Photo courtesy Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
Glenn Curtiss with his wife, Lena, with the racing plane he called "Miss Memphis."
Bird men swooped into town in 1910, when Memphis hosted one of the first aviation meets in America. Wilbur and Orville Wright had made their famous flight just seven years before, so this four-day event was many Memphians' first look at those newfangled airplanes, which one reporter described as "a weirdly shaped automobile on three wheels." No mention of wings.
Naturally, the Lauderdales were concerned about all this hub-hub, since we feared (and rightly so) that it might interfere with our burgeoning Dirigible Division.
Held at the Tri-State Fairgrounds April 7-10, 1910, the National Aero Meet featured noted flier Glenn Curtiss (called "the champion of the world" which seems rather all-encompassing), Charles Hamilton ("the dare-devil of the air"), and a number of considerably more modest aviators from around the country.
The Commercial Appeal bragged that "all eyes are on Memphis" and workers transformed Main Street into "a glare of patriotic colors in honor of the thousands of visitors." Local businesses jumped on the bandwagon with bizarre enticements; a newspaper ad for Lowenstein's department store bragged, "Our restrooms, a revelation of artistic beauty and luxurious comfort, are one of the interesting features of Memphis."
Brisk winds grounded most of the frail bamboo-and-canvas biplanes on opening day, and some 8,000 visitors were on hand for "wind-checks" (instead of rain checks — get it?). The following day, the crowds cheered such exploits as Curtiss setting a new world record for "quick starts" (I'm not entirely sure what that is) and fliers circling over the fairgrounds racetrack at almost 50 miles per hour — incredible speed at that time.
Curtiss even offered a few brave men and women short rides in his new racing plane, dubbed Miss Memphis. That's him, with his wife Lena, standing beside the plane in the photo here. One passenger, excited by his first airplane trip, declared, "Aeroplaning beats automobiling all hollow!"
Still, if the National Aero Meet was supposed to show the spectators how safe and reliable these new contraptions were, that goal failed. On the first day, Curtiss' engine quit in mid-air and he had to glide down for a rough landing. On the second day, the aviator plunged his airplane into a crowd of spectators, hurling a little boy to the ground. (Rumors persist that he was intentionally aiming his plane at Mother and Father Lauderdale, and that the hapless little boy was ME, but good gosh, I'm not that old.). On the third day, one of the other fliers smashed into a fence.
And then it just got worse. On the last day of the meet, aviator J.C. Mars crashed his plane into a parked car loaded with people. One passenger in the car was slashed by the plane's propeller, and Mars was hurled out of the cockpit and knocked unconscious, but eventually recovered.
Apparently the fliers — and probably the spectators, too — had had enough thrills. The newspapers announced, "Mars' accident brought the National Aviation Meet to a close." The bird men folded their wings and went home.
PHOTO COURTESY MEMPHIS AND SHELBY COUNTY ROOM, BENJAMIN L. HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY.