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The more 'firms' the less 'terra'

By Henry Timman • Oct 4, 2019 at 9:12 AM

Every community has had a major event take place whose occurrence is remembered for years and years afterward. Last Wednesday was such a date, but has now been forgotten with the passage of time. On Oct. 2, 1855, a man named Samuel Winchester of Milan took off from Norwalk in a lighter-than-air balloon and never was seen or heard from again.

Mr. Winchester operated a grist mill in Milan and became “possessed” by the possibility of flight by hot air balloon. He first made a flight from Milan’s public square in September of 1855, eventually landing in a tree at Hudson, Ohio. Buoyed by his “success,” he opted to ascend the next time in Norwalk.

The place chosen was on the west side of Benedict Avenue near the present railroad tracks. The gas used in the balloon was hydrogen obtained from disintegration of water, according to witnesses. (Don’t ask me to explain or justify the process, please.) Hundreds had gathered for the ascent, and it is said that young Thomas Edison witnessed one or both of the flights. He was visiting Milan relatives from his home in Michigan at the time, it is said.

A company of local militia was present to lend formality to the launch, a band played, and a cannon near the courthouse boomed out good wishes. Winchester’s balloon rose to “an immense height” and then sailed northeast over Berlinville, never to be seen again.....we guess. A Cincinnati newspaper said a few days later that the wreckage of a balloon was sighted over that city with no sign of life, and there were those who claimed to have seen Sam alive and well in Canada, where he had flown to evade the debts which awaited him back in Milan. Most people, though, felt that Winchester became a victim of Lake Erie’s waters.

The Winchester ascension was not the first in our area. As early as 1830 a “Grand Balloon Ascension” was scheduled in Norwalk. A man named William J. James “the celebrated Fire Worker of South Carolina” announced that he would make an ascension from Norwalk. Due to rain he did not do so, but did send up a small balloon with a ball of fire attached. The main ascension was rescheduled, but the newspapers are silent as to whether he ever did really go aloft from Norwalk.

Prior to the successful efforts of the Wright brothers and their counterparts to develop a successful flying machine, a Norwalk man may have developed such a machine, but little or no evidence remains to enlighten us.

In 1843 three well-known Norwalk citizens made an affidavit verifying that Hallet Gallup had made a machine that would fly through the air, propelling itself by means of wings which were attached by springs. The three men were well-respected citizens of the time — Daniel A. Baker, Prudden Alling, and Otis G. Carter. Hallet Gallup lived in a house at 77 East Main and was married to Clarissa Benedict, daughter of Norwalk’s founders — Platt and Sally DeForest Benedict. Their large family lived in Norwalk and had much to do with its development in the 19th century, but the details of Hallet’s lighter-than-air machine have never surfaced for us to study.

As for me, I agree with a punch line from an aunt of mine. She said she didn’t like to fly, but rather, she enjoyed terra firm — the more “firms” the less “terra!” It’s an old joke, but it does go along with aviation.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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