Weekend Wanderlust: You can't go a day without Dayton

Kevin J. Elliott
Hawthorn Hill in Dayton

Dayton is the eternal underdog when it comes to the state spotlight, falling behind Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus as a premier destination. And recent history hasn’t done the Gem City any favors. 

The city’s empty factories are emblematic of the industrial decline that has taken place over decades throughout the Rust Belt. Last May’s tornado is still a fresh scar that cratered a wide-swath of livelihoods on its path from the northern edge of Dayton into downtown. That was closely followed by the mass shooting in the historic Oregon Arts District an unthinkable tragedy that made Dayton the center of the national news cycle. All of those blows came before a global pandemic struck, which has left Montgomery County in the red for months. 

Yet, I’d contend that as a historical touchstone in our state, compared to the big three “Cs,” Dayton is king. I’d also contend that this resilience, which the city has displayed since its founding in 1796, is what makes it such a fascinating and complex place to explore. I’m certainly in no position to hand out awards or superlatives, but in my many travels in 2020 all of which have occurred within the borders of Ohio the preservation of that rich history, and in particular, theCarillon Historical Park, should be at the top of any list. 

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“You can’t go a day without Dayton” is the current tagline for Dayton History’s myriad museums and sites, which is quite the claim but also true. Besides the requisite birthplace of flight attached to Dayton’s prodigal sons, the Wright Brothers, Dayton was also the place where the cash register was invented, whereWeston Green introducedthe Cheese-It and Ermal Fraze concoctedthe aluminum can pop-top. It’s also where Paul Laurence Dunbar became one of the first internationally regardedAfrican American poets, Phil Donahue perfected the daytime talk show and the backbone of G-funk was crafted in the studio ofRoger Troutman and Zapp. 

Not to discount the other major metropolitan areas of Ohio, but there does seem to be an uneven amount of innovation in Dayton’s history, as well as a number of outsiders and grand eccentrics who dot the timeline. Why such a high concentration of talent? Something in the water? 

I'm often asked why there was so much inventiveness going on in Dayton during the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. The best answer that I can give is that success breeds success,” said Alex Heckman, vice-president of museum operations for Dayton History. “Dayton had several very innovative companies which attracted a talented labor pool to the city. As one example, fully one-sixth of America's corporate executives in 1920 had spent a portion of their careers at Dayton's National Cash Register Company. Directed by Edward Deeds and Charles Kettering, approximately a dozen NCR employees perfected the electric automobile ignition and the electric automobile self-starter, and formed DELCO in the process. Dayton became a ‘city of 1,000 factories,’ and everything from bicycles to biplanes and sheet music to sewing machines was produced here.”

Carillon Park in Dayton

Any trip to Dayton should begin with a visit to Carillon Park, which encompasses that wide expanse of the city’s history. Founded by Colonel Deeds and designed by the Olmsted Brothers (of Central Park fame) with the consultation of Orville Wright, it paralleled the work done by Henry Ford at Greenfield Village in the early 1950s. 

Ford had already purchased the Wright Brothers first bicycle shop for his living museum, so Deeds and company countered with the Wright Brothers’ National Museum, which boasts the Wright Flyer III, as well as other Wright ephemera, including the camera that took the first picture of flight. These days you can now visit Orville’s Dayton home,Hawthorn Hill, the mansion where he spent his twilight years, which has for decades been closed to the public. But again, the first family of flight has several sites throughout Dayton that solidify its stature, culminating in the giant National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which wouldn’t be there without Wilbur and Orville but is bolstered by Ohio’s multipleNational Aviation Heritage sites. So Carillon has to be about more. And it is. 

As far as socially distanced, the 60-acre site has several field-trip worthy buildings (the last time I visited was 5th grade) that recreate that Dayton ingenuity and include: a printing press; a transportation wing with authentic Dayton trolleys and the oldest locomotive in the country; a wonderful exhibit on the devastating 1913 flood; pioneer homes; and a miniature railroad for the kids. 

The real show at Carillon, besides the carillon concerts that occur every Sunday at 3 p.m., and the best testament to Dayton’s historical preservation, are its collections. The National Cash Register collection alone, is a museum. The tech exhibit that showcases Dayton’s progress from DELCO through pioneering the LCD screen is a museum for museum geeks. There’s a wall and a half that displays toys that were manufactured in the city— from the era when mechanical toys were built and distributed primarily out of Dayton. There’s the neon sign that fronted the legendary jazz club Gilly’s, a bicycle from the ’80s developed by Huffy and some paraphernalia from one of the first NFL teams, the Dayton Triangles. The best museums are exhausting. 

But the piece de resistance of Carillon Park is the animatronic hall of inventors. There you can get the whole story of Dayton through the words of Patterson, Kettering, Deeds and the Wrights, all in robotic form. It’s a show that could give Disney warning.

On the day I visited in July, with the pandemic still churning, every precaution was taken. Our tour of Hawthorne Hill was limited to six and the exhibit buildings were spaced accordingly. Despite that, the museum seemed to be thriving. Yet another feather in the cap of Dayton History.

“At the Dayton History organization, we have been pleased to see an increase in the number of individuals interested in joining our volunteer program during the past several months,” said Heckman. “During the pandemic-related shutdown, many of these people realized that they would like to start making a positive impact in their community through the contribution of volunteer hours at our museum sites.”

One could easily spend a day at Carillon and get lost in the history, but the adjacent Carillon Brewing Company is also notable for its embrace of 1850s brewing methods and recipes. The beet and coriander ales, coupled with wood-fired German fare, are a tasty compliment to the museum. And should you want to put a finality on your visit, close by is the magnificentWoodland Cemetery and Arboretum, the resting place of Kettering, Dunbar, Erma Bombeck and the Wright Brothers.