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Curtiss museum helps solve mystery for show

HAMMONDSPORT—Hammondsport's Curtiss Museum will be on television this spring.
The PBS program, "History Detectives," filmed a segment for a show at the Curtiss Museum, Friday, March 5.  The episode will focus on Cromwell Dixon, a "barnstormer" Glenn H. Curtiss hired to bring interest to aviation when the field was still young and many people did not think it would last.  The show will see if a piece of fabric came from a plane wing flown by Dixon.
Pat Kruis, Oregon Public Broadcasting representative, said in order to authenticate the piece of material, Elyse Luray, appraiser and art historian, interviewed Curtiss Museum Curator Rick Leisenring.  Some of the interview took place in the restoration shop, while volunteers worked.
"Rick shows us a Curtiss Pusher bi-plane similar to Dixon’s, and explains that the craft was a very intricate, delicate machine, and without a doubt, very dangerous to fly – crashes were constant," said Kruis.  Leisenring told "History Detectives" that the frames and propellers for bi-planes were made from spruce wood, with bamboo balancing rods.  Bi-planes also had specially made v-engines.
"The wing fabric, however, was not standard and interchanged from linen and silk material, but by 1911 either fabric would almost always have been treated with a rubberized material that helped maximize the efficiency of the Curtiss Pusher’s aerodynamics," said Kruis.
Kruis said at the age of 15 Dixon had built the "Skycycle," a small dirigible powered by a bicycle and a propeller. He was the 43rd person in the U.S. to get a pilot's license, just eight years after the Wright Brothers' first flight.  As a barnstormer, Dixon went from town to town, performing aerial feats.  Kruis said the performances were meant to garner press and attention.
In 1911, Dixon was the Curtiss Exhibition Company's youngest licensed aviator.  Kruis said he was the first pilot to fly across the Continental Divide, Sept. 30, 1911.  He flew the "Little Hummingbird," a Curtiss Pusher.  However, Dixon died several days later after a crash in Spokane, Wa.
As part of the investigation, the piece of material was compared to a sample of Curtiss Pusher wing fabric from the early 1900s the museum has.  Kruis said using that as a control piece, the piece will be tested to see if it could have been involved in Dixon's flight.  However, the results are pending.
"It appears our fabric is from the right period, but Rick can’t confirm it came from Dixon’s plane," said Kruis.
She explained that the results of this investigation would be revealed in the episode when it airs.  The tentative broadcast date is June 21, and will be shown on WXXI out of Rochester and WCNY out of Syracuse.  Kruis said viewers should check local listings for the exact date and time later.
"History Detectives" was previously at the Curtiss Museum in 2006.  Luray was investigating another piece of fabric that supposedly came from the plane involved in the first transatlantic flight, on May 17, 1919.  She came to Hammondsport to get more information on early aviation from that time.
"History Detectives" has been airing since 2008.  The show is hosted by five "fact-finders," including Luray who handled this mystery.  In the show, the history detectives research the stories of items and objects.  Many of which are viewer supplied.  More information is available at

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