When the Aircraft Industry Almost Got Off the Ground in Traverse City: The Tale of Two Inventors

by Julie Schopieray, local historian and writer

This story is about two very different Traverse City men, each with his own ambitions in the emerging world of manned flight.  Both had skills and talents to be successful, but for different reasons neither realized their aviation dreams.

Many direct quotes from newspaper articles have been included because their wording best expresses the attitudes and humor of the time.

It was 1909. The Wright Brothers were setting flight records repeatedly.  In St. Louis, Missouri, during various centennial celebrations, balloon races, dirigible exhibitions and aeroplane contests made national headlines.  In the small northern Michigan town of Traverse City a young man with a natural gift for mechanics and apparently innate engineering skills made aviation headlines, himself–at least locally.

In August 1909, Charles Albert Augustine, a twenty-one-year-old son of a tailor, along with a few friends, put together a 20-foot long bi-plane glider. The young man and his friend, Edwin E. Smith, made their maiden flight on October 17, 1909 from the top of a hill just south of town on the Ransom farm. Several men ran alongside, pushing the glider with its pilot until it caught air and rose up about 50 feet, gliding a full 600 feet and landing lightly again. They gave the glider several tries that day, but the flight that Smith piloted was the longest. After this successful flight, the achievement was eagerly covered in the paper.

Augustine had high hopes of starting an aeroplane manufacturing company.  However, he needed funding for his projects and had competition for financial support.  Another man with better connections to local businessmen was also making news with his invention–which threatened to overshadow that of the younger man.  Andrew Smith was seventeen years older than Augustine and had already established a reputation as a proficient inventor, although the extent of his training is unknown. In 1895, he had patented an oarlock mechanism for boats, making a good amount of money from it. By 1904, he had several patents, one for a diamond-shaped clothespin, and another for a machine to make them. His machine was used to open a clothespin factory in Muskegon, Michigan. Obviously mechanically talented, he is listed in the 1900 census as an inventor.

Andrew Smith's 16-cylinder engine trials on icy Grand Traverse Bay.
Andrew Smith’s 16-cylinder engine trials on icy Grand Traverse Bay.

In 1910, Smith was listed as a mechanical engineer at the Oval Wood Dish Co. His biggest venture yet was perfecting a 16-cylinder airplane engine. Working with the Traverse City Iron Works to build his engine, he had it ready to test in early 1911.  In February that year, he put together a contraption with the test engine attached to a sled and an eight-foot propeller. During the test runs on the ice of the bay, Smith experimented with different amounts of engine power:

Mr. Smith turned the power of all the cylinders on at one time as an experiment, but the heavy boat was practically lifted off the ice… the second test was made over the same course and under similar conditions with the exception that 12 passengers were carried. The added weight did not seem to make any difference as practically the same speed was made and the boat went over the course like an express train without mishap.

This experiment drew the interest of local businessmen, and Smith started gaining support from the community. Several men subscribed to incorporate the Smith Aeroplane Engine Company, which was capitalized at $100,000.  A publication called Aircraft dated March, 1911 noted the activity of the two men, “Andrew Smith and Charles Augustine are the prime movers towards the organization of a company at Traverse City, Mich., for the purpose of manufacturing aeroplanes and aero engines in that growing western town.”  There seems to have been some sort of partnership between the two men, but perhaps only a verbal agreement, not a contractual one.

augustine-newspaper
Augustine’s biplane, as it appeared in a photograph published in the Grand Rapids Press, 1910. This is the first time this image has been shown to persons interested in local history, as this image is not available through the History Center.

A January 1910 Grand Rapids newspaper covered the exciting achievement of Augustine’s first flights the previous fall, including a photo of the builder and his biplane. The article mentioned the partnership with Smith but explained that they somehow ended their relationship, “Originally, Augustine was working in conjunction with a local machinist who promised to produce an eight-cylinder fifty horsepower gasoline engine… but Augustine and his machinist friend have had a split….”

