Last week, I shared how Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum was established. I also talked about Dayton’s own Erma Bombeck, and flight innovators Wilbur and Orville Wright. This week, I’ve got two more talented people to talk about that you may not have heard of before.
In the late 1840s, Major William D. Bickham of the Dayton Journal began a campaign to nickname Dayton the “Gem City.” The name was adopted by the city’s board of trade several years later. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar referred to the nickname in his poem, “Toast to Dayton”, as noted in the following excerpt:
She shall ever claim our duty,
For she shines—the brightest gem
That has ever decked with beauty
Dear Ohio’s diadem.
Poet of the Gem City
It’s fitting that I mention this poem because Dunbar is buried at Woodland. I’d heard his name associated with Woodland over the years but honestly knew little about him. I learned Dunbar was one of the first influential black poets in American literature, and was internationally acclaimed for his dialectic verse.
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the child of two former slaves. His father, Joshua, volunteered for the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first two black units to serve in the war. The senior Dunbar also served in the 5th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment. Paul was born on June 27, 1872. His sister, Lizzie, was born in 1873 but she died in 1876 at the age of two. By that time, Joshua had already left the family. He died in 1885 when Paul was 13.
Matilda took in laundry to support her and Paul while he attended school. He often read to his mother in the evenings, his interest in poetry and literature already apparent. By 14, Dunbar had poems published in the Dayton Herald. He was the only student of color at Dayton’s Central High School, where he befriended Orville Wright. Not long after, Orville dropped out of school to start a printing enterprise with brother, Wilbur. The brothers published the short-lived black newspaper, the Dayton Tattler and Dunbar wrote for it. But it folded after six weeks.
As a man of color, Dunbar struggled to find work and eventually took a job as an elevator operator, which enabled him time to write on the side. With the help of a former teacher, he gave his first public poetry reading on his birthday in 1892. A journalist was impressed enough that he published a letter of praise in various newspapers, garnering significant national attention for the young poet. Dunbar published his first book of poems, “Oak and Ivy”, in 1892. It was a combination of traditional verse along with poems written in Southern black dialect, the latter drawing a great deal of attention.
Expanding into Short Stories and Novels
Over the next years, Dunbar wrote more poetry and began to venture into short stories and novels. In 1893, he spoke at the World’s Fair and met Frederick Douglass, who called him “the most promising young colored man in America.” He moved to Toledo, Ohio and in 1896 published his second book of poetry, “Majors and Minors.” The book was a success and he was invited to present his poetry in England.
After returning, Dunbar married a young writer and teacher named Alice Ruth Moore. He took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. for a short time but Alice encouraged him to focus on his writing so he quit. His first collection of short stories, Folks From Dixie (1898) had favorable reviews. But his first novel, The Uncalled, published that year was not as successful.
Dunbar’s essays and poems were published widely in leading journals, including Harper’s Weekly and the Saturday Evening Post. In collaboration with composer Will Marion Cook and author Jesse A. Shipp, who wrote the libretto, Dunbar wrote the lyrics for “In Dahomey”, the first musical written and performed entirely by African-Americans. It was produced on Broadway in 1903, and successfully toured England and the United States over four years
Sadly, Dunbar’s health suffered from his time in D.C. and in 1900 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, so he and Alice moved to Colorado. Their marriage was already crumbling as he turned to whiskey to treat his symptoms, something his doctors encouraged at the time. He and Alice separated in 1902 but never divorced. Dunbar returned to Dayton to be with his mother. He died on Feb. 9, 1906 at the age of 33. His mother died about a year later. She did not have a marker until 1940 when the students of Dunbar High School raised funds to provide one for her.
His gravestone along the roadside at Woodland is overshadowed by a willow tree planted there. That tree refers to a poem by Dunbar called “A Death Song”. The first verse is on his stone, but there were two more verses.
Lay me down beneaf de willers in de grass,
Whah de branch ‘ll go a-singin’
as it pass.
The second verse describes a lake that is now filled in. A stained glass window in the Dunbar room of Woodland Mausoleum shows the view explained in that verse. Had I known about it ahead of time, I would have looked for it when I went there in search of Charles F. Kettering earlier in my visit.
Innovator and Inventor
Across the way from Erma Bombeck’s grave is Woodland’s mausoleum, built in 1969. I wanted to duck inside to see if I could find the grave of inventor Charles F. Kettering, for whom the city where I was born was named. I ran into Angie Hoschouer, Woodland’s manager of development/marketing, and she pointed me in the right direction.
Born in 1878 in Loudonville, Ohio, Charles F. Kettering entered Ohio State University at age 22, dropping out in his sophomore year because of poor eyesight. Kettering worked for two years as a telephone lineman and then returned to Ohio State, graduating at age 28. He worked for the National Cash Register (NCR) Company, which would eventually become an industry giant. My great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all worked for NCR and it dominated Dayton until it (ironically) moved its headquarters to Atlanta in 2015. While at NCR, Kettering helped develop the first electric cash register.
During these years, Kettering invited other NCR engineers to join him on nights and weekends to tinker on cars at his associate Edward Deeds’s barn. They became known as the Barn Gang, and Kettering was called Boss Ket.
From Hand Crank to Electric Ignition
In 1909, Kettering founded the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, known as Delco, with Deeds (also buried at Woodland). Kettering was involved in a number of research projects at Delco, inventing a portable electric generator and many important automobile innovations.
But the most important thing Kettering is credited with is inventing the first electric ignition system for automobiles. This development allowed drivers to start their car without going to the front of the car and turning a hand crank to start the engine. Kettering also invented electric lights for automobiles, enabling night driving.
General Motors purchased Delco in 1916 and Kettering was hired as the head of General Motors’ new research division. He became a vice president in 1920. Under his leadership, General Motors also developed diesel engines, safety glass, and the refrigerant Freon. Kettering’s home was the first house in America to have electric air conditioning, through the use of Freon. Kettering retired from General Motors in 1947.
Kettering also was interested in philanthropic endeavors. In 1945, he and General Motors president Alfred Sloan established the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, located in New York City. Kettering died on Nov. 25, 1958.
I’ll be back soon with more tales from Woodland Cemetery & Arboretum.