They had the annual Dyer-Souther family reunion at Choestoe Baptist Church in Union County a couple of weeks ago.
One of the usual conversation pieces was Micajah Clark Dyer, who flew a machine off Rattlesnake Mountain, beating the Wright Brothers' flight by almost three decades.
The story of Dyer's flying machine, for which he got a patent in 1874, has been passed down for generations. In recent years, family members got more serious about it; books have been written, and monuments erected to ensure their ancestor's feat is appropriately recognized.
Sylvia Dyer Turnage of Choestoe is author of two books related to her great-great-grandfather's accomplishments. He also is said to have invented a perpetual motion machine, made children's toys and was the first in Union County to have running water in his home.
Articles in 1875 in the Gainesville Eagle and Macon Telegraph and Messenger made it clear many people were more than skeptical about Dyer's invention:
"The body of the machine in shape resembles that of the fowl — an eagle, for instance — and is intended to be propelled by different kinds of devices, to wit wings and paddle wheels, both to be simultaneously operated through the instrumentality of mechanisms connected with the driving power."
The patent mentioned steam as a possible power source, and the news articles described how the wings would move up and down like that of a bird. A balloon also would be used to lift the machine higher, and it would be steered by a rudder.
The news articles continued, "Mr. Dyer has been studying ... air navigation for 30 years and has tried various experiments during that time, all of which failed until he adopted the present plan ... Whatever may be the fate of Mr. Dyer's patent, he, himself, has the most unshaken faith in its success, and is ready, as soon as a machine can be constructed, to board the ship and commit himself, not to the waves, but to the wind.
"Dr. Green (Thomas Fitzgerald Green, who ran the state insane asylum at Milledgeville at the time) may just as well get a room ready for brother Dyer. If he doesn't break his neck during his first soar, he will certainly light at Milledgeville."
Dyer didn't break his neck, but apparently did get his flying machine off the ground. Tradition has the inventor constructing rails down the side of the mountain to launch his aeroplane over a cornfield.
Jim Leonard, who lived in Choestoe as a child, is an engineer and great-great-grandson of Dyer and holds several patents himself. He studied his ancestor's patent, which contained meticulous drawings of the machine, and declared such a contraption would be feasible. He'd like to see one built using today's technology, Leonard said in an article in an engineering magazine.
Dyer farmed several hundred acres in the Choestoe Valley. His formal education had been limited to a one-room grade school nearby. The area is considered relatively remote today, but Turnage marvels at how even more isolated the Dyers' place must have been in the 1800s.
Skeptics weren't allowed to see Dyer's machine, which he kept locked in a barn. Nobody knows what became of it.
Turnage, her kin and other Union Countians aren't interested in taking away from the Wright Brothers' accomplishments or diminishing their well-publicized first flight. They just want people to know that the mountains of Union County also produced an innovator who might have become famous in aviation history.
Turnage says she is still trying to confirm what happened to his patent. After his death in 1891, his widow sold it to some Redwine brothers from Atlanta. Family members speculate Dyer's plans could have made their way to the Wright Brothers.
Micajah Clark Dyer has received considerable recognition of late. The Georgia legislature honored him by naming a stretch of Ga. 180 in Union County after him. The Union County Historical Society maintains an exhibit that includes a model of what Dyer's aeroplane might have looked like. Turnage designed a 39-cent stamp that was issued in his memory.
A monument has been erected, and a foundation and website formed to perpetuate his name. The family is awaiting word on his possible inclusion in Georgia's Aviation Hall of Fame.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.