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Harford's history making 'birdmen' remembered 100 years later

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The story of Calbraith Perry Rodgers Jr. and his Vin Fiz Flyer isn't just one about flying transcontinental when it seemed to be an impossible feat. And, it isn't just a story about the exploits of a member of a prestigious military family hailing from Harford County.

As Peter Ianniello, owner of Mt. Felix Vineyard & Winery, which sits next door to the Rodgers ancestral home Sion Hill, says, the Vin Fiz Flyer tale is one about "overcoming tremendous adversity and odds."

On Sept. 17, 1911 — 100 years ago Saturday — "Cal" Rodgers took off from Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., in his newly-bought Wright biplane (he was the first civilian to purchase one) and began his trip across the country as part of legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst's $50,000 coast-to-coast air race. When he finally made it to California almost two months later, he became the first person to fly from coast to coast.

It was just months earlier that year that Rodgers had become a pilot. And, it was just shy of eight years removed from Orville Wright's history-making first manned flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903.

The Rodgers family owned the brick mansion Sion Hill in Havre de Grace and other properties and was considered very well off. The family was established in America by John Rodgers, a Scot, who settled in Havre de Grace in 1700s and owned the waterfront tavern that still stands in the city today. Both Sion Hill and Rodgers Tavern are on the National Historic Register.

C.P. Rodgers Jr. was born in his mother's hometown of Pittsburgh. His father, Calbraith Perry Sr., was an Army cavalry officer who was born at Sion Hill in 1845 and, as a teenager, was left behind to care for the family's home and farm while his father and older brothers went off to fight for the Union. C.P. Sr. was on duty in Wyoming Territory when he was killed by a lightning strike five months before his namesake son was born.

Illustrious military men

Cal Rogers was from a lineage of military leaders. He was related to Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who fought in the War of 1812 and helped with negotiations of the first treaty between Japan and America, as well as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, who is famous for his role in the Battle of Lake Erie, also in the War of 1812. Numerous Rodgers and Perrys were high ranking naval officers well into the 20th century.

His cousin was Lt. John Rodgers, who was born and raised at Sion Hill. The son of an admiral who was married to C.P. Jr.'s mother's sister, John and Cal Rodgers developed a close relationship as youngsters, according to the 1985 book "Flight of the Vin Fiz," by E.P. Stein. Cal spent many summers at Mt. Sion where, according to Stein, he preferred the fresh Maryland air to the smoky air of his native Pittsburgh.

John Rodgers became a Navy pilot — the second in the U.S. Navy to get his wings — and received orders in June 1911 to go to Dayton, Ohio, to check out a plane that aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright had developed. On a whim he invited his cousin to come with him on the trip.

Up to this point, C.P. Rodgers hadn't found his calling at age 32. He was deaf in one year because of contracting scarlet fever at a young age and couldn't join the military like the rest of the men in his family.

He tried panning for gold with a brother in Africa and racing yachts, motorcycles and automobiles, but nothing seemed to fit — until he watched the planes and "birdmen," the early term for aviators, at the Wright's flying school. He decided he wanted to learn to fly.

"He falls in love with aviation and discovers his life's passion," said Ianniello, who has done extensive research over the years on C.P. Rodgers and his Wright Flyer. Ianniello added that Rodgers "scooped up" the Wright plane and bought it for $5,000. Actually, according to Stein's book, he was able to buy the plane only because his indulgent mother, heiress to the Pittsburgh glass works fortune, gave him the money.

Within weeks of graduating from the Wright flying school and getting his own plane, Cal Rodgers was flying in air exhibitions in the Midwest and thinking about his airborne future. The Hearst coast-to-coast race appealed to his sense of adventure and he decided to enter.

Zion Hill landing

Back in Harford County in September 1911, the air age really arrived on Sept. 16, 1911, when Lt. John Rodgers flew from College Park to visit his parents in Havre de Grace, landing in a field on "Zion Hill," which belonged to Robert Mitchell. Zion Hill was the local name for the area overlooking Chesapeake Bay, where the Rodgers homestead and the Mitchell homestead, Mt. Felix, sat surrounded by farm fields and forests.

The John Rodgers landing in Havre de Grace caused quite a stir in a community where motorcars were still considered a curiosity — and big news items — and "aeroplanes" were judged by many to be a pipe dream chased by idle young men.

The following morning after he landed at the Mitchell field, an estimated 2,000 people came to see Lt. Rodgers and his plane, asking questions about the flying machine and aviation in general, as reported by The Aegis on Sept. 22, 1911.

Under the headline "An Airman's Visit," editor and publisher John D. Worthington wrote: "It is hard for the conservative people of Harford County to keep pace with modern inventions. A few years ago, doubting people did not believe that the automobile would ever become a practical success yet today it is the strong rival of steam, and electricity in speed, usefulness and pleasure. In the same way the flying machine has been for all ages the limit of the dreamer's imagination, but its daily operations have already demonstrated, not only that it is as practical as the auto was a few years ago but in proportion to the difficulties to be overcome, its possibilities are infinitely greater."

It would, however, be the other Rodgers cousin who would soon make aviation history.

