ASHS Column for 03 02 2006
Jerry Simmons

     Over the past century, photos and stories
appeared in publications around this area,
such as Annie Waters’ book, History of
Escambia County Alabama
, The Tri-City
, and the Alger-Sullivan Historical
Society’s A Pictorial History, depicting
the forced landing of a Wright Brothers’
airplane near Flomaton.
     An old letter from a Mr. Brooks relates
there was great excitement among the
people in Brewton in January 1912 when
word got around the plane was going to
land there. A group of people had gotten
together a sum of money for the pilot to
land so the townspeople might get an
up-close look at the mechanical marvel.
     Edward Hauss of the Alger-Sullivan
Lumber Company in Century had done
the same thing: he sent the pilot a sum
of money, purported to be one hundred
dollars, to fly around the mill and town.
The pilot, on a trip across the country
in a contest for $50,000.00, had agreed to both of these proposals.
     After buzzing the town of Century several times, it appears the plane developed mechanical problems of some sort and was forced to land, either near Fannie or near present-day Highway 29 just below Flomaton. The tale quickly spread and is perpetuated even to this day (to legend proportions), that the pilot was one of the Wright Brothers. After research by John Walker Hoomes, formerly of Brewton, now a U.S. National Park Service Park Ranger at the Wright Brothers Museum in Kitty Hawk, NC, we discover the pilot was neither of the Wright Brothers.
     Hoomes, 35, was intrigued by the original story and he found that the plane was in the midst of an attempt to fly coast-to-coast in a Wright flyer. According to Hoomes, the airplane is definitely a Wright Model-B Aircraft. However, the Wright Brothers were not the pilots. Wilbur Wright was in Boston, Massachusetts from December 1911 until shortly before his death on May 30, 1912. Orville Wright was between Dayton, Ohio and New York City during 1911 and 1912 developing a new airplane for the United States military.
     According to Hoomes, "A $50,000 award, known as the Hearst Prize, was posted in 1911 for any pilot to complete a coast to coast flight within a thirty day period by October 1, 1911. Three men, all graduates of the Wright Brothers’ Aviation School in Dayton, Ohio, would compete.
     Harry Atwood, one of the contenders, dropped out just before the race began. "This left Calbraith (Cal) Perry Rodgers and Robert (Bob) G. Fowler as the only contestants," said Hoomes. Rodgers eventually made it from the East Coast to the West Coast ahead of Fowler, avoiding the Southern United States. Fowler traveled through the Southern U. S. completing a West Coast to East Coast trip. Because they didn’t finish by the deadline, neither pilot won the award.
     Hoomes continued, "Bob Fowler left the West Coast from San Francisco, California on September 11, 1911, and finally arrived on the East Coast at Jacksonville, Florida on February 8, 1912." Fowler’s wife and mechanic crew tagged along his entire 2100-mile trip, closely shadowing his flight path by train as he followed the main railroad lines eastward.
     Hoomes said, "It is known that he arrived in New Orleans on January 5, 1912 and followed the L&N Railroad from there. This course would allow him to pass through Escambia County, Alabama… January 11, 1912. Although I could find no record of stops after Mobile, Alabama, he would have had to stop many times between Mobile and the next recorded stop in Bainbridge, Georgia, just east of Dothan, AL."
     Hoomes confirmed that the aircraft flown by Bob Fowler was indeed a Wright Model-B. It had a small automobile engine and not a Wright engine. Fowler’s financial sponsors, the Cole Motor Car Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, built his engine.
     The picture in the ASHS book is dated January 11,1912. Hoomes said you can tell it’s "an overcast winter day and the people in the picture are in winter dress. The large hardwood tree in the background has lost its leaves. The airplane appears to be sitting in a cotton field as evidenced by a white material on the ground in front of the aircraft. Any cotton fields during this time of year would already be harvested and laid dormant during the winter months. The exact location of the photo could have been anywhere along the L&N Railroad in Escambia County," [Alabama].
     The story from years back indicate the photos were taken by a Mr. Mize from Flomaton and it was claimed they promised to pay for any crop damage, but no payment ever came. Since it was winter, there actually was little if any crop damage.
     It’s nearly as thrilling to find the real identity of the pilot, as it was to once think it was one of the Wright Brothers.
     The information by John Hoomes is courtesy of the Escambia County Historical Society. If you’ve not been to the Thomas E. McMillan Museum and Alabama Room at Jeff Davis Community College in Brewton, you have missed a treat. The Alabama Room is the repository for genealogical records of the ECHS and is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am until 3pm. Other hours are available by appointment. You may call the Museum at 251-809-1528 for more information.
     Last week’s regular meeting drew one of the largest crowds in recent years. It has to be attributed to the presence of our guest speaker, Mr. Don Newton of Pensacola. Mr. Newton celebrated his 97 th birthday last Saturday, by the way.
     Newton worked for The Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company from the mid-1920s until 1938 and he related some fascinating stories of experiences during those years. At times humorous, other times rather nostalgic, he was given rapt attention by the audience. We are indeed grateful for Mr. Newton for telling us a bit of his life story.
     April 8 is rapidly coming upon us and we won’t miss a chance to remind you that we want you of our plans for that day. Model As (antique automobiles, for the uninformed), music, dancing, crafts and food – all are yours for the taking. You’ll have a great time, so plan to bring your lawn chairs and enjoy the spring day with us. Admission is free.

This page last modified on Sunday, March 05, 2006

Some photos were taken by a by a Mr. Mize of Flomaton
(click HERE for more photos of this and similar planes)