August 1957: Igor Bensen and the ʺGyrocopterʺ

This Month in North Carolina History

gyrocopter
Bensen Gyrocopter

In August 1957 Igor Bensen landed a “roadable” gyrocopter at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh and then drove it to Cameron Village to do some shopping. Later his wife met him in a station wagon. They then packed the gyrocopter in the back and went home. The unusual flying machine was designed and manufactured by Bensen Aircraft Corporation, located near the Raleigh-Durham Airport, and the colorful stunt was typical of Bensen — scientist, engineer, inventor, test pilot, and priest.

Igor Bensen was born in Russia in 1917. Fleeing war and revolution, his family moved first to Czechoslovakia, where Bensen received his early education, and then to the United States. Bensen began his training in engineering in Belgium and completed it at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey in 1940. For a number of years he worked for General Electric, taking a leading part in designing and testing everything from air conditioning units to electron microscopes.

The work that interested him the most, however, was the development of rotary-wing aircraft. As a child, Bensen had drawn a picture of a “flying chair” and had been deeply disappointed when his father told him it wouldn’t work. As an adult, Bensen spent most of his life designing, building, and testing helicopters and gyrocopters.

For General Electric Bensen studied the application of jet propulsion to helicopters, but increasingly his personal interest focused on gyrocopters. A gyrocopter, also called an autogyro, looks like a small helicopter but operates in a very different way. The rotating blades of a helicopter are powered by the aircraft’s engine. The blades of a gyrocopter are set spinning by the flow of air as the aircraft moves forward. A small engine and propeller, mounted either in the front or rear, give the gyrocopter its forward thrust. Once the blades are spinning, however, they serve as the gyrocopter’s “wing,” providing the lift to fly.

In practical terms this means that while a helicopter can take off straight up, a gyrocopter needs a short run along the ground to become airborne. It also lands more like a conventional aircraft, but needs very little stopping room once it is on the ground. Bensen believed that there was a great future for the gyrocopter as a sports aircraft. He also looked on it as an airplane for everyman — easy and safe to fly, inexpensive to build and maintain.

The first gyrocopter Bensen built in Raleigh was made from parts he picked up in local hardware stores. Bensen Aircraft developed a number of different models of gyrocopters and sold them for the most part in kits. An active and imaginative promoter of his aircraft, Bensen encouraged the organization of gyrocopter enthusiasts into clubs and associations.

In addition to his business interests, Bensen remained active as a scientific researcher and inventor. He came to believe that human beings were the weak link in the increasingly intricate modern technological system. He thought that scientists should pay more attention to the human side of the equation. For him this came to mean increased participation in the activities of the Greek Orthodox Church in which he became a deacon and ultimately a priest.

Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.
Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.

Bensen’s gyrocopter never became the personal airplane of the people as he had hoped. Sales began falling off in the 1980s. In 1988 Bensen Aircraft closed and twelve years later Igor Bensen died. The gyrocopter may not have caught the popular imagination, but Bensen left behind a small army of gyrocopter owners who maintain their “flying chairs” with care and fly them with enthusiasm.


Sources:

North Carolina People, Places, and Things database. Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.

Image Sources:

Bensen Gyrocopter” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

“[Popular Rotorcraft Association, Raleigh, N.C.]” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

August 1831: North Carolina and Nat Turner

This Month in North Carolina History

turnera

Beginning in the early hours of Sunday, 21 August 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led about sixty followers in a series of attacks on white families in Southampton County, Virginia. By the time local militia had suppressed the insurrection some 48 hours later more than fifty people had been killed.

The shock waves from Turner’s attack were felt all over the South. Counties in North Carolina were just over the state line from Southampton, and word of the assault spread rapidly along the border. Rumors grew by leaps and bounds as they traveled.

As refugees from Virginia poured into Murfreesboro, North Carolina, a band of rebellious slaves was reported to be within six miles of the town. The militia was called out in Hertford, Halifax, and Northampton Counties. North Carolina’s Governor Montford Stokes was bombarded by reports of violence and requests for weapons. In Edgecombe, Gates, and Chowan Counties white people armed themselves and closely monitored the behavior of their slaves.

As news of Turner’s insurrection spread, reaction began to crop up in areas relatively far removed from the North Carolina-Virginia line. In Duplin, Sampson, and New Hanover Counties, more than a hundred miles from the scene of Turner’s attack, a situation near panic ensued. Frightened by rumors, most of the citizens of the area convinced themselves that there was a general plot among their slaves to rise up and massacre the white population.