In August, 1910, Augustine’s new plane was finished, but he was waiting for Smith to return from a business trip in New York. Augustine was to pilot his plane with the Smith engine and a newspaper reporter was to accompany him on the flight. The flight with the Smith engine never happened.  No documentation has been found to show that the Augustine airplane body and the Smith engine ever came together as a unit and flown. The following month, Augustine left for New York spending three months learning about planes, gaining experience with engines and working for an aeronautical society on Long Island.

After returning home, Augustine placed an ad in the wanted column of the paper asking for capital to purchase an engine for his monoplane, but few came to his aid. A supporter wrote a piece in the paper encouraging others to contribute:

In a January issue of the Grand Rapids Press we read that Traverse City people were electrified last year when Charles Augustine made his flights in a glider of his own construction. We wonder if they were so electrified that they still remained dazed and as they read the ad in home papers for financial aid to purchase an engine for this same young man for his new monoplane, do they fail to see in this an opportunity to aid one of Traverse City’s boys? What might mean very little to each one who might lend a hand might mean much to one who has spent all his spare time and all his earnings during the past few months working on this machine, which is nearing completion only lacking the engine. One man says he will give $25 toward it, are there twenty-four more men who will do likewise? This would set the young man on his feet and show to our sister cities that the Queen City of the North is still loyal to her boys.
–Owen Schoolcraft

Prospects for financing a fledgling aircraft company centered on Smith rather than Augustine. The Board of Trade created an aviation committee consisting of three local businessmen, and pledged whatever support they could to Andrew Smith and his engine-building venture. There was talk of starting a factory for production right in Traverse City.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1911, the Smith engine made mention in the paper with results of testing in Saginaw and Chicago, and word of an additional $1,000  being donated to the testing fund.

Augustine's monoplane never got off the ground, but reality never stopped famed postcard designer Orson W. Peck. Read more about him in the "Then and Now" feature of this month's Grand Traverse Journal!
Augustine’s monoplane never got off the ground, but reality never stopped famed postcard designer Orson W. Peck. Read more about him in the “Then and Now” feature of this month’s Grand Traverse Journal!

Meanwhile, Augustine was still perfecting his monoplane. Surprisingly, even with all the talk of the Smith engine, in September, a full eight months after his plea for financial aid, the latest Augustine aeroplane was finished but still without an engine. Newspaper accounts were supportive, “The machine is completed and a model in every respect, similar in size and design to many of the best aeroplanes now in use. Experts have judged this a perfect machine, but as yet Mr. Augustine has not been able to secure a suitable engine with which to operate it.” The plane was put on display at the local fair, a sensible move according to the paper, “This of itself will be a great attraction and as aerial navigation has now become firmly established, additional interest will be given to this exhibition.” It seems strange that with the glowing description of the quality of Augustine’s plane, he was not being taken seriously, and left without securing funds.

After the excitement of a nearby town holding an aviation exhibit at their fair, at the last minute Charles’ plane was rushed in and put on display in Traverse City. It seems his plane was only being used to bring more people into town for the fair. In the end, Augustine’s “perfect machine” never left the ground.

Meanwhile, an exhibition was planned to show off the improved and tested Smith engine. With the backing of prominent businessman Henry Hull, the Board of Trade made an agreement with Smith which stated he would pay for all advertising. Subscribers who donated were assured their money would be well spent and, if they were “in any way dissatisfied with the flights, they could have their money cheerfully refunded to them.”

Together, Smith and the Board organized an exhibition once Smith’s engine had been perfected and tested at an air strip in Chicago. Three days in late November, 1911 were set aside for the show.  The paper waxed enthusiastic about the exhibition and the prospects for airplane manufacture in the city:

Under the auspices of the Board of Trade, this machine will be brought to Traverse City and two days exhibition given. There is a two-fold object in this proposition- one is to give the people of this section of the state an opportunity to see a real air ship in action; another is to give a demonstration for the purpose of interesting local capital in this company for the purpose of manufacturing these engines in  this city…Taking these things into consideration, there is a great future for the aeroplane engine and the Traverse City product promises much for the future. This community now has an opportunity to assist in establishing what will probably become a large and valuable industry.

