Glen Curtiss was a speed demon. He won bicycle races. He twice set speed records on motorcycles. And he won the world's first airplane race. He was so swift that maybe he was Tom Swift. Or maybe not.
Tom Swift is the fictional hero of more than 100 novels, the first appearing in 1910, written by more than a dozen different writers, and he was typically portrayed as a teenager with a keen scientific mind and little formal education. He was said to live in a small town in the Finger Lakes region. All that applies to Glen Hammond Curtis. Except for the location of the town, however, it also applied to Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and a bunch of other guys.
Probably Tom Swift was based on an idea rather than a person. Still, Curtiss deserves some citation in American history. He had at least as much to do with the development of the airplane as did the Wright brothers, although he is not nearly as well-known. Although he did not make his first flight until four years after the Wright brothers, many of the early developments that make airplane flight possible and practical can be traced to his work.
And the Glen H. Curtiss Museum, on the southern tip of Keuka Lake (the crooked-finger lake), is a good place to study his contributions. There are dozens of bicycles and motorcycles and doll houses in the museum, but most people go there to see the airplanes.
Those airplanes are wonderful machines, the glory of their day.
There's the Jenny, or technically, the Curtiss JN-4, a trainer plane, the kind both Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh used to learn how to fly. There's the June Bug, which is the kind Curtiss used to fly at Hammondsport in 1908 in the first flight of a flying machine that was announced to the public ahead of time.
Most of us can appreciate the wonder of these machines just by looking at them. The signs help you understand their significance, but the awe comes from looking at the big yellow plane suspended overhead, and walking around and gawking at the big red plane, and the one with sharp teeth painted on the front so it looks like an angry shark.
(OK, if you really want to know, the big red one is the "America," a 1914 Curtiss Wanamaker Flying Boat, and the one with the shark teeth is a Curtiss P-40E Warhawk, an iconic World War II fighter plane. Technically, the big yellow one overhead is The Big Yellow One Overhead. All right, I made that up, but there is a big yellow one overhead. Go and see for yourself.)
What leaves many visitors talking when they leave is the restoration shop, which you can enter and walk around to watch volunteers in the process of bringing back to something-like-life an old and wonderful flying machine.
When my friend Eileen and I visited, the volunteers were working on a Curtiss P-40N Warhawk that had been involved in a midair collision over a Florida swamp near the end of World War II. A half century after that crash, both planes were removed from the swamp, piece by painstaking piece. The process took two years. The fuselage of one is now close to looking like the body of plane.
When it is done, it will be put on display at the museum. It may not be one of the planes that flies, but who knows? Could be. Yes, many of the planes in the museum are capable of flying, and sometimes they do. Videos at the museum show some of them in flight.
And, of course, there are other things: dozens of old bicycles and dozens of old motorcycles, a play area for young children, a gift shop, dozens of dollhouses, lots of photographs (one shows Ernest Hemingway visiting the Curtiss mansion in Florida), and the airplanes.
There's the 1911 A-1, the first U.S. Navy airplane. Built, of course, by Curtiss. There are "pushers," planes with the propeller behind the pilot. There's a special exhibit on women pilots (Curtiss trained Blanche Stuart Scott, a native of Rochester, the first female pilot).
And there's a gaggle of information on Curtiss: how he had only an eighth-grade education, how in 1903 he set a record by riding a motorcycle 64 mph, and in 1907 set another record by riding one more than 136 mph (that motorcycle, by the way, is not at the Hammondsport museum; it's in Washington, at the Smithsonian); how he worked with Alexander Graham Bell as a member of the Aerial Experiment Association, an early organization designed to advance flying technology.
Curtiss received the first-ever American pilot's license, and the second-ever French pilot's license. He was the pilot for the first city-to-city flight (Albany to New York, 137 miles, which won him a $10,000 prize). His company employed 21,000 people to build planes, reaching maximum production at the outset of the First World War (18,000 workers were in Buffalo and 3,000 in Hammondsport).
A bitter patent dispute with the Wright brothers was settled in 1917 under intense pressure from the U.S. government, which didn't want the production of warplanes to be hindered by a legal battle.
Curtiss later got into real estate development in Florida and built some of the earliest travel trailers.
And all that is interesting. But it's the airplanes from the early 20th century that draw us. And that's what you should go to the museum to see -- those wonderful flying machines.
If you go:
The Glen H. Curtiss Museum is open all but five days during the year (New Year's, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas). In the summer (May to October) hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Sunday, when they are 10 to 5. Winter (November to April) hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Sunday, when they are 10 to 4.
Admission is $8.50; $7 for seniors (65 and older); $5.50 for ages 7-18; 6 and under are free. Families (two adults and all children no older than 18) get in for $25. There are also group rates.
To get there, take I-90 east to I-390. Take 390 south (about 75 miles) to I-86 east. Take exit 38 (the first exit you'll come to on I-86), turn right onto route 54. Go a half mile to West Washington Street and turn left. Continue on Route 54 about seven miles. The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum will be on your left. There's a big airplane along the road, so it's hard to miss.
For more information: www.glennhcurtissmuseum.org.