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Only five witnessed Wrights' first flight

Descendants of the five local men who witnessed the Wright brothers' first flight gather each Dec. 17 to remember the simple acts of neighborliness that Outer Banks residents extended to the idealistic bicycle mechanics from Ohio.
Lois Pearce Smith poses  with a statue of her grandfather, John T. Daniels, who photographed the Wrights' first flight on Dec. 17, 1903. Karen Tam / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lois Pearce Smith had never seen a portrait of her grandfather in his younger years, never seen the dark hues of his bristly mustache or closely admired the trim fit of his uniform.

So she was awe-struck as she stood before a statue of the man, portrayed snapping the world-famous photograph of Wilbur and Orville Wright as they guided their balsa-wood airplane aloft Dec. 17, 1903.

"I keep thinking, 'Here he is standing right in front of me," Smith said. "I can't even find the words."

The statue of her grandfather, John Daniels, is part of a sculpture at the Wright Brothers' National Memorial recreating that moment 100 years ago when man first flew.

Daniels was one of five local men who watched the 1903 flyer lift off. Their descendants gather each Dec. 17 to lay wreaths in their honor at the Wright memorial and remember the simple acts of neighborliness that Outer Banks residents extended to the idealistic bicycle mechanics from Ohio.

This year, they'll be joined by thousands of people to recognize the centennial of that first flight.

Daniels, along with Adam Etheridge and Will Dough, came over that day from their ocean-rescue jobs at the Kill Devil Hills Life Saving Station. They were joined on the frigid, blustery morning by W.C. Brinkley, of Manteo, and Johnny Moore, a 17-year-old from Nags Head.

The five helped haul the 600-pound plane 200 feet from its hangar to the wooden launching track, and later witnessed the halting 12 seconds when a machine heavier than air flew under its own power for the first time.

In later years, some became local celebrities of sorts.

Smith grew up on the Outer Banks and shared a home with her grandfather for about five years before her family got its own place. He died when Smith was 10 and she didn't realized his unique place in history until years later.

"I knew something was different when visitors would come," she said.

Sometimes he would escort his guests into his sitting room, where he would remove a wooden dowel from his desk.

The dowel snapped off of the Wright flyer when, after its fourth flight on Dec. 17, a gust of wind caught the parked plane and damaged it enough to end the experiments. He kept the shattered wood as a souvenir.

"He would whittle a little piece of wood to give to these visitors," Smith, 66, recalled. "That was just his way of sharing this."

Pearl Wilson Capps, Etheridge's 77-year-old granddaughter, said her grandmother recalled how locals initially chuckled about the flight experiments, but still were happy to help the brothers over the four years they made annual trips to the Outer Banks.

Etheridge and others regularly trooped over from their station. Capps' grandmother, Lillie, also helped mend the torn wings of one of the gliders.

The Wrights passed along many of their belongings from their Outer Banks camp to Etheridge. The gifts included a glider that he stored in his attic for years before selling it — minus the wings — for $50 during the Depression.

He used some of the wood from the glider for quilting frames for his wife and sister, Capps said. Later, those were cut into picture frames.

The connection to the Wrights even helped Everett Tate, 79, land a wife.

He is the grandson of Dan Tate, a fisherman who worked as a general helper for the Wrights during their winter trials. His great-uncle, Bill Tate, was the Kitty Hawk postmaster who responded to the Wrights when they wrote from Ohio in 1900 asking about the possibility of coming to the isolated strip of island. The brothers lived with Bill Tate until they could build their camp in the dunes.

"I guess they were probably the only ones who would help those crazy guys," Everett Tate said.

Everett Tate, 79, met his wife, Suzanne, 50 years ago when she was stationed in Charleston, S.C., with the Navy. He captained a shrimp boat at the time and was the only sailor willing to take her out on a fishing boat.

Suzanne Tate, 73, said she became intrigued with the young boat captain after learning of his ties to the Wrights. They married two months later.

The Tates are both retired now, but stay busy with artistic endeavors. Suzanne Tate is a children's book author who has published about 25 books, including one about the locals who helped the Wright brothers.

That tradition of helping strangers continues to this day with Lois Smith. During the centenary celebration, she'll act as a guide for visitors, just as her grandfather did 100 years ago.

"It truly has come full circle," she said.