Transcontinental history

William Randolph Hearst was fascinated with planes – and ways to generate publicity for his publishing empire. In October 1910 Hearst had proposed a contest for a transcontinental flight. The first person to fly across the country in 30 days or fewer would win $50,000. On Sept. 17, 1911 (the contest and its prize was good for one year) C.P. Rodgers took off from New York as the third (and final, as it turned out) starter in Hearst's air race. The takeoff was briefly mentioned in The Aegis at the end of its "An Airman's Visit" article.

Rodgers had secured a sponsorship with Armour, a company known for its hot dogs and meat products, but had also recently developed a carbonated grape drink they were trying to promote. Rodgers in return named his plane after the drink — the Vin Fiz.

Since there were no airports to refuel or receive maintenance from at the time, Rodgers followed a special train with a baggage car and a passenger coach as he flew across the country. Inside the baggage car was a replacement plane, a Wright Model B, and spare parts and other equipment. Charles Taylor, the Wrights' bicycle mechanic who also worked on their planes, rode in the coach, as did Rodgers' wife, Mabel, and his mother.

"The industrial age was colliding with the natural world," Ianniello explained. "Horses were being replaced by machines." The Vin Fiz flew over people on bicycles,horses and trains. Those people could see the future of travel and transportation overhead, even if they didn't believe it.

For 48 days Rodgers flew through intense wind, thunderstorms and crashed or broke plane parts more than 15 times, also breaking several bones as he continued his journey. Flying the plane required both arms and both legs, and Rodgers persisted through pain and severe weather.

In its Nov. 17, 1911 issue, The Aegis reported: "Mr. Calbreath P. Rodgers(sic), who was born in the Rodgers Homestead at Zion Hill, near Havre de Grace, left Sheepshead Bay, N.Y, on September 17th, in an aerial flight from Atlantic to Pacific Coast, and landed at Tournament Park, Pasadena, Sunday afternoon, November 4th. It took him 82 hours and 4 minutes of actual flying time to cover 4,231 miles, about 51 1/2 miles and hour, although he was 49 days reaching his destination. On Monday, Aviator Rodgers fell about 127 feet in a field of plowed ground at Compton between Pasadena and Long Beach when he was to circle over the Pacific. His injuries are not considered serious."

In addition to spelling Rodgers' first name incorrectly, the article misstated his place of birth. The information about the flight is accurate, however, based on statistics that can be found in the appendix of Stein's book. The book notes that Rodgers was met by thousands of people when he landed in Pasadena and upward of 50,000 were awaiting his arrival in Long Beach when he crashed.

After a month of recuperating from his injuries and with plaster casts still on his broken ankles, Rodgers took the air again and, flying a plane that was literally rebuilt from scratch during the convalescence, he finally arrived in Long Beach, Calif., on Dec. 10, flying over the Pacific before landing in front of a huge crowd, according to the Stein book.

He didn't win the $50,000 prize, but he did become the first person to fly across the transcontinental United States. He was the only pilot in the Hearst race to reach the Pacific coast.

An American hero

When Rodgers landed he was lauded as an American hero. A reporter asked why he attempted to do something that had never been done before and he said, "Because everything else I've done before was not important."

"How many people in their lives feel that way?" Ianniello asked.

It was the Rodgers family's and Havre de Grace's rich history with aviation that touched Ianniello when he was researching names for his wines, wanting to tell a story about the vineyard's history and community with each bottle.

Ianniello said he was researching Havre de Grace's history one Friday night and he stumbled upon C.P. Rodgers Jr.. The Vin Fiz Flyer story has long stuck with him.

"What was fascinating to me was he was the pilot of a plane called the Vin Fiz (vitis vinifera being the most common grape used in wine and fiz meaning carbonated). Here I am making wine in Havre de Grace and C.P.'s family used to own Mt. Felix and properties in Havre de Grace, and here's a plane named after grapes. I was blown away," Ianniello said.

"This story was reaching out from history, wanting me to tell the story," said Ianniello, who named one of his wines after the Vin Fiz.

"This guy keeps pushing himself," Ianniello said about C. P. Rodgers. "It's the most enduring test a person can be put through."

He said that it felt like he was "touching history" when he uncovered Rodgers' past with Havre de Grace.

(There's also an irony to this story. In 1956, an attempt was made to put an airstrip on the very fields of Ianniello's future home, Mt. Felix, where the Rodgers cousin had landed his plane 50 years earlier. A county judge overruled the zoning board's earlier approval, however, saying the airstrip would be incompatible with the neighborhood.)

The feat endures

Three months after the coast-to-coast flight of the Vin Fiz, C.P. Rodgers, 33, died in Long Beach, Calif., near where he had first landed, when he crashed his other plane, the Wright Model B, into the Pacific in front of some 7,000 people who had gathered to watch him do aerial maneuvers. (The coast-to-coast "Flyer" had suffered so much damage on the trip west, it was considered no longer airworthy.)

There are disputed accounts that a sea gull became lodged in the plane's control wires and caused the crash. Rodgers was buried in Pittsburgh. According to the Stein book, his 6-foot high monument contains the words: "I conquer. I endure."

A replica of the Vin Fiz hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum, with a piece of fabric from the original wing decorated with the soda's grape logo that mechanic Charles Taylor stenciled.

Ianniello repeatedly stressed that Rodgers, unsuitable for the military because of his partial deafness, was finally able to do justice to his family's legacy and overcome physical and emotional obstacles during his history making flight.

"It's a flight that all of us have to overcome in all parts of our lives," he said.

Aegis Managing Editor Allan Vought contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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