Where were you on Oct. 17, 1911? Think hard now. If you happened to be in Denison, chances are that you might have been perched high somewhere to get a good look at the Vin Fiz Special, first airplane to fly over the city. A lot of students at the Denison Educational Institute went to the top of the school and on the ground to watch the historic event.
An early day photo of the school, later to become Denison High School, shows students high and low, in every window, on top of the building and in the schoolyard, gathered to see the historic plane.
The Vin Fiz Special was following the Katy Railroad on a coast-to-coast flight. Calbraith Perry Rodgers, a six foot, four inch tall pilot on the famous flight, was trying for a $50,000 prize. His plane was sponsored by the Armour Company, maker of the Vin Fiz, a grape soft drink.
Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, Long Island, New York, on Sept. 17, 1911. That first day, he had his first accident when he flew into a tree. It took three days for the damage to be repaired.
When he reached Durant, Oklahoma, the engine misfired and Rodgers landed that morning in a cotton field. I read in “Flight of the Vin Fiz” by E.P Epstein that Rodgers had never seen a cotton field before and from the air it looked so beautiful that when the plane’s engine misfired he decided to land in the field. He said he was fortunate “in escaping without damaging the machine.”
People flocked to the downed airplane that had landed two miles south of the Durant Depot. Rodgers was in good spirits and talked with spectators who signed their names on the fabric of the machine. He adjusted the engine and in 20 minutes, took to the air headed toward Denison.
According to Epstein’s book, thousands of people had lined the main track into Denison to wait for the plane. Fred Sisson, a Katy shops employee, climbed on top of his building with many of his fellow workers. When the foremen couldn’t talk the men into getting off the roof, they climbed up and joined them in waiting for the passage of the plane. They watched as it angled westward over the Katy reservoir and on toward Pottsboro.
The late Frank McCune, who loved to tell stories about Denison’s early days, told me a great one about the Vin Fiz. He said he chased the plane up Sears Street, then cut across to Main on Fannin Avenue and headed west after the slow moving airplane. He was going to school at the old St. Xavier’s Boys School at Burnett and Sears when they were turned out to see the plane. When he realized how tired all that running had left him and when the plane was out of sight, he decided not to go back to school. The next day, he told the teacher he followed the plane to the West End and got lost.
Evidently Rodgers’ sense of direction wasn’t quite up there with the best and several times during the flight, he wound up headed in the wrong location after following the wrong railroad line. And his sense of direction was the only instrument that he had.
When Rodgers left Denison, he followed the railroad nearly to Wichita Falls before realizing he wasn’t headed for Fort Worth as he had planned.
William Randolph Hearst had given 30 days to make the coast-to-coast prize for the $50,000 prize. Rodgers missed out on the prize money since he flew into Denison exactly one month after taking off from New York.
It was Nov. 9 when he reached Pasadena, California, with the only original parts being the vertical rudder and two wing struts. Replacement parts included 18 wing panels, 20 skids and two engines. Rodgers admitted that he found new problems in Texas, where he spent more time on the ground than in the air.
He said, “I’m the only aviator on earth who had a flat tire punctured by a cactus spine.”
According to a poster accompanied by a history of the flight at the Smithsonian in Washington. Rodgers didn’t think his flight would be complete until he reached the ocean. So on Nov. 12, he took off from Long Beach, only to be forced down at Covina and Compton. During the Compton landing, Rodgers’ ankle was broken and he was grounded until Dec. 10.
But when that day arrived, Rodgers crammed his crutches into his repaired aircraft and flew on to the beach, where he taxied the wheels of the Vin Fiz into the Pacific.
One of those numerous landings made in a pasture between Denison and Pottsboro, where Rodgers spent the night. His wife, mother and others in the party traveled by railroad car with spare parts for the plane. It was a good thing that they had a very good supply of them because they were certainly needed.
Ironically, after surviving all the crashes during the trek, Rodgers actually died at the mercy of his plane. On April 3, 1913, during an exhibition flight at Long Beach, his plane collided with a seagull and fell into the ocean. The engine came loose and struck him on the head, killing him instantly.
Information on Rodgers and the Vin Fiz is documented in several columns written several years ago by John Crawford and a few that have been written by this writer. John got interested in the plane after Willard and John Hayes of Dallas brought him information and photos from the Smithsonian.
A number of years ago while in D.C. for a National Federation of Press Women Conference, I was fortunate to see the repaired Vin Fiz hanging in the Smithsonian Museum of Air and Space. A photo of the plane was brought to John by Louis W. Sikes of Denison, who ran across it and the Vin Fiz hanging in the Wright Museum at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, when he was on a visit there in 1982. I don’t remember the year I first saw it in D.C. and I took the photo that accompanies this column.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at email@example.com. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.