar to this one, inspired the unusual paint scheme on our Curtiss JN-4. / THF150858
Founded in 1902, James Heddon and Sons produced fishing lures and rods at its factory in Dowagiac, Michigan. Heddon’s innovative, influential products helped it grow into one of the world’s largest tackle manufacturers. That inventive streak spilled over into Heddon’s advertising efforts. In the early 1920s, the company acquired two surplus JN-4 Canucks and painted them to resemble Heddon lures. These “flying fish” toured the airshow circuit to promote Heddon and its products. While our Canuck isn’t an original Heddon plane, it’s painted as a tribute to those colorful aircraft. (Incidentally, the Heddon Museum is well worth a visit when you’re in southwest Michigan.)
Every airplane in Heroes of the Sky has a story to tell. Some of them are even fish stories!
Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
The “Barnstormers” section of the Heroes of the Sky exhibit in Henry Ford Museum covers early 20th century pilots and aerialists who would perform daring airplane stunts to entertain audiences watching below. The Laird Biplane Boneshaker that appears in the exhibit was flown by Katherine Stinson, an aviator in her mid-20s, on international exhibition tours in 1916 and 1917. We’ve just digitized a couple dozen photographs and clippings that relate to Stinson and the various planes she flew, including this image taken at the Tri-State Fair in Memphis in fall 1916—the back of the photo notes that she flew that day wearing this same ensemble, with the addition of a helmet and goggles. View all the Stinson-related materials by visiting our Digital Collections—and to learn even more about Katherine Stinson, watch for her to be featured in a segment of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation later this year.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
The Douglas DC-3 ranks with the Model T Ford and the Volkswagen Beetle as one of the great engineering designs of the twentieth century. The aircraft was safe, reliable, economical, and did more than any other single airplane to make commercial aviation a viable industry.
Ironically, the story of the DC-3 began with a famous airline crash. In 1931, a Fokker tri-motor operated by Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) went down, killing all seven people on board, including famed University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne. When an investigation of the crash revealed that the wood wing of the Fokker was weakened by rot, airlines began scrambling to replace wood-framed planes with all-metal ones. TWA asked several manufacturers for proposals for a new, all metal airplane, with two or three engines, weighing no more than 14,200 pounds, able to carry at least 12 passengers at 150 miles per hour, with a range of 1,080 miles. Douglas Aircraft, which had previously concentrated on military planes, proposed a twin-engine aircraft that they called the Douglas Commercial Number 1, or simply DC-1. TWA chose the Douglas design, but before it went into production an improved version was developed, called the DC-2.
Amelia Earhart. We know her as a famous aviatrix—the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and the daring pilot who disappeared attempting an around-the-world flight in 1937.
But long before the celebrity fashion brand frenzy of more recent decades—think Jaclyn Smith, Jessica Simpson, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Jay Z and countless others—Amelia Earhart had her own fashion line.
Yes, the motivation was to make money. Not to support a lavish lifestyle, but to finance her true passion—the adventure of flying.
As a new member of the Historical Resources Department at The Henry Ford, my first couple of months have been a whirlwind. Not only am I responsible for learning the daily workflow routine, but I also have to begin the process of taking in the massive and amazing collection that exists here at The Henry Ford. My initial impression is that you could spend multiple lifetimes working here and still not discover all the stories the collection has to offer. Discovery is what makes my work exciting. What makes my work even more exciting is the ability to share those discoveries with other people. It is in the spirit of sharing these stories, the breadth of our collection, and in the stories themselves that make The Henry Ford a prime location for the setting of a TV show like The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation. All of these stories need to be shared in order to inspire.
You may know that the Sikorsky VS-300A helicopter on display in Heroes of the Sky in the Henry Ford Museum was the first practical helicopter in the United States. Inventor Igor Sikorsky piloted this craft for about an hour and a half on May 6, 1941, setting a world endurance record. In 1943, as shown in this photograph, Sikorsky demonstrated the machine on the front lawn of the Henry Ford Museum just before donating it. Attendees at the event included Henry and Clara Ford, Henry Ford II, Charles Lindbergh, and Les Morris, Sikorsky’s chief test pilot. We’ve just digitized a number of photos related to the ceremony, Sikorsky, and helicopters in general—view them all in our digital collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
By 1925, Americans could travel long distances by train or automobile. Rail lines and new numbered highways nearly spanned the country. Though air travel was an interesting suggestion, it seemed unreliable. Airplanes were incredible inventions that had crossed oceans and navigated the globe. But there had been accidents, and too many had been fatal. Americans thought it best to leave planes to the brave—soldiers who’d flown in World War I. Entrepreneurial barnstormers. A few intrepid airmail pilots.