Smith secured professional aviator Vandie Ludvik to fly the plane in the exhibition in Traverse City.  Ludvik had been testing Smith’s engine in various planes in other exhibitions around the Midwest, and a Curtiss bi-plane was chosen to use with the Smith engine. Ads were placed in the paper and tickets sold by the Board of Trade for 25 cents, and the 12th Street fairgrounds were chosen for the exhibition. The first two days’ weather was not good, and only one flight was taken on the second day, its outcome reported quite positively:

A large crowd witnessed the experiment on seventh street and when the machine was ready, it was followed to the Twelfth street grounds by hundreds of people.  After a run about 150 feet, the air craft gracefully rose about 30 feet going gradually higher as it encircled the field until it reached a height of about 50 or 60 feet, when a stiff air current partially toppled the machine, but the aviator with quick manipulations righted the craft and completed the circuit of the field at a height of about 30 or 40 feet, making a very good landing.  

On the third day, the conditions were better.

The trial was the best yet given… and the engine was in first-class condition. The aviator rose to a height of about 200 feet, encircling the grounds twice, in his flight sailed over the asylum grounds. When he landed, the rear wheel of the bi-plane struck a stump and was badly punctured… About 5,000 people…gathered on the twelfth street grounds to witness the scheduled exhibition of the Curtis bi-plane…the great throng of men, women and children, who covered the field could not be controlled…the crowd was so great that he was afraid that he could not pick out a suitable landing place without danger of injuring several people in alighting. Besides, there was a defect in the connecting rod of the frame work which was broken in the landing which prohibited another trial. Naturally the great crowd was very much disappointed.

According to a 1957 article by Al Barnes, after the initial flights, the test pilot “refused to make another flight” with the Smith engine “saying it was ‘no good.’”

There was still talk of gaining support for Charles Augustine and his inventions, but it seems to have not been enough to make a success for him. In December, 1911, after testing another invention called a hydroplane, a propeller-driven watercraft, he was still struggling to find financial support for his inventions.  The newspaper ruefully comments, “Some time ago Charlie made an appeal to certain parties for assistance in perfecting his aeroplane which he is sure would have succeeded in flying if he could have secured an engine powerful enough for this purpose. Although he failed to receive the assistance for which he asked he has not given up entirely because  of discouragement, but is still hammering away. It is too bad that Mr. Augustine does not receive the encouragement and necessary assistance of which he is deserving for he has proven by his work in the past, that he is endowed with the ingenuity of an inventor.”

A few days later, a local citizen also contributed and “Editorials by the People” letter which was published to, hopefully, encourage local businessmen to support Charles.  This letter sums up what some locals must have been feeling. The Board of Trade had supported Andrew Smith, but only because they thought there might be a benefit to the city if an engine factory could be established and bring more business to town. What Charles Augustine was doing did not appear to benefit the city.

Editor Record-Eagle: Selfishness seems to be the predominating spirit of the age; it blinds us to our own interests, to our neighbors’ interests, and to the interests of the city in general. We have the business men’s association, the grocers’ combine, labor unions, etc., each trying to get some advantage of the other, each trying to benefit the organization they represent at the expense of the others. We also have a board of trade composed of lawyers and business men to look after the city in general.  In seeing for something great, we sometimes overlook the great things. The prosperity of any city can only be obtained by the mutual working together of all of its inhabitants. In a recent issue of your paper I noticed these headlines, “Hydroplane a Success.” I say that a boy with the inventive ingenuity that Charles Augustine possesses ought not to go unrewarded, and that the Board of Trade could do nothing better for Traverse City than to back him with the means necessary to start a factory for the manufacture of aeroplanes, hydroplanes of any other kind of planes his inventive genius may bring forth. The time is near when the air will be filled with some kind of machines, and if Traverse City wants to receive the benefit, as other cities are now receiving from the manufacturer of automobiles, it had better get in line immediately.
— W.H. Henderson

Biography of Charles Augustine, working class inventor

Charles Augustine grew up among the working class and had the typical schooling available in Traverse City at the time, most likely an education that ended at the eighth grade. He earned his daily living as the projector operator at the Dreamland Theater on Front Street, a fitting job for someone who enjoyed how mechanical things worked. He also is listed as an electrician and a chauffeur in various city directories.

