It wasn’t just any city, mind you

In declaring himself “Dayton’s leading Republican plumber,” Grandpa simultaneously claimed pride in his adopted community, his political party, and his new trade. True, he had lived in the city’s orb of influence ever since the family had moved down from Van Wert to Montgomery County. But resettling inside the city limits also meant new experiences, hopes, and horizons, and Dayton could boast a special identity.

At the time, the Gem City was benefiting from a handful of exceptional leaders. Long the home of inventors and tinkers – Dayton had already laid claim to having more patent holders per capita than anywhere else in the country – the city was now famed as the home of the Wright brothers, an economic legacy that would blossom through the sprawling Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The brothers were sons of Bishop Milton Wright, who had served as pastor of what would become Euclid Avenue United Brethren church before heading the traditionalist faction in a split within the denomination – the same congregation, in its liberal incarnation, where Grandpa and Grandma were devoted members. Although the Wright brothers started out as bicycle makers before turning their attention to flying, another line of Dayton-made bicycles did prosper – Huffy, with its popular fat-tire bikes of my childhood.

More influential on the locale was John Henry Patterson, an idealistic and paternalistic manufacturer who turned a rudimentary invention by a Dayton tavern owner into a ubiquitous and indispensable retailing instrument. As the genius behind the National Cash Register Co., Patterson not only pioneered modern marketing and sales strategies but also improved working conditions for his employees, something that often earned him the loathing of other industrialists. Rather than settle for an ugly slum factory, the NCR complex in Dayton was a light-filled, tree-lined campus more akin to a college in appearance. Patterson’s ancestors had been founders of Lexington, Kentucky, but left for Ohio in protest when that state voted to allow slavery; some of his kin joined the Shaker community in nearby Lebanon, Ohio, while his parents moved to Rubicon Farm, a sprawling tract then just south of Dayton containing much of the land that would become the NCR compound.

After the Flood of 1913 devasted both the city and the Miami Valley, Patterson spearheaded the drive that would assure such catastrophe would never strike again. The result was the Miami Conservancy District, which straightened the conflux of rivers, built levees and raised bridges, and between 1919 and 1921 erected five large dry-basin dams that would retain flood waters for slower, safer release. The project also brought its young manager to prominence, a young engineer named Arthur Morgan, who would later apply the same principles to the construction of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression before becoming president of nearby Antioch College.

Patterson also brought a young inventor to town who would add his own impact, Charles F. Kettering. Joining with another NCR manager, Edward Deeds, Kettering would redesign the electrical system of the automobile to allow it to be started without recourse to the unsafe and peevish ratchet, appropriately known as a crank. Their work become Dayton Electronics Laboratory Company, or DELCO, which would soon merge into General Motors Corp. and make Dayton GM’s largest center of operations outside of Detroit. Kettering, second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents to his name, led GM’s team of scientists and engineers in Dayton to many useful inventions, including the refrigerator, no-knock gasoline, and a working Diesel engine. Eventually, five GM divisions operated in the city.

Already, the city had pioneered in a new way of municipal government, one based on a nonpartisan city manager rather than the mayor.

That’s not to say Dayton wasn’t partisan. James M. Cox, the publisher of the Dayton Daily News, for instance, was not only the 1920 Democratic nominee for president (losing to fellow Ohio newspaper publisher Warren G. Harding but having Franklin D. Roosevelt as his running mate), but he had already served two terms as governor and been a member of Congress. Cox, by the way, was United Brethren.

Unlike many cities, downtown Dayton had been laid out with streets wide enough to turn a wagon around, which would give its core an airy appearance. And of the first eight churches in town, two were Roman Catholic – a few years before Boston had any. This, in turn, would lead to the establishment of Marianist College, now the University of Dayton. Indeed, the city had an early complexity I never perceived in my youth.

It was also the headquarters of our United Brethren denomination, which had a tall office building downtown as well as its Otterbein Press and a seminary. The Lorenz music publishing company, which specialized in choral and organ works as well as hymnals, was owned by another UB member.

By the time Grandpa moved to town, Dayton was becoming a place where the future editor of the New York Times (James “Scotty” Reston), the future president of the Columbia Broadcasting System (Frank Stanton), and future Hall of Fame newspaper cartoonist Milton Caniff were all teenagers. According to one story, all three, along with a future president and chairman of NCR, were part of the same small Boy Scout troop; its fifth member later said he was there as its regular guy.

All of this reflects suggests Dayton was a powerhouse on the eve of the Great Depression. Indeed, the years Grandpa and his brother were active as plumbers could be seen as the city’s golden era, spanning from the late ‘20s into the early ‘60s. Its economy was solid, grounded in manufacturing in expanding industries. As a community, both the government and civic organizations were manageable. The Midwestern weather – hot and humid in the summer, damp and cold in the winter – was another matter. Even so, its neighborhoods spread out from the Stillwater and Mad rivers and Wolf Creek as they joined into the broad Great Miami to flow toward the Ohio just west of Cincinnati. The city prided itself on its abundant water supply, drawn from well fields along the rivers; the very minerals that give the water what many hailed as its pleasant taste also gave the plumbing industry a boost: this was hard water, which made dishwashing and laundering difficult without a water softener; it also calcified in pipes until no current would pass through and they would have to be replaced. Installing water softeners and replacing pipes was good business, indeed.

Two images crystallize my memories of the city. The first is the yellow-and-white electric trolley buses. With many of the factories, including NCR and several of the GM divisions, close to downtown, ridership was high. As these buses accelerated, they gave off a distinctive whining sound; sometimes, too, they would stall, and the driver would have to step outside and reconnect the pantagraph to its overhead wires. The second image is of B52s, B47s, and B25s, among other Air Force planes, constantly low overhead; their roar often forced our teachers to halt midsentence at the blackboard.

We took a kind of perverse pride in the whispered story that in the event of nuclear attack, we were the No. 3 target in America. (So who was counting?)

The years after Grandpa and Leroy retired wouldn’t be so kind to the city. Racial upheaval and the demise of American manufacturing have taken a heavy toll, even as the suburbs sprawl outward across once bountiful farmland.

In the decades since I left, one thing that’s become clear to me is how few stories have dealt with life in Midwestern cities – then or now. Novels, movies, and television shows weren’t set in places like Dayton. (Later, a few TV series were superficially cast in places like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, or Minneapolis, without any underlying comprehension or exploration – and sometimes with glaring, accidental insertions of Southern California.) As children, we were forced to read stories about romance on the moors of England or the Puritans of Massachusetts or immigrants in New York City, but never anything of our own Ohio – people and locales we might recognize. In an attempt to instill a love of literature, the orthodox approach has it backward: I would rather begin with tales of our own lives and roots and then expand outward, across the world. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who came closest in this approach, were personal reading, not classroom. Or even Davy Crockett and the TV Westerns.

At last, Dayton has come to embrace one of its native literary voices, the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. A classmate and friend of the Wright brothers, Dunbar was emerging as a seminal black writer when he was stricken with tuberculosis, leading to his death in 1906 at age 33.

At another end of the spectrum was the comedian Jonathan Winters, who found fame in television and movies. I’ll leave it to others to determine how many of his characterizations succeeded because of their fidelity to individuals he’d known in Dayton.

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