WYSO

Susan Wright: The Mother Of Flight

May 11, 2018

The story of Wilbur and Orville Wright has been told countless times. Two completely self-taught, self-funded brothers invent the airplane in the back of their West Dayton bike shop. The world was never the same. But the story of the Wright brothers’ background is even more unorthodox than it seems. In the late 1800s, during the heart of the Victorian Era, the Wright brothers’ mother inspired their mechanical aptitude. Community Voices producer Leo DeLuca has a story about Susan Catherine Koerner Wright.

“We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit,” said Orville Wright in his later years.  

Thankfully, the Wright brothers’ curiosity did bear fruit. It bore tremendous fruit. But the Wright family dynamic was definitely atypical. Their father was very loving, very devoted, very encouraging. But he was also a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, and his church duties kept him on the road for months. That meant their mother, Susan, was often in charge.

The Wright brothers on the steps of 7 Hawthorn St. in Dayton
Credit Carillon Historical Park

“I think the whole family was very dependent on Susan. Katharine as well as her four brothers. Their reverence for her was remarkable. They thought she hung the moon," says Amanda Wright Lane, the great grandniece of the Wright brothers. We met on a beautiful May day at 7 Hawthorn St. to speak. That’s the location of the old Wright family home.

"So, it was always Susan that was home," says Wright Lane. "Susan was the mom and dad. And I can honestly say I’ve never heard of the bishop, you know, picking up a hammer or driving in a nail, so I think it was pretty much Susan and the kids that kept things up around the house."

And Susan wasn’t afraid of handiwork. She even built a favored sled for her kids. Susan was born in Virginia, in 1831, but her family moved to Union County, Indiana, the following year. She studied literature at Hartsville College, a unique opportunity for women at that time, but she also had a natural mechanical knack. She got that from her father, John Koerner, who’s been described as a “character” who “did not accept all that he heard or read.”

“Susan's father, he was a carriage maker, and so, in her environment she was around wood-working tools, improvising, being creative, experimenting with new ways. It’d be logical to think that that’s just who she was,” says Mackensie Wittmer, program manager with the National Aviation Heritage Alliance.

But Susan was also a painfully shy woman. That’s often the first thing people say about her. Before the Wright family moved to Dayton, Susan was raising her kids, alone, in the middle of an Indiana prairie. And she was often in poor health. Malaria, rheumatism, and other maladies affected her. But through it all, she had a very positive impact on her kids. She encouraged their interests. She was a light to her children.

Susan Wright died of tuberculosis on July 4, 1889, 14 years before her sons took their first flight.
Credit Carillon Historical Park

“While Susan Wright might have been alone in Indiana, maybe physically frail herself, we know that. Shy. It was probably really hard," says Wittmer. "But I hope that the contribution of her children speaks to her legacy, and isn’t that all you might want?”

But Susan never knew she’d leave a legacy. After a near six year battle, she died of tuberculosis on July 4, 1889. Independence Day. Wilbur was 22. Orville was 17. Bishop Milton Wright recorded the event: “She expired, and thus went out the light of my home.” He wrote that in his diary. But while Susan’s death brought darkness to the Wright family home, it can also be argued that it helped bring great light to this world. Following a very serious injury, Wilbur had been in a deep depression that lasted years. But after caring for his mother during her death, he began to think less of his own problems. He began to come to life. 

“In the last two years of her life Wilbur stayed by her side," says Amanda Wright Lane. "Not only trying to keep her spirits up a bit, reading to her, etcetera, but doing things that were very practical—carrying her up to her bed. They were sitting here at number 7 Hawthorn St., and it was a two-story home, and all the bedrooms were upstairs. I think she was such an encouraging woman. And wanted her children to be the most they could be. And, perhaps, once she was gone, he was able to take the next step in his life. I think it was a transitional period for him to move on to the next thing. Even though I’m not sure he knew what that next thing was. But I believe he was a bit released to begin thinking about the rest of his life.

Of course, the rest of Wilbur’s life would bear colossal consequence. So would Orville’s. The gifts Susan Wright gave her children would someday change the world. But during her life, her impact went unsung. While Wilbur and Orville’s mother gave them wings, she never lived to see them fly.