He obtained his mechanical education in a correspondence school, getting actual experience in automobile factories.  His skills permitted him to build a motorcycle when his finances were not good enough to purchase one.

The story was that he became interested in flying through a dare.  He took that dare and first started creating a dirigible, but the expense of the gas needed changed his focus to the biplane. Augustine had even gone to a flight school in Missouri and learned to pilot an aircraft with great skill.

He was obsessed with mechanical things because, not only did he build airplanes, he invented other modes of engine-driven transportation.  Late in 1910 he invented something called a motor sled, described as follows, “built like an iceboat, only much smaller, being, but eight feet long, it is a curious looking affair. The propellor seven feet long is located in front, on a raised frame, and connected by a chain to the engine. The engine is a three horsepower motor cycle engine, and drives the propellor at a rate of 250 revolutions per minute.”

On December 16, 1911 Charles tried out another new invention which was a watercraft he called a hydroplane.  The description given in the newspaper is similar to that of a modern airboat or fanboat:

The hydroplane consists of two hollow steel tubes which not only serve as floats but  are also necessary to retain craft’s equilibrium. It might be termed as a hydro-plane with the planes [wings] taken off, for the means used to propel it is in the shape of an aeroplane propeller about three feet in length, and driven by a four cylinder motor cycle engine. This odd yet practical and pleasure giving affair is the work of a local young man, Chas. Augustine, who is not only the owner of the first hydro-plane in this vicinity; but it will be remembered that he is the first one to have an aeroplane and a motor sled… The boat is capable of making eight of ten knots an hour, he having rode from Greilickville across the bay to the mouth of the river and up the river to Park street bridge in about twenty minutes…

In 1913, the newspaper noted his latest invention, a primitive automobile, “[Charles Augustine] appeared on the streets yesterday with his latest mechanical production. A motorcycle motor has been mounted on a small chassis supported by four bicycle wheels. The body of the car is built of unfinished lumber, but in spite of its odd appearance the vehicle negotiated the streets and hills about the city easily. The seating capacity is arranged to accommodate one person.”

As far as his personal life goes, he married Loretta Valleau on June 5, 1911, but  the marriage only lasted three years. Perhaps Charles spent too much time working on his inventions, which he was continually creating. A friend recalled that Augustine “could stick to one thing only long enough to make it work, and he would jump to another challenge.”

He was known around town for his quirky nature. For over ten years, he kept a pet alligator which was sometimes put on display, and was known to have escaped from its tank more than once. The first recorded incident was in 1905. The three-foot reptile, which had been missing for two months, was discovered in a neighbor’s wet cellar by two men who were taken by surprise by the creature.  In 1916, it vanished from Augustine’s Front Street home and managed to find its way into West Bay.  By this time, the ‘gator was five feet long.  The newspaper was quick to make fun of the situation:

While the sharks were biting great holes in the Atlantic seaboard this summer and driving the bathers from the salty surf to their enameled bath tubs the swimmers in Grand Traverse bay cruised leisurely back and forth and thanked their lucky stars that the inland waters were free from the menace of of submarine attack. Little did they dream that a five foot alligator was no doubt then watching their every stroke simply waiting and watching for an especially plump morsel. But such must have been the case for yesterday afternoon after a desperate struggle two young gentlemen named Carver and Abbott captured and dragged ashore this self same alligator. While loitering along the beach near Sunset Park they noticed what they first considered to be a log floating idly near the shore. The log seemed to be propelled through the water and as this seemed to be a strange condition they investigated and discovered that it was not a wooden thing but something imbued with life. The fight and capture resulted. By the time that the monster was brought ashore the story had spread and there were crowds of people along the shore. The question of its disposal next arose and there was also much speculation as to which course the captive took to reach these waters from its southern home. About this time one of the spectators identified the alligator as belonging to Chas. Augustine of East Front street. Due inquiries brought out the fact that the alligator was a family pet and had escaped last week.

