Jefferson County History
The Wright Brothers Connection to McLouth
Written by Jan Tompkins
(note: if anyone has photos of this event, I would love to add them to this article.)
My mom always told me that as a teenager she babysat for the Wright Brothers niece's kids in McLouth. Well, you know how skeptical kids are about their parents' stories, so I had to check it out. This story of Mom’s is true, because my dad said so, and he knew the family too. Ellwyn Wright, he said, had the best singing voice he had ever heard. (Her brother Herbert Wright was also a musician who played at family celebrations, and, according to my dad, several of the uncles were singers.)
Now, how did the Wrights have any connection with a podunk town like McLouth? To begin with, the two famous Wright Brothers weren’t the only brothers in the family. There were actually four Wright brothers and one sister, not counting infant twins who died soon after birth in 1870. The sister, Katherine Wright, might make an interesting study for the feminists, since she ran the Wright home after her mother’s death and was involved in Wilbur and Orville’s aircraft experimentation. She was, we are told, “fluent in math.” But Wilbur and Orville had two non-famous brothers, Lorin and Reuchlin Wright. Lorin assisted Katherine in keeping the Wright Cycle Company operating—remember the bicycle business?—and Lorin also apparently tried his hand at industrial espionage on behalf of his aviation obsessed brothers. All the Wright siblings apparently were somehow involved with the aviation stuff, except one. Neither Orville nor Wilbur ever married; Katherine married (over her big brother’s objections) but had no children.
Reuchlin Wright, the oldest brother, was the one who left Dayton, Ohio, in 1889, for Kansas City, Kansas. Reuch, we are told by the website “thewrightbrothers.org”, “apparently never enjoyed any great success in any of his endeavors, working for a while as a bookkeeper, a railroad agent, and later as a farmer. He married and had four children.” (Who would want to be labeled by history as the loser brother when your siblings were famous? No wonder Reuchlin went west.)
One of Reuch’s four children was Bertha Ellwyn Wright, known in the community as Ellwyn. Ellwyn married banker Harold W. Steeper of McLouth, Kansas, on October 8, 1919, in McLouth at the United Brethren Church. Harold was 27, and Ellwyn was 22.
Of course the wedding was at the United Brethren Church--the Wright Brothers' father was a United Brethren bishop back in Ohio.
This wedding must have been a spectacular ceremony because (according to the Jefferson County marriage book) in the same ceremony, Gladys Lucile Steeper, 30, married Robert Roos, 30, both of them from McLouth. And Irene May Steeper, 34, married Frank Schaeffer, 37, both of them from McLouth. A triple wedding! Wow!
And the Wright family, including the remaining famous one, Orville, and the sister, Katherine, made the trek from Ohio out to the wedding at McLouth. The common folks at McLouth were pretty excited about having a celebrity come to town, and about having one of their leading families connected with such famous folk.
At the time of the Steeper/Wright wedding, my dad would have been 10 years old, and my mom was seven; they remembered the local hullabaloo.
My mom, Margaret Evelyn Champion, was born at the Champion farm near McLouth on July 6, 1912. She finished grade school when she was 12, which would have been in 1924, but her mother said Mom was too young to go to town for high school. That’s because the farm was too far out in the country (six miles of dirt roads) for Mom to make the trip by horseback every day, so she would have had to board in town. So Grandma Champion made Mom repeat the eighth grade, even though Mom had been a good student. That didn’t turn out well, Mom said. “I’d already done all the work and passed. Why would I work at doing it again?” So she didn’t turn in assignments and was generally uncooperative. Finally, deciding Mom was an embarrassment to the family, Grandma Champion let her drop out and finish the rest of the school year working at home.
And the next year, when she was 13, it was arranged for Mom to board in town with a family that lived next to Harold and Ellwyn Steeper, go to McLouth high school, and come home on week ends. Was Margaret Evelyn well behaved? More or less—after all the whole community would have been watching. Mom wanted to shorten her skirts a little higher than Grandma deemed proper. So Mom basted her hemlines to the length SHE wanted, and unbasted the skirts that went home with her on the week ends. Mom was 13 when she started high school and nearly 18 when she graduated in 1929. Good babysitting ages.
Harold and Ellwyn Steeper show up in the 1930 census for McLouth, Jefferson County, Kansas. Harold, the banker, is 37. Ellwyn is 33. Their children were Margaret E Steeper, 5, and Charles H Steeper, 2. Baby sittable ages, and they lived next door to Mom.
There was another grand flurry of excitement about this branch of the Wright family in 1946, when the Steepers’ daughter Margaret married in Lawrence, Kansas. Uncle Orville, then 77 years old, drove himself all the way from Ohio to attend that wedding. Even in 1946, not very many people could fly anywhere. Not even Orville Wright.
© 2012 Janice Bower Tompkins
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This website created Nov. 12, 2011 by Sheryl McClure.
© 2011 Kansas History and Heritage Project