Confessions extorted from slaves under torture became the basis for arresting even more slaves who were similarly tortured until they confessed. Wild stories were everywhere. At one point, the town of Clinton in Sampson County was reported burned to the ground and dozens of white families killed. Kenansville in Duplin County braced for an attack by an army of more than 1500 slave insurrectionists. Wilmington in New Hanover County was thrown into a panic by the discharge of a cannon north of the city, and citizens passed a night of near hysterical fear.

Investigation the next day revealed that the gun had been fired by a carousing group of white men. Eventually news of the events in Virginia reached even the far western counties of North Carolina. In Rutherford County, slaves who worked local gold mines were feared to be plotting an uprising.

None of the many rumors of murderous slave insurrections which circulated in North Carolina in August and September of 1831 proved to be true. Terror and death were very real, however, for the state’s African American population. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of slaves or free blacks were arrested, and many were tortured and killed in areas where white peoples’ fear turned into panic and then into violence. Black North Carolinians paid a heavy price for the revolt of Nat Turner.


Sources:

Charles Edward Morris, “Panic and Reprisal: Reaction in North Carolina to the Nat Turner Insurrection, 1831,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1985 (Volume 62, no. 1).

Robert N. Elliott, “The Nat Turner Insurrection as reported in the North Carolina Press,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1961 (Volume 38, no. 1).

Image Source:

Nat Turner. The confessions of Nat Turner…. Baltimore : T.R Gray, 1831 ([Baltimore] : Lucas & Deaver).

August 1920: North Carolina and the Women’s Suffrage Amendment

This Month in North Carolina History

12 Reasons Why Women Should Vote pamphlet
12 Reasons Why Women Should Vote pamphlet

When the Nineteenth Amendment came before the North Carolina legislature in August 1920, it was not the first time the state’s leaders had considered allowing women to vote. In February 1897, a bill for women’s suffrage had been introduced in the state senate by J.L. Hyatt, a Republican from Yancey County. This bill died after it was referred to the committee on insane asylums, of which Hyatt was the chair.

Representative D.M. Clark of Pitt County introduced a bill in 1913 that would have allowed individual municipalities to vote on local women’s suffrage, but it was eventually tabled. Women’s right to vote came before the Assembly again in January 1915, when bills were introduced simultaneously in the House and Senate. After a joint committee hearing, the House voted to table the issue indefinitely and a few weeks later the Senate followed suit.

Two years later, three separate women’s suffrage bills were introduced. A municipal suffrage bill introduced by Gallatin Roberts of Buncombe County received a favorable committee report, but was ultimately defeated on the House floor. G. Ellis Gardner of Yancey County submitted a bill to allow suffrage via a constitutional amendment, but it was tabled.

The third, which was introduced by state senator Thomas A. Jones of Buncombe County and called for limited voting rights for women, was defeated by a close 20-24 margin. In early 1919, women’s suffrage was a major issue both locally and nationally, and bills for municipal suffrage were introduced in both houses of the North Carolina legislature. This time the bill passed in the Senate (35-12), but the House failed to pass it by a slim margin (49-54).

Although women’s suffrage bills continued to be tabled or rejected, the issue actually had a great deal of support within North Carolina. Among those officially endorsing suffrage were a wide variety of well-respected women’s organizations, as well as the Southern Baptist Conference, Southern Methodist General Conference, and the North Carolina Farmers Union. Virtually all of the state’s mainstream newspapers were sympathetic by 1919, and the issue also had vocal celebrity supporters like William Jennings Bryan, former governor Locke Craig, Lieutenant-Governor O. Max Gardner, and newspaper editor Josephus Daniels.

In June 1919, the federal women’s suffrage amendment—also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment—was submitted to the states for ratification and by April 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified. When the North Carolina legislature met on 10 August 1920, both North Carolina and Tennessee were considering the suffrage amendment and its ratification. It appeared not only that the Nineteenth Amendment would be ratified, but that North Carolina could be the final state required to do so.

Yet, on 11 August 1920, sixty-three of the one hundred and twenty North Carolina House members signed a telegram sent to the Tennessee legislature, promising that they — a majority of the House — would not ratify the amendment on the grounds that it interfered “with the sovereignty of Tennessee and other States of the Union,” and asking that Tennessee do the same. The impact of this telegram seems to have been minimal, however, since the Tennessee State Senate passed ratification on the 13 August 1920.

