Bishop Milton Wright

The Wright Brothers Connection to Rohnerville

Were They or Weren't They?


Wilbur Wright, about 1880.

Wilbur Wright, about 1880.

In any research of local history, a few stories crop up which seem too unlikely to bother investigating. When variations of such a tale appear from several sources, however, one must dig for the original grain of truth. Such is the story told by old timers in Rohnerville that the famous aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright once lived there.

The Humboldt Times, November 27, 1932, carried this intriguing information:

Old timers, do you remember when Wilbur and Orville Wright, who made and flew the first motor-driven airplane, attended school at the St. Joseph Catholic Academy that crowned the crest of land overlooking Alton?
That may sound to many like a foolish question. But it is not. I have it from the very best of authority, in fact from several who knew them as youths, that they did attend the school on the bluff above Alton and lived in or near Rohnerville at that time.
I also have it from the very good authority that one of the priests at the school was much interested in the attempts to master the air and that much of the early inspiration of the Wright brothers came from the priest. The Wright boys attended the school for a considerable period....  W. N. S. (Humboldt Times, Nov. 27, 1932).

Orville Wright, about 1880.

Orville Wright, about 1880.

In her book, Flight into History, Elsbeth Freudenthal provides biographical information on the Wrights. There is nothing to indicate they attended Mount St. Joseph's College, as she states that "from the time of Orville's birth in 1871, the Wrights lived continuously in Dayton, Ohio." Elsewhere, regarding their education, she writes: "Wilbur and Orville both left school when quite young, in spite of the fact that their mother, their older brothers, and Katharine (a sister) all attended college. This has been attributed to the family's finances."

Limited financial resources would seem to preclude attendance at a boarding school where the tuition was $250 per scholastic year. In addition, it seems unlikely that their father, a bishop in the United Brethren Church, would have sent his sons to a Catholic School.

But then there is another story - one recalled some years ago by a daughter of the Degnans, an active Catholic family in Rohnerville, who donated land for both the Catholic Church and St. Joseph's. Cordelia Degnan Rooney remembered that Bishop Wright of the United Brethren Church approached her father about buying land on which to build the Brethren Church. Mr. Degnan offered to donate a site in exchange for help in constructing the Catholic Church. Wright agreed (Renner, 1967).

The Rohnerville Catholic Church, known as Saint Mary's Chapel, was nearing completion in August, 1870 (Humboldt Times, August 25, 1870). In a deed recorded May 31, 1873, James Degnan sold a lot on the south side of Trinity Avenue to the Trustees of the U. B. Church - Peter Schoonover, Jacob Ackerson, David Eby, Allen Frame, and Peter Houck - for $80 (Deed Book L:702). Dedication of the U. B. Church occurred on the 13th of July, 1874, at which time the building debt of $650 was erased by a $700 collection (West Coast Signal, July 15, 1874).

Referring again to Freudenthal; at the time of Orville's birth in 1871, Milton Wright was the editor of the Religious Telescope, the official organ of the United Brethren Church. It wasn't until later that he was elevated to the position of bishop, which gave him responsibility for administering church affairs.

The Humboldt Times, April 28, 1929, carried another story of the Wrights:

.... Orville and Wilbur Wright, sons of a United Brethren bishop, Milton Wright, spent one year in the early eighties in Rohnerville, coming west from Indiana. As old-timers recall it, the elder Wright held the pastorate at the United Brethren Church in Rohnerville.
... Old timers in the Rohnerville and Fortuna section remember the Wright boys, Orville and "Billy" as a pair of quiet rather reserved youths who were good students and well liked by everyone. They attended the Rohnerville intermediate school for two terms with a Mrs. Littlefield, a pioneer Humboldt woman, as their teacher.

Charles Carr, a rancher of the Rohnerville section who says that he sat across the aisle from Orville Wright in the Rohnerville school, recalled that Orville would come to the Carr home occasionally for a short visit. Orville was 12 or 13 years of age at that time and Wilbur was 15 to 16. After residing in Rohnerville for a year the Wrights moved east again.

This story was repudiated in a Humboldt Times article of February 24, 1946:

.... It is not outside of possibilities that the activity of this man (John J. Montgomery) is responsible for the reports frequently circulated several years ago that the Wright Brothers made their first flights at St. Joseph's. But this claim was silenced by one of the Wright Brothers who in response to questions said that there was no truth whatever in the reports of their having flown airplanes here.


* Information supplied by E. Faye Connor, Archivist, United Brethren Archives, Huntington, Indiana.

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