Down East - Late Summer 2011 travel blog

motorcycle with side car

model of Glenn Curitss 1st plane

another model

where Glenn flew

Keuka Lake

Dr. Konstantin Frank vineyard

Pleasant Valley Vineyard

freshly picked grapes

Movie Clips - Playback Requirements - Problems?

(MP4 - 4.64 MB)

bringing in the grapes


If you ask any American about the pioneers of aviation they would respond - the Wright Brothers. Certainly the brothers made the first flight in the US and were leaders in the field, but the man who really did it all and set many speed records on land and in the air was Glenn Curtiss, a man most of us have never heard about. Glenn grew up in the Finger Lakes and started as a bicycle mechanic, just as the Wright Brothers did. Although he only had an 8th grade education, he was a mechanical genius. He loved to go fast and when the first engines were invented, he was quick to buy one and attached it to a motorcycle. Although his bike business was going great guns and he made a quality product, the motorcycles had him hooked and he entered speed races across the country with ever faster machines. He set a land record on the beach in Florida going 136mph on a V8 motorcycle. Every time Glenn tweaked his engines, he could travel farther, faster, more reliably.

His fame with engine development brought Tom Baldwin to his shop. Baldwin sailed blimps and wanted to attach an engine to provide more control and speed to his craft. Curtiss' success with powering these first air ships, brought him to the attention of Alexander Graham Bell who wanted to invent a real flying machine. The Wright Brothers made their first flight during this time, but kept it top secret and they seemed more interested in patenting every innovation they made rather than collaborating with others as Curtiss did to advance the profession. As the Curtiss/Graham team made ever better planes and won contests for speed and distance in the US and Europe, the Wright Brothers sued for patent enfringement, bringing all the work Curtiss and others were doing to a screeching halt. During this hiatus European aviators made advances in the field while the American twiddled their thumbs. World War I began and the US government saw the potential of aviation in warfare and they purchased all the aviation patents, bringing Curtiss and the Wrights together into one aviation company that produced ever more sophisticated aircraft until the 1930's. War production needs brought huge profits to the company and Curtiss left the frigid Finger Lakes area to move to Florida where he created the town of Opalaka and built a mansion filled with the best that money could buy.

A museum in Hammondsport where Curtiss launched his career commemorates his efforts in cycling, motorcycles, aviation, speed boats, and RV's. If it had an engine, Curtiss was involved. We explored the place all morning, marveling at the accomplishments of a man we had never heard about. Guess it pays to have a good PR guy.

In the afternoon it was time to do some more wine research. The Pleasant Valley Vineyard was the first one here and is on the US registry of historic places. It won numerous awards for high quality product until it was bought by the Coca Cola company which ran it into the ground and sold it to Seagram's, which shut the place down. Recently a local family bought this old style vineyard covered with ivy, stained glass windows and old oaken barrels and is trying to get things going once again. The vineyard started by Dr. Konstatin Frank was in much better condition and we tasted a much more expensive, higher quality product there. Frank was the pioneer who figured out how to bring fragile French grapes to this more challenging climate and grafted them to hardy rootstock. His efforts preserved many grape varieties that disappeared from France after disease decimated them. Some of the wine we tasted here came from plants that were over fifty years old. By the end of the afternoon our bus was filled with cases of wine. There was much here to please the Road Scholar palate.

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