On the same day, Governor Thomas W. Bickett submitted a bill to the North Carolina legislature in a joint address to both houses. Although Bickett was against women’s suffrage on principle, he felt that it was inevitable and that a North Carolina vote against ratification would only postpone the matter for a few months. He had previously written to President Woodrow Wilson, who was a supporter of women’s suffrage, that he hoped Tennessee would ratify first, thus making a North Carolina vote unnecessary. In fact, the Raleigh News and Observer quoted the governor as saying to the Assembly, “I am profoundly convinced that it would be part of wisdom and grace for North Carolina to accept the inevitable and ratify the amendment.”

On 17 August 1920, state senator Lindsay Warren proposed that the Senate postpone the ratification vote until the next legislative session. Warren’s motion passed by a vote of 25 to 23, crushing any chance that North Carolina would be the final state in the ratification process. Two days later, the House openly rejected ratification by a vote of 41 to 71. Meanwhile, there was also ratification drama in Nashville, where shortly after the Tennessee House ratified the amendment, a motion was made to reconsider. By August 21, however, Tennessee upheld ratification by a unanimous 49 to 0 vote and, in spite of the objections voiced in North Carolina’s legislature, women officially gained the right to vote in the United States.

Although North Carolina technically did not reject the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 (because of Warren’s motion to table the bill in the Senate), it also did not ratify it until 1971, more than fifty years after it became law. The only state to wait longer was Mississippi, which ratified it in 1984.


Sources:

A. Elizabeth Taylor. “The Woman Suffrage Movement in North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1961 (Volume 38, no. 1) and April 1961 (Volume 38, no. 2).

The Journal of the Senate of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, at its Session of 1897 by the North Carolina Senate. Winston: M.I. and J.C. Stewart, Public Printers and Binders, 1897.

“Women Suffrage.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

Image Source:

Equal Suffrage Association of North Carolina. Twelve Reasons Why Women Should Vote. [Broadsides]. Raleigh: The Association, [between 1915 and 1920].

August 1956: Grandfather Mountain Highland Games

This Month in North Carolina History

Tossing the caber at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Photograph by Hugh Morton. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.
Tossing the caber at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. Photograph by Hugh Morton. North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives.

On August 19, 1956, the first annual Highland Games were held at Grandfather Mountain.

Even though the event was the first of its kind in the region it was an instant success: more than 10,000 people turned out to see performances of Scottish songs and dances and to watch athletic events including foot races, wrestling, and the traditional caber toss. The Highland Games have been held annually at Grandfather Mountain since 1956, growing to become the largest event of its kind in the country.

The date chosen for the first games marked the 211th anniversary of the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland in 1745, when the clans gathered to prepare for a fight for Scottish independence from England. The defeat of the Scots and subsequent laws banning displays of Scottish heritage led many to emigrate, a large number of whom settled in North Carolina.

The first Grandfather Mountain Highland Games were largely the work of two people: Donald MacDonald, a journalist for the Charlotte News, and Agnes MacRae Morton. Both were active in Scottish heritage groups and were eager to promote Scottish culture and traditions in the United States.

The first games were based upon the famous Braemar Gathering in Scotland, which MacDonald had attended a few years before, and on a similar festival held in Connecticut. Many of the athletic competitions held at the first games would have been familiar to people at the time, including the high jump, shot put, 60-yard dash, and broad jump. But the highlights of the day were the traditional Scottish music, dancing, and the caber toss.

The “Fighting Scots” brass band from Scotland County High School played, and there were bagpipe bands from around the country. The winner of the dance competition was described by the next day’s newspaper as “An Asheville lassie, little red-haired Margaret Fletcher,” while the caber toss was won by a student from Appalachian State Teachers College, who tossed a 200-pound log more than thirty-six feet.

The continued success of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games has been due in large part to its setting. Agnes MacRae Morton’s father, Hugh MacRae, had developed the resort town of Linville at the foot of Grandfather Mountain in Avery County. The rugged terrain is similar to the landscape of parts of Scotland. Morton volunteered the use of MacRae Meadows for the games, and MacDonald worked to install bleachers and a tent for the participants and spectators.

The Morton family has continued to support the games ever since 1956, with Agnes Morton’s son, Hugh MacRae Morton, taking a significant role in the promotion of the Highland Games. The Games regularly attract more than 30,000 visitors a year and have made not just the event but the region synonymous with Scottish heritage. The author of a history of the Scottish Highland Games has written, “When one mentions Grandfather Mountain in Scottish circles around the country, the name is repeated with such ethereal reverence as to sound almost mystical.”


