There are numerous stories that tout the virtues and sometimes non virtuous events that marked the county’s history. In my researching the history of La Porte County I came across articles of people, places and events that defined the county’s history. Some of the articles referenced the first person to do this or that. Others announced the first time an event or opening occurred. This is the 16th in a series of articles that may bring a smile or frown to your face, or cause you to say “Oh my gosh,” or “I didn’t know that.”
Donald Gregory and his parents moved to Michigan City in 1908 from Battle Creek. At the age of 15, the Evening News in August of 1915 related that he had told an engineer, “That the right principle of flying machines had never been discovered and that it was his belief that the tractor principle, that of placing the engine ahead of the aviator, was the correct solution of the problem of perfecting flying.”
He is credited with building and flying the first airplane ever flown in Michigan City. He built the plane in 1910, at Marion Carver's Carpentry Shop, according to the recollection of Clem Spychalski, another city resident. The shop was located at the rear of his home at 803 Spring Street.
Elizabeth Munger's "Michigan City's First Hundred Years" relates that Gregory hauled the plane through the streets by a car to a golf course that was located just west of Greenwood Cemetery. The airplane managed to get a few feet off the ground before crashing into a grazing cow. Gregory survived the crash.
On another occasion, he took his "airplane minus the engine" to the top of Lake Avenue hill. In his attempt to glide to the bottom, he broke his arm. Then, in March, of 1911, while testing an airplane on its initial flight, he crashed. The plane fell nearly 100 feet on to Belle Island, Detroit, Michigan. Gregory was unhurt.
Two years later, Gregory was contracted to put on a flying demonstration in Michigan City. Gregory’s inability to get the plan off the ground was the biggest disappointment of the day. The report in the 1912 edition of the News related that the propellers were not long enough.
A few days later Gregory took his plane to a field near Greenwood Cemetery for testing. Several thousand people flocked to the site to witness the event. After numerous attempts the airplane "rose off the ground two or three feet and flew a distance of several hundred feet without going up."
On the fifth of August, at 7 a.m., he made another attempt to fly his plane. This time he was successful. One newspaper reported the flight was on the Hotchkiss property at the west end of 10th Street, while the other said it was at the Blair field west of the state prison. He was able to ascend to a height of 65 to 75 feet, and circled the field a couple of times while going through various maneuvers. Gregory's flight was cut short when his face became covered with oil, obscuring his vision.
That evening he attempted another flight, but met with little success. The News exclaimed, "Mr. Gregory is some ditch jumper." The article continued: “After spinning along on the ground almost the entire length of the Blair farm, the machine started up and at the north end of the field, succeeded in reaching a height of ten feet. Then the motor slowed down...Just ahead of him was a ditch....He jumped the ditch...most artistically. Fifty feet ahead was a second ditch.... The machine and Gregory just reached the opposite bank and skidded the distance of ten feet or more." That chain of events caused damage to the plane's landing gear and propeller.
So ended Donald Gregory's attempt at flying in Michigan City! Three years later, news reached the harbor city of Gregory's untimely death. At the age of 22, he crashed from a height of 300 feet in someone else’s plane. A University of Michigan faculty member said, "His death was a distinct loss to American aviation." At the time of his death his parents were living in La Porte, on Pine Lake.
Arnold Bass is a past president of the La Porte County Historical Society