In his book “The Hunt for History” (2020), Nathan Raab describes his family’s business dealing in rare documents. He talks about steps he takes to verify items. His methods aren’t dissimilar from those a local historian uses to evaluate stories he or she’s found.
Here’s an example.
I have a 71/2-by-9¾-inch photograph of the Granville Brothers’ stubby yellow-and-black Model Z Supersportster airplane — “The City of Springfield” — that pilot Lowell Bayles (1900-1931) flew to win the Thompson Trophy in the Cleveland competition in 1931 and in which he set a land plane speed record over a 3-kilometer course of 281.75 mph later the same year. Bayles was actually going faster than that, in his third of three runs — in excess of 300 mph — when the Z spun out of control and crashed, destroying plane and pilot.
Learn the history, Raab says.
The Detroit speed trial was held Dec. 5, 1931. The National Aeronautical Association announced Bayles’ achievement posthumously the following January. The Granvilles built several more super-fast aircraft — in 1932 the R-1 that Jimmy Doolittle piloted to victory in that year’s National Air Races and the R-2, another strong competitor with a smaller engine, both modified versions of the Z.
Bayles in 1930 with his partner H. Roscoe Brinton (1886-1980) had operated an air service out of Pittsfield Airport at its first location in Allengate. They flew Waco Whirlwinds. The two had been active at the grass strip on the former horse farm since 1928. Bayles and Brinton organized an air show when the new Pittsfield airfield opened on Barker Road in July 1930.
The Granvilles began construction of the Z on June 23, 1931. Pilot Bob Hall took it on a test flight 22 Aug. 22, a week before he and Bayles alternately competed in the plane in Cleveland Aug. 29 to 7 September. A larger engine was installed Nov. 6 in anticipation of Bayles’ attempt on the speed record. He made his first runs Dec. 1, his last Dec. 5.
The Model Z existed for 106 days.
Check the provenance, Raab says.
I acquired the black-and-white image (printed on photo paper, with slight sepia tone) — thanks to a timely tip from my brother-in-law Pete Wilson of Coltsville — from an ephemera shop in Winsted, Conn., for $20 or so. No provenance.
Check the item’s credibility, Raab says.
The signature on my photo is in real ink. Someone has pasted a period newspaper clipping on one corner.
The Granvilles had publicity photos printed. Bayles signed this one and probably others. There aren’t many Bayles autographs around, though.
One advertised on eBay was an air mail envelope with a special cancelation in Philadelphia during an event Sept. 12 to 14, 1931. The seller asked $225. That signature matches the one on my photo, as does another on a different image signed by the charismatic pilot. That photo is in the National Air and Space Museum collection. The signature is the same as is on another photo, which shows Bayles sitting on a Z front wheel pant, on a Jasper County, Ill., tribute webpage.
To have objects handled by a historical figure is like touching the past, making their stories all the more real, don’t you think?