Sources:

William S. Caudill. “Highland Games,” in Encyclopedia of North Carolina, ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Emily Ann Donaldson. The Scottish Highland Games in America. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing, 1986.

Grandfather Mountain Highland Games website

“Scots to Meet on Grandfather.” Asheville Citizen, 19 August 1956.

“Highland Gathering Draws 10,000.” Asheville Citizen, 20 August 1956.

August 1887: The Goophered Grapevine

This Month in North Carolina History

conjurewoman
“The Goophered Grapevine” is the first story in The Conjure Woman, published in 1900. North Carolina Collection.

In August of 1887 “The Goophered Grapevine,” a short story by Charles Waddell Chesnutt appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It was the first story by an African American ever printed in that respected magazine and marked the emergence of Chesnutt on the American literary scene. Chesnutt’s father, Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, had been born a mixed-race, free person of color in Fayetteville, North Carolina, but had moved his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where Charles Chesnutt was born.

After the Civil War, the elder Chesnutt returned to Fayetteville with his family to open a grocery store. Charles Chesnutt spent seventeen years of his life in North Carolina gaining what formal instruction he could and beginning an ambitious program of self-education. He married Susan Perry of Fayetteville and began a family. After several years as a teacher and school principal, Chesnutt left the state with his wife and children and ultimately returned to Cleveland where he established a successful career as a stenographer and attorney. Chesnutt was determined to provide for his family through his stenographic business, but he was also drawn to literature and writing.

While in North Carolina he had collected ideas for characters and tales from the African American community around him and in the 1880s began submitting stories to the popular press. Although his first efforts were derivative of popular fiction of the day, Chesnutt returned to his roots for “The Goophered Grapevine.” In the short story, set in eastern North Carolina, a northern, white visitor describes a conversation with Uncle Julius McAdoo, an old freedman, who tells a strange tale of a cursed grapevine in his African American dialect.

“The Goophered Grapevine” resembles the plantation fiction of such popular authors as Thomas Nelson Page, but while Page wrote sentimentally of the love of ex-slaves for their white masters and the good life of the old plantation, Chesnutt wrote of African Americans who viewed the antebellum world in which they had lived with less affection and more honesty. Uncle Julius is a shrewd man with a hidden agenda. His former master was both gullible and comically dishonest, and surrounding the world of slave and master is “conjure,” a mixture of superstition and magic. “The Goophered Grapevine” is Chesnutt’s most anthologized work and appears as one of several similar stories in his first book, The Conjure Woman.

Chesnutt continued to write short stories but devoted himself particularly to novels in which he dealt more seriously with the interaction of race and southern society. Although his work was critically well received, he never achieved financial independence as an author, and in the latter part of his life Chesnutt devoted himself to writing speeches and essays on racism in the United States. His literary reputation declined in his lifetime, but modern critics place Charles Chesnutt in the first rank of African American and southern writers.


Sources:

William L. Andrews. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Charles W. Chesnutt. The Conjure Woman. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900. Available online from Documenting the American South.

Jesse S. Crisler; Robert C. Leitz, III; and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1906-1932. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Julian Mason. “Chesnutt, Charles Waddell.” In American National Biography, vol. 4. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

August 16, 1918: Rescue at Sea

This Month in North Carolina History

headline

The Atlantic waters off the Outer Banks of North Carolina are infamous for shipwrecks. More than six hundred vessels have been lost in this “Graveyard of the Atlantic” to a combination of strong currents, dangerous shoals, and sudden storms. In wartime, particularly during the twentiety century, human malice exceeded even natural catastrophe as a destroyer of ships and sailors.

In both World War I and World War II German submarines found the vicinity of the banks a rich hunting ground and almost 100 ships were lost. Through the first half of the nineteenth century aid to ships and seamen wrecked on the Outer Banks came from local people acting as the need arose. In 1789 the Federal government assumed responsibility for the construction of a string of lighthouses along the North Carolina coast from Cape Hatteras to Cape Fear.

In addition to the lighthouses, seven lifesaving stations were constructed along the coast from Currituck Beach in the north to Little Kinnakeet in the south. At each location a station keeper and at least six surfmen remained ready around the clock to go to the aid of ships in distress. The lifesaving crews operated from the beach piloting heavy lifeboats through the surf and out to stricken vessels to save passengers and crew.

