Art Smith, Birdboy
In 1909, Art Smith was 15 years old and totally enthralled with the idea that humans could fly. It was just eight years after the Wright Brothers managed the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight, and Art was determined to follow their lead. He graduated from "leaping the gap" with his bicycle and skates to building a plane for himself … without ever seeing one.
Art's family lived in a modest home in Fort Wayne, Ind. His exuberant mother and his father, a quiet man who had been blind since suffering a sun stroke, supported Art's dream. The five dollars a week that Art earned at his job would never add up to the $1,756.60 Art calculated was needed for the plane. Consequently, his parents took a mortgage on their house to finance his dream. With piano wire, wood and heavy cloth, Art created a Curtiss-type biplane powered by a two-cycle 40 horsepower engine. Visions of becoming one of the growing number of daring aviators who were earning an excellent living from exhibitions fueled Art's desire to make enough money to take his father to an "oculist" in Chicago. His dream took a serious blow when the first flight of his plane ended with only the engine intact. He had made his instruments so sensitive that the slightest adjustment created a massive response. He could go only straight up… or straight down.
Unqualified support for his seemingly foolish quest came from his lifelong friend, Aimee Cour. Aimee came from a wealthy family and, as a teenager, attracted many admirers. Although she enjoyed outings with several young men, her loyalty to Art never wavered. Her father, who Aimee sought always to please, didn't want Aimee to marry an aviator, someone who appeared to be without prospects. Art fit into that mold all too well. Aimee's interest in Art—and his in her—were not encouraged, but that didn't stop either of them from maintaining their friendship. Even after Art was able to examine the plane flown by the Wright Brothers and enthusiastically began spending up to 18 hours a day building a second plane, Aimee supported his obsession and didn't mind that he had little time to see her.
Al Wertman was another staunch friend. He, too, was caught up in Art's dream and quit his job to help Art finish the second plane. Time was the enemy. Repayment of the loan taken on Mr. and Mrs. Smith's house needed to be made one year from the day it was issued. Art needed to complete the second plane so he could begin to earn money through exhibitions. People were enthralled by airplanes and were willing to pay to see one up in the air for just a few minutes. Art could taste success. But even though he exercised greater caution with his second plane by test flying it about four feet above the ground before a real flight, he still hadn't created the right design and he crashed again. Big earnings from exhibitions were out of reach; his parents lost their house.
But neither his parents nor Aimee lost faith in Art. He continued to build planes, refining the design with each new model. He learned to do tricks when he needed to rescue himself from unexpected air currents and conditions that existed high in the air where humans had never been before. He learned how to "volplane," to glide when the engine quit. Art and other aviators in the early part of the 20th century were the test pilots of their day. The derring-do of their exhibition performances laid the groundwork for airplane design and handling.
Art was booked into fields to fly for a certain number of minutes, often as many as 10 or 15. He began to make money at flying. His first priority was to take his blind father to Chicago to see if his sight could be restored. When the oculist told them that the blindness was permanent Mr. Smith was satisfied that they had tried, but Art was devastated. Eventually he was able to buy a ten acre property and house for his parents to repay them for their belief in him.
Success and a steady but not excessive income had come to Art finally. Through the summer he gave exhibitions in the states not only near Indiana but as far away as Texas. Businessmen in Hillsdale booked him for two shows in one day that were so successful they wanted him to give another the next day. Unfortunately, he was expected in Adrian. Consequently, he decided to give a second day's entertainment to Hillsdale and then fly to Adrian. It was a novel and very efficient idea.
By 1912, Art reached a level of proficiency that made him comfortable taking a passenger on one of his flights at an exhibition. One young man had strong second thoughts about flying and left before that part of the program. Aimee gamely volunteered to go with Art. It was a disastrous mistake. Aimee's father, never a fan of Art Smith, went ballistic. He and his wife decided to send Aimee east for a long stay. She and Art were frantic. Art suggested that they elope to Michigan since Aimee's age still required her parents' consent to marry in Indiana. Art knew Hillsdale from his prior visit, so he bundled Aimee up for the flight there.
After only six minutes in the air, the engine sputtered and Art landed. He called his "mechanician" and had him bring a new valve to replace the broken one. Then they took to the sky again, hoping they were still ahead of Aimee's father. Art recognized Baw Beese Lake as they approached Hillsdale and headed to a large, smooth field on the campus of Hillsdale College. Preparing to land, he realized that the ailerons, the flaps that balance a plane, were non-functional. As the plane landed it flipped over; Aimee sustained seriously torn back muscles, and Art received yet another set of crash injuries. With no hospital, the couple was taken to the Smith Hotel (the present site of Jilly Beans). Dr. W.H. Sawyer, son-in-law of Charles T. Mitchell, and another doctor acted as medical staff and as witnesses to their marriage. Within a day Mr. Cour arrived and his resistance to the marriage evaporated when he saw that his beloved daughter was both badly hurt and emotionally distressed that he would be furious with her.
Art's career took off as his skill at daredevil aerial maneuvers steadily increased. He enjoyed the adulation and celebrity that resulted. But his renown and fortune came at a cost. In 1916, he and Aimee were divorced when Aimee grew tired of Art’s total absorption in flying and the attention he received, calling him a “swell head.”
With World War I looming, Art volunteered his flying skills. He was sent to Langley Field in Virginia to be an instructor for other aviators. Following the war, beginning in 1921, he joined the U.S. Mail Service, with a regular route from Cleveland to Chicago. Oddly, these mail runs took place only at night. On February 12, 1926, Art took off in fog and icy weather and lost his way. Thinking the bright lights from cars at a farmhouse were from the landing strip, he prepared to land. He realized his mistake too late and turned his plane so that it crashed into a woods. It was Art's final flight and a fitting way for him to exit this world.
JoAnne P. Miller