SPARTA -- Back when I used to labor away in the news mines at the Mount Vernon News, I always enjoyed the assignments of covering small-town festivals. All you had to do was show up, observe, get a picture, and then drive — slowly — back to the newsroom.
I always volunteered for the furthest towns from Mount Vernon because the less time one spent sitting around in the newsroom meant the less chance a scheming editor — I'm looking at you, Cheryl Splain — might step up and tap you for an extra assignment.
Since our coverage area spilled a little over the county line, I at times found myself covering events in Sparta, now a part of Morrow County, though in the early years, it started as Bloomfield Township of Knox County. It, and a couple others were sliced off and given to Morrow before the Civil War, but the connection still remains.
Typically, Sparta's holiday events were held in Bloomfield Cemetery, as they still are today. It sits a mile and a half outside of the village, but where the town is tightly packed with houses, the cemetery offers a spacious, attractive place of assembly, and is a lovely relic of the days when people regularly gathered for picnics and parties in beautiful cemeteries.
I always found it a favorite place to attend events. Little did I know, though, of the peculiar air disaster that took place there long, long ago, leading to the death of a local aeronaut.
For a time, before the technological race to create gliders and airplanes became the rage, hot air balloons were popular.
The idea of hot air ballooning sparked from an evening in France in 1782 where a creative but chaotic inventor named Joseph-