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Aviator or writer? The Legacy of Fort Wayne’s Birdboy

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - Smith Field. Memorial Park. Lindenwood Cemetery. All reminders of Fort Wayne’s “birdboy”.

Art Smith is known as a pioneer aviator.

Indiana’s oldest operating airport, Smith Field, was named after him.

“He’s one of those people that are, maybe a combination of an innovator and a daredevil”, Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority director Scott Hinderman told us, “His creative spirit… his courage, brought him not just where Fort Wayne aviation is, but where all of aviation is.”

In 1910, Smith begged his father to mortgage the family house, to fund building his first airplane.

The price tag? About $1,800.

Smith’s career took off from there.

He would go on to be known for his airplane acrobatics, and perhaps even more so, inventing skywriting.

A century later, he would even become the mascot for a Fort Wayne brewery.

Growing up in Fort Wayne, pilot Ben Thompson identified with Smith.

When Thompson opened up Birdboy Brewery in 2015, he used photos of his plane in flight to develop a logo.

“I really identified with the whole aviation thing and his tie to Fort Wayne,” Thompson told us, “I thought it was the perfect name and really wanted to get Art Smith’s name out there.”

In 1926, Smith died delivering mail from Chicago to Bryan.

His plane crashed during a snowstorm, in Montpelier, Ohio.

He would be buried in Lindenwood Cemetery, and a few years later, in 1928, the iconic statue in Memorial Park would be unveiled.

Escorting Smith’s mother for that event, would be Fort Wayne postmaster, and future mayor Harry Baals.

Author Michael Martone chose Smith to be the next subject of his new book The Complete Writings of Art Smith, the Bird Boy of Fort Wayne.

Martone blurs the line between fact and fiction in his latest work, which focuses less on Smith’s contribution to aviation, and more on his contribution to writing.

“This kid, this boy from Fort Wayne was the first person in the world to write in the sky,” Martone said, “what is also interesting is that he practiced it in the sky in my own home town.”

“What would be better as a short story, than the two letter stories skywriters write up in the skies?” Martone asked.

His book dreams up what some of Smith’s stories could’ve been.

Fabricated pictures accompany each of Martone’s writings.

“In some ways they’re not stories either,” he said, “they’re like poems. They’re lyrical, meditations on flying, meditations on writing, and on making art. And also how wonderful and crazy that humans - and a human from Fort Wayne - came up with the idea of writing in the sky.”

In a way, Martone admitted to his envy.

“What would I give, to write my stories in the skies, instead of using typewriters and word processors,” he told us, “in a sense, I’m identifying with the birdboy.”

Many of Martone’s works have Indiana, or midwest ties.

You can find his books published here.

Editor’s Note: Another resource used for information on Art Smith’s life, legacy, and death was Art Smith: Pioneer Aviator by Rachel Sherwood Roberts, published in 2003.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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