In the early 20th century, The Pioneer Era of aviation began. The first powered airplanes were taking off, and men and women wowed large crowds at fair exhibitions with their flying machines.
Among them was Davenport’s very own Oscar Solbrig. A German immigrant and bicycle shop owner, his first forays into flight involved “powered balloon experiments” and were performed around 1900. Solbrig then attended flight school and began constructing his own planes. After winding up in the Mississippi river while testing a “flying boat” (a craft that was meant to take off and land on the water), Solbrig turned to building land-based planes only. With the salvaged engine and other parts from the flying boat, a plane took shape in the attic of the Solbrig home.
According to several clippings from the Davenport Democrat and Leader, between 1913 and ‘14 he made a flight over the city that was witnessed by many awestruck spectators. From then on, the plane was used for fair exhibitions from 1914 to 1916. Solbrig’s flights were so popular that the Democrat and Leader quoted him as saying, “At the What Cheer Fair … the crowd of 10,000 was so anxious to see the machine and the flying that they crowded around the aeroplane so close it took us about 30 minutes coaxing to get the people back far enough to give me room to start.” Many had never seen such an invention before and fewer understood its mechanics.
Flying was also a dangerous business. Many aviators were killed or seriously injured in their efforts to take to the sky. Solbrig himself had several close calls; besides his aforementioned swim in the river, he also once became entangled in a willow tree and fell over 100 feet. But he only ever sustained severe bruising from these accidents, retiring from flight before the 1920’s. He lived to be 71, and over the course of the years, several articles were run about his “barnstorming days” and the preservation of his plane in Midwest museums.
But this is not the full story of Oscar Solbrig. Behind his success– every step of the way– was his wife, Mary, the woman known to be the first female airplane mechanic. She was not entirely erased from the picture while Solbrig was performing at fairgrounds, appearing momentarily in several articles during that period. Solbrig always managed to keep the press informed that Mary was instrumental in his flights, but the focus was always on the person in the cockpit.
Mary’s history as a mechanic began when Solbrig owned his bicycle shop. In her memoir about her parents, her daughter, Hope, recalls the prejudices her mother faced as a woman interested in a predominantly male trade. While Oscar was out for the day, Mary would would stay to watch the business. Hope recounts one interaction with a customer as follows: “A man came in to have a saw filed. He didn’t want to leave the saw when he saw [Mary] was alone. He wanted ‘the man’ to do the job. She told him he would get a good job or he didn’t have to pay. Well, my mother did the filing.” But Mary often rose far above expectations. Hope states that, “Somehow, he found out that she did it and after that, every time he came, he asked for ‘the lady saw filer’ to do it because he liked the job.”
Soon, Mary was assisting with the construction of Oscar’s first plane, which would eventually have to be disassembled, shipped in boxes via train, and reassembled by Mary at various fairgrounds. She became so familiar with the machine that, with her son, Alfred, helping with the heavy pieces, she could reassemble it in four hours. Besides performing any repairs to the machine, Mary faced the dangers of guarding it from eager spectators who had never seen a plane before. She recalls getting only four hours of sleep during fair season, and none at all the night before an exhibition. She and her son often camped out in the shipping boxes that housed the plane’s parts.
The flimsy wire that was set up to keep the crowd at bay was often useless. Hope recalls a moment in the dead of night when a man ducked under it, only to be interfered by Mary brandishing a hammer. In Hope’s words, “He scrammed fast.” Her duties also included negotiating with fairground managers who were ignorant about the plane’s mechanics and often neglected to provide enough space for the plane to take off (some expected the craft to rise directly off the ground). Mary was often seen filling in rough patches on the runway with dirt she kept in her apron, and it was she who signalled to Oscar with a white handkerchief that the plane had enough power to take off. She knew it so well that she could judge by the sound of the engine.
In 1948, several years after Oscar’s death, an article in the Des Moines Register discussed Mary’s role in his success. It highlighted some of the more dangerous elements of aviation in the early 20th century and showed Mary’s keen awareness of the crowd’s darker desires. “‘They didn’t come to see the airplane fly,’ she asserted in this article. “‘They came to see the flier killed.’” And there is evidence to attest to this: people often attempted to tamper with the craft before its flight, and once, someone succeeded in cutting a cable attached to the tail unnoticed. Although the pilot escaped unhurt, it cost the mechanics over a month of repairs.
Mary herself was a victim of the crowd’s wish to witness injury. During one landing, she noticed the wind directing the plane into a terrace and hurried to get a hold on part of one wing to redirect it. She reflects that “one of the spectators protested to the fair superintendent’” about her competence. “‘He said he had come “to see the airplane drag the woman” and felt shorted on his entertainment.’”
But while she actively participated in this risky lifestyle, Mary was also a wife and mother of three children. In addition to all the housework and cooking, she was elected president of the Mother’s club in 1936.
When she passed away on December 28, 1954 at the age of 85, she had seen many advances in aviation. She was honored at her funeral by local aviators, who tossed flowers from their planes.
(posted by Nikki)
“‘Barnstorming’ In The Good Old Days.” Quad-City Times (Davenport, IA), Aug. 7 1960, p. 40.
“Mrs. Solbrig, Davenport Aviation Pioneer, 85, Dies.” The Daily Times (Davenport, IA), Dec. 28 1954, p. 1.
Shane, George. “Recalls When Fair Crowds Came ‘to See Pilot Killed’”. The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, IA) ,May 23 1948, p. 31.
Solbrig-Keller, Hope. An Early Bird’s Flying as Described by His Daughter. San Jose, CA: CollectAir Air Age Gallery, 1991.