Wings over Luckenbach: Jacob Brodbeck and the limits of history

This week, for spring break, we flew to Colorado to ski and to visit Heather’s sister Isa and brother John and their families. As I sat on the plane, gazing out the window at the green and brown patchwork unfurling far below us, I was reminded of one of my favorite Hill Country legends, this one involving the mysterious Jacob Brodbeck.

A German-born schoolteacher who arrived in Texas in 1847, Brodbeck became the second teacher at Fredericksburg’s Vereins Kirche, married one of his former students, and eventually fathered twelve children. But he is best remembered for his claim to be the first human to fly successfully in a heavier-than-air machine almost forty years before Orville and Wilbur Wright’s famous flight at Kitty Hawk, a claim that has never been proved—or, for that matter, disproved.

Brodbeck was an inveterate tinkerer; while living in Germany he had attempted to build a self-winding clock, and in 1869 he supposedly built an ice-making machine, no mean feat in those days before the Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to the Hill Country. Apparently he worked on his “air-ship” for some twenty years.

In 1858 Brodbeck and his wife left Fredericksburg and moved to Luckenbach, where he became the second teacher at the three-year-old Luckenbach School. Five years later they moved to San Antonio, where he became a school inspector. Brodbeck built a working scale model of his craft, powered by coiled springs, which caused a minor sensation when he showed it at county fairs and other gatherings. He succeeded in convincing several investors, including the distinguished Dr. Ferdinand Herff of San Antonio, to bankroll the construction of a full-size version, promising to repay them within six months, after selling the patent rights to his creation.

At length, he completed that full-size version and prepared for his inaugural attempt. And this is where things get really fuzzy. One account says Brodbeck’s first flight took place in San Antonio’s San Pedro Park, and in fact a bust of him was later placed there; another says the flight took place in 1868. But the most commonly accepted version of events is that on September 20, 1865, in a field about three miles east of Luckenbach, Brodbeck and his craft travelled some 100 feet at a height of about twelve feet, but the springs unwound completely before he could rewind them and craft and pilot crashed to the ground. While Brodbeck escaped serious injury, his air-ship was destroyed.

For some reason, his backers (who had presumably given up on getting their money back) refused to fund the construction of a replacement, so Brodbeck took his show on the road, travelling the country in an attempt to raise the necessary scratch. (No word on what his wife thought of this—or, indeed, of the whole air-ship scheme.) His papers and plans were stolen in Michigan, though, or perhaps in Washington DC—again, accounts vary—and a discouraged Brodbeck returned to Texas and, apparently, gave up his dream of powered flight. He lived out his remaining years on a farm near Luckenbach and died in 1910, a little more than six years after the Wright brothers’ sensational flight at Kitty Hawk. I wonder how he greeted the news of their achievement.

I am myself becoming a bit of a nervous flyer—basically, I agree with George Winters, who said, “If God had really intended men to fly, he’d make it easier to get to the airport”—and I’ve never been bitten by the aviation bug. But a fairly substantial literature celebrates the glory and beauty of flight, and those who fly—Icarus, Lindbergh, Earhart, Saint-Exupéry, the astronauts—retain a lofty (haha!) position in our collective imagination. Perhaps flight is simply the most obvious metaphor for transcendence, a persistent human craving.

In the absence of his own words, I wonder why Brodbeck became so obsessed with the idea of flight. Perhaps, after being the second teacher in both Fredericksburg and Luckenbach, he was simply determined to be first in something. Perhaps after spending all those years dealing with classrooms full of blockheaded students, not to mention a dozen children at home, he found the mere idea of any solitary activity irresistible, especially one that promised literally to lift him above the mundane concerns of everyday life. Did he ever actually make it off the ground? Beats me. If he didn’t, though, he was neither the first nor the last dreamer to blur the line between aspiration and reality.

I also wonder what his neighbors thought of him. Did they view him, with stereotypical hard-headed German practicality, as a crackpot? Or did they secretly wish that they too could experience, however briefly, the sensation of breaking free from gravity and getting a view of the earth that, at least in theory, approximated that of God? Will we ever know what really happened in that dusty field outside Luckenbach? I doubt it, and honestly I think I’d rather not know. Anyway, does it really matter? History is, after all, not so much carved in stone as written on the wind. What were once facts are discovered to be interpretations, and the impossible to be the probable (and vice versa). We would do well to remember the words of Bertrand Russell: “those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt.” Aren’t we all, in the end, called upon to live with ambiguity?

What we’re reading
Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke: Poems
Martin: Wallace Stegner, Marking the Sparrow’s Fall: Wallace Stegner’s American West

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2 Responses to Wings over Luckenbach: Jacob Brodbeck and the limits of history

  1. PATRICIA says:

    Beautifully written, insightful and uplifting.
    Thank you for enriching my day.
    Patricia Morrison

  2. Heather and Martin says:

    Thanks for reading, Patricia. Glad you liked it.

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