PITTSBURG, TEXAS — Glenn Gordon learned at an early age that it was best to keep quiet about his grandfather's flying machine. Maybe it was the incessant teasing or the utter disbelief that kept him from telling the story of how his grandfather, the Rev. Burrell Cannon, built a contraption and flew it a whole year before the Wright brothers.
"Well, nobody ever believed me and kids just laughed at me. So I learned to just zip it up," says Mr. Gordon, more than 60 years later.
Now, as celebrations approach for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' 12-second flight on Dec. 17, 1903, residents in this tiny east Texas town are telling the tale again - this time without shame or reservation.
They claim man's first powered flight happened not near Kitty Hawk, N.C. - as the world believes - but in a pasture on the outskirts of Pittsburg, Texas. It was called the Ezekiel Airship and here is its story: One Sunday in 1902, the crude "plane" - which looked like a cross between a moth and a paddleboat - was wheeled to a nearby field. After the pilot started the engine, the airship lurched forward before rising into the air about 10 to 12 feet. It drifted toward a fence, scattering the children perched there. It then vibrated so violently that the pilot cut the engine and sailed to earth.
Since none of the witnesses are alive, it's hard to determine the distance it flew or length of time it was airborne. But the few existing documents do challenge one of the most monumental feats in American history.
"People ask me all the time, did it really fly?" says local historian Lacy Davis. "Well, it depends on what you consider flying. I believe that it actually lifted off the ground. I believe it traveled some distance through the air and then landed. But was it under control during its flight? That is the big question."
Let's get one thing clear: Pittsburg does not claim to be the birthplace of flight because, as so many here say, the airship's flight was not well documented or reproduced, like the Wright brothers'. But residents do feel slighted in history and want a little recognition for the Reverend Cannon and his efforts in reaching the heavens, or at least momentarily defying gravity.
Indeed, it has been said that his inspiration came from the heavens. The Baptist minister was obsessed with the Biblical Book of Ezekiel, which he believed held the blueprints for getting closer to God - or, in this case, flight. He was particularly intrigued by Ezekiel's vision of living creatures lifted up from earth by wheels, zeroing in on the passages that describe "a wheel within a wheel."
A sawmill operator and machinist by trade, Cannon convinced the townsfolk that his airship could fly. After setting up the Ezekiel Air Ship Manufacturing Company in 1900, he began selling stock at $25 a share. Excitement was so high, the stock was selling for $1,000 a share a year later. He raised $20,000 and began building.
The result was a machine that took off like an airplane, landed like a helicopter, and was flown, sort of, like a kite. The gasoline-powered engine turned four sets of paddles mounted on wheels. Sitting in the center, the pilot could control the angle of the paddles with a lever. The craft sprouted fabric-covered wings that spanned 26 feet.
"You have to understand that nobody had an airplane yet, so nobody knew what it was supposed to look like," says John Holman, standing beneath a replica. Last year, he and Mr. Davis published "On the Wings of Ezekiel," which compiles all that is known about the project.
After its flight in the pasture that Sunday morning, Cannon loaded the aircraft on a train bound for St. Louis, site of the 1903 World's Fair. A reward for $100,000 and the fame of being the first in flight was being offered to anyone who made a "sustained controlled flight." But a violent storm blew it off the flatbed near Texarkana, smashing it to pieces.
All that remains is a handful of stock certificates, weathered work orders from the machine shop, a 1901 photograph, and dog-eared newspaper clippings. The rest is memories.
For years, townsfolk who'd been stripped of their money and dreams did not speak of the project. But anger slowly subsided, and in 1977, the town convinced the Texas Historical Commission to erect a marker at the edge of the pasture where the airship flew, reading that it was "briefly airborne at this site late in 1902."
That revived interest among a new generation and, in the mid-1980s, a local carpenter built a full-sized replica, put on display at a restaurant until being moved to the Northeast Texas Rural Heritage Museum in 1998.
Today, it is the town's biggest draw, especially as the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight has approached. David Abernathy, mayor of Pittsburg for 50 years, says getting attention for the airship has been a top priority, even though he admits "it was not a controlled flight, like the Wright brothers'."
Indeed, say aviation experts, Orville and Wilbur proved time and again that they could get their craft in the air and keep it there. They were also masters at marketing, making sure the media was at every event. Cannon, on the other hand, did neither.
"We don't claim to be the birthplace of flight and we aren't trying to debunk the Wright brothers," says Mr. Holman, walking toward the grassy site of the Ezekiel's maiden voyage. "But Reverend Cannon was an outstanding pre-Wright inventor and he deserves a lot more credit than he's gotten."
For Cannon's grandson, Glenn, the goal is more than recognition or being able to say, "I told you so" to boyhood friends. It's about family pride. "We are really proud of my grandfather and what he accomplished. And we want everybody to know about it."