LEUTERSHAUSEN, Germany -- Strolling the cobbled lanes of this Bavarian village, Martin Jendretzke recalls the local hero he thinks history snubbed.
"Here," he said, pausing before a garage door, "is where he grew up."
Until the 1940s, there was also a house. But Allied planes bombed it in World War II. Today, the only reminder of Gustave Whitehead -- the man some believe flew the world's first airplane over Bridgeport 111 years ago -- on Aug. 14, 1901 -- is a pole sticking up with his name on it.
Following a trail of yellow airplanes painted on the sidewalk, Jendretzke arrived at the bus stop. Gazing up at a 20-foot obelisk, he admires the ancient aircraft on top, its wings spread like a pterodactyl.
"We built it one-to-one after the original," the 73-year-old said. "Just as high as Weisskopf flew it."
Moving up a slight hill, he noted the local elementary school -- "Gustav Weisskopf Volksschule" -- before winding his way to the town's four-story museum, the entire third floor of which is a shrine to its favorite son.
"When you live in the city of Weisskopf," Jendretze said, "you're in some way connected with Weisskopf."
Jendretzke is more connected than most. As vice chairman of the 39-year-old "Historical Flight Research Committee Gustav Weisskopf," he and his friends have argued for decades that Whitehead piloted the skies two years before Orville and Wilbur Wright.
But they're battling headwinds. People at institutions like the Smithsonian in Washington say their version of history simply won't fly. And while most here would disagree, to the rest of Germany -- to say nothing of the wider world -- Whitehead's feats carry about as much weight as the air through which they doubt he flew.
"Did he really fly before the Wright brothers? Anything is possible," said Doris Unger, a gift store clerk, who only learned of Whitehead after moving here to be with her husband. Asked if he's convinced, she answers: "I would put money on it."
SMALL TOWN BOY,
BIG TIME PLANS
Spread out over 30 square miles of rolling countryside, Leutershausen today is home to about 6,000 people. The heart of the town is a collection of vibrantly painted homes, ringed by mostly intact city walls, with two stone towers reaching for the sky. About half its residents, though, actually live in nearly 50 hamlets that poke up through the surrounding fields and farmlands like so many red-roofed, steeple-crowned islands.
Whereas some haunts along Germany's "Romantic Road" command tourists by the busload -- such as King Ludwig II's fairytale castles or nearby medieval Rothenburg -- Leutershausen's biggest draw for most visitors are its elegant bicycle paths. Once here, though, visitors often get caught up in the mystery of Whitehead.
"I must get asked about him four times a day," said Unger.
Born here in 1874, Gustav Weisskopf grew up so enamored with flight, the story goes, that he often tied string to the feet of birds so he could study how their wings work. Adept at the technical trades as a youth, he made his way to Hamburg as a teenager and soon landed aboard a ship headed for sea. Plying the Atlantic waters, he was able to observe a rich variety of bird life.
He landed in Boston in 1894, and quickly moved to Buffalo, N.Y., then Pittsburgh (where, it's said, he crashed a prototype flier into a building). After finally settling in Bridgeport -- and changing his name to Gustave Whitehead -- he worked late into the nights in the summer of 1901, putting final touches on his fateful plane, "Number 21."
Early that Aug. 14, as the Bridgeport Sunday Herald then reported, he flew that plane half a mile. Using a different model the following year, he's said to have flown seven miles in high circles over Long Island Sound.
"This accomplishment," says the 20-minute film at Leutershausen's museum, "ranks as one of the most important milestones in the history of mankind."
Ranking at the other end, then, would be Whitehead's inability to market himself. With that, he yielded the pioneering crown in 1903 to Orville and Wilbur Wright.
True or not, the museum itself has the power to transport you across the Atlantic. A Connecticut state flag hangs by the door. Hundreds of photographs, news clippings and books such as "A Pictorial History of Bridgeport" peer out of glass cases. Front and center stands a replica of plane "Number 21," which actually flew here at a nearby airport in 1997.
Only one thing is missing.
"We are constantly searching for a photograph of Weisskopf in the airplane," says Hans-Guenter Adelhard, 72, chairman of the Historical Flight Research Committee.
"We know it's out there."
Over coffee in the flower-filled backyard of Peter Nicklaus, Adelhard and Jendretzke discuss with their host how far the HFRC has come.
It is a fitting location -- Nicklaus, the group's 73-year-old "chairman emeritus," lives right across the street from the Gustav Weisskopf Volksschule.
In the old days, HFRC members responded to requests for information by mailing packages of Whitehead material everywhere.
"China, Brazil, all over the world," said Nicklaus says, lifting a forkful of his wife's pastry.
In the early '80s, Nicklaus took his family on a vacation to Fairfield County. He caught a bluefish in Long Island Sound ("Where Weisskopf flew!"). He rode a plane that took off from Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford. And he made a pilgrimage to Whitehead's grave in Bridgeport's Lakeview Cemetery.
Since 2010, Adelhard, a retired executive, has injected new energy into the group. For one thing, he is the only board member with an active email account. But he has also found new ways to spread Whitehead's legacy, like installing signs about the museum along the Autobahn, or getting the Deutsche Post to create a Gustav Weisskopf stamp.
The first one sold for 55 cents and no one bought it. The second one sold for a fraction cheaper -- market rate -- and sold like hotcakes. "That is so typical German," he said wryly.
Last August, he helped orchestrate a video conference call between HFRC members and Whitehead enthusiasts at Bridgeport's Discovery Museum. He remembers Mayor Bill Finch declaring that the Park City would put up a Whitehead memorial.
When shown a picture of that statue -- dedicated in May at the intersection of Fairfield Avenue and State Street -- Adelhard is floored.
"That is magnificent!" he said, printing off a copy to rush to the mayor's office. Moments later, standing before Buergermesiter Siegfried Hess, he reads aloud the inscription: "First. In. Flight."
Hess, one of about 50 inactive HFRC members, listens attentively.
"Bill Finch said he would build it," Adelhard continues. "Of course, mayors promise a lot of things."
For half an hour, the men huddle over the printout. First they wonder why no one from Bridgeport informed them the memorial went up. Then they simply admire its features, at one point noting its spinning propellers.
"Ours had those too," Hess said of the statue by the bus stop. "But neighbors complained that it made too much noise."
Adelhard peers at the spouting water.
"Look," he tells the mayor. "Maybe Leutershausen needs a fountain, too."
For the Whitehead faithful here, Bridgeport's sculpture affords a ray of hope that the rest of the world might one day rethink history. Within the hour, news of the sculpture was posted on the town website.
The reason is simple: Monuments have power.
Later, over drinks in a cellar pub, town employee Madeline Horndasch, 24, recalled a Christmas party a couple of years back. She phoned her boyfriend, asking to get picked up at the Whitehead memorial. David Gruzlo, then living in a village six miles south, had never heard of it.
When he arrived, though, he was so impressed that he devoted his English project at a Nuremberg technical school to the memory of Whitehead.
"Of course, no one knows of him," he added dryly. "So no one would know if I said something wrong."
He earned the equivalent of a B.
Today, Horndasch's sister lives in that same village to the south. Recently, while visiting Leutershausen, she took her 6-year-old son to the monument. The boy studied the inscription, turning names over in his head. Finally he blurted out: "You lie! In my book, it says it was the Brothers Wright!"
"She had to explain that in Leutershausen, we are of a different opinion."