Of the many daring rescues attempted by the Lifesaving Service one of the most famous involved the sinking of the British tanker Mirlo on August 16, 1918, off of the shores of Bodie Island. The Mirlo was working its way up the North Carolina coast bound for Norfolk with a load of gasoline from New Orleans. She safely passed Cape Hatteras and was near Wimble Shoals off Bodie Island when she struck a mine layed by the German submarine U-117.

The resulting explosion was seen by Captain John Allen Midgett and the crew of the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station. Midgett and his men launched their power lifeboat through the surf into a rising wind and made for the Mirlo. Two boats had been launched successfully from the ship, but a third had capsized and remained floating upside down near the Mirlo with a number of desperate sailors clinging to the keel as burning gasoline from the sinking ship spread steadily nearer.

Captain Midgett found a narrow lane in the flaming sea and guided his boat along it until it reached the overturned craft. The sailors were taken safely aboard, and the Chicamacomico lifeboat moved out of the burning gasoline, located the other two boats and brought all three to safety on the beach. For their courageous action and superb seamanship, Captain Midgett and his crew were awarded Gold Lifesaving Medals of Honor from the United States and Victory Medals from the government of Great Britain. Later the men of the Chicamacomico Station received Grand Crosses of the American Cross of honor from the United States Coast Guard.

The Lifesaving Stations were abandoned by the Coast Guard after World War II in favor of more modern and sophisticated tools and methods of aiding ships in distress. The Chicamacomico Station, however, has been carefully restored and stands as a monument to the brave surfmen of the Lifesaving Service.


Sources:

Mobley, Joe A. Ship Ashore! The U.S. Lifesavers of Coastal North Carolina. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1994.

Stick, David. Graveyard of the Atlantic: shipwrecks or the North Carolina coast. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952.

August 1751: North Carolina’s First Newspaper

This Month in North Carolina History

nc gazette masthead

It took a long time for the news to reach North Carolina.

The first American printing press began operation in Massachusetts in 1638, with the first newspaper in the colonies published in Boston in 1690. North Carolina, which lacked the busy ports and bustling commercial centers of many of the other colonies, was a littler slower to develop. Early eighteenth-century North Carolinians had to wait weeks and in most cases months for their news to arrive in papers from Northern cities or from England. Even when newspapers were established in South Carolina in 1732 and Virginia in 1736, North Carolinians did not rush to establish a press.

It was not until 1749, when the legislature decided that the colony needed a press of its own to print currency and laws, that James Davis, an experienced printer from Virginia, was hired and brought to set up shop in New Bern. Later that year Davis issued his first title, “The journal of the House of Burgesses of the Province of North-Carolina,” the first work to be printed in North Carolina.

Davis served as official printer of the colony for thirty-three years, though his work was not limited to official publications. In August 1751 he published the first issue of The North Carolina Gazette , North Carolina’s first newspaper. Although it looks very different from the papers we’re used to today, the Gazette was a typical eighteenth-century newspaper. It contained a wide range of articles, many reprinted from other papers. Essays, laws, and unsigned or pseudonymous editorials took up the first couple of pages.

Local news, if it was included at all, was often relegated to inside pages, and advertisements and announcements appeared throughout. Although the Gazette offered, according to its masthead, “the freshest Advices, Foreign and Domestic,” the freshness of the news was debatable. A typical issue might include stories reprinted from other papers as many as four or five months old.

After the Gazette was established, newspapers began to appear slowly across the state, with other papers founded in the larger eastern cities of Wilmington, Fayetteville, and Halifax. By the end of the eighteenth-century, Hillsborough, Raleigh, and even Salisbury, in what was then considered the far western end of the state, had newspapers.

davis

James Davis originally published the North-Carolina Gazette from 1751 until around 1760. He began a new newspaper, The North-Carolina Magazine; Or Universal Intelligencer in 1764 and published this until around 1768. In May 1768 he started over again, this time returning to his original title. The new North-Carolina Gazette lasted until 1778.


Suggestions for Further Reading:

Robert N. Elliott, Jr., “James Davis.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography , vol. 2, edited by William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Robert N. Elliott, Jr., “James Davis and the Beginning of the Newspaper in North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review 42, no. 1 (Winter 1965): 1-20.

Watson, Alan D. “The Role of Printing in Eighteenth-Century North Carolina.” Carolina Comments 48, no. 3 (May 2000): 75-83.

Image Source:

North-Carolina Gazette, August 1, 1777. Masthead.