Augustine enjoyed performing in theatrical productions. In 1906, he played a villain in “A Hobo’s Triumph”, and somehow worked his pet alligator in the story! In 1908, he purchased the Elk Rapids Opera House, but it isn’t known if he had any success with it.

His flamboyant nature got him arrested numerous times for speeding on his motorcycle and driving without headlights. He loved his machines and their speed!

In 1914, Augustine married  Pearl Wells-Machado. His relationship with her seems to have been an on-and-off affair. They must have divorced since she was recorded as marrying another man in 1919, but was remarried to Augustine in 1925.

augustine-engineshowingHe entered the service during WW1 and shortly after contracted tuberculosis. His health plagued him for the rest of his life and he was in and out of hospitals from 1923 on, never fully recovering. Augustine died in 1933 at the age of 46 in a Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles, CA.

In his obituary, he was still remembered as the first to take flight in Traverse City some 24 years prior.

Charles Augustine, 46, pioneer motion picture operator and machinist of Traverse City died, in Los Angeles, Calif., Wednesday afternoon according to word received by friends in this city this morning. Mr. Augustine was a World War veteran and since his service had spent much of his time in veterans’ hospitals about the country, part of which was in the hospital at Camp Custer. For several years he had been in California in another hospital. About the time the Wright Brothers were starting work on their heavier than air machines, Charley Augustine was also experimenting with flying. He was intensely interested in aviation and only the condition of his health kept him from going more deeply into the development of the airplane. When motion pictures first came to Traverse City Mr. Augustine became interested in them, and then made picture projection his life work. This was interrupted by his service in the World War and his following hospitalization. Word of Mr. Augustine’s death came from Pearl Augustine, his widow who announced that burial will take place in Los Angeles.

Charles Augustine never fully received the support of the community.  The newspaper writes with apparent sympathy, “…handicapped by lack of experience, by lack of tools, by lack of material and by lack of money, Augustine, who is a natural mechanic … has been sure that he is right and so let none of the many obstacles discourage him.”

Unfortunately, these obstacles along with ill-health–and perhaps an inability to stay focused on any one thing for long–kept him from making a success in the aviation business. It seems sad to think that the local businessmen of Traverse City did not offer more support to encourage his talents. Was it public perception that caused the local businessmen to hold back on investing in Augustine? In 1910, at the height of  Smith and Augustine’s airplane and engine testing, the financial backers had to decide which inventor seemed to deserve their hard earned money. Would it be the mature man who already held a position as a mechanical engineer at a reputable company, and held several mechanical patents–or a working class twenty-one-year-old moving picture projector operator who made machines in a shed behind his parents’ house?  Who knows what Augustine could have accomplished if he’d had the resources to continue with his passion?

Brief Biography of Andrew Smith, inventor and patent-holder

 

Andrew Smith’s dream of an airplane engine company in Traverse City fell apart. In 1912 the company he started folded due to a lack of support for the project. This didn’t seem to diminish his spirit. He continued to successfully invent and patent his ideas through the 1930s.

By 1920, he had moved his family to Chicago where he was hired by the Halsam Products Company, a toy manufacturer. For that company, Smith invented a device to make toy blocks safer by rounding the edges: the company was well known for its “safety blocks.” Smith also invented a propelling device or shooter, and an improved game table.

He moved to Milwaukee around 1922, where he patented and manufactured an improved version of his 1894 oar lock.  In addition, he patented several automobile parts, including an oil pan, oiling system, clutch control, and a starter.  Never limited to one industry, he invented a machine to make blanks for paper poker chips and a machine to finish them. His chips were sold under the Thesco-Kirby-Cogeshall brand name.

It is believed Andrew Smith continued to live in Milwaukee until his death.

Julie Schopieray is a local historian and writer. She is currently working on a project concerning Jens C. Petersen, a Traverse City architect who practiced in this city from the early 1900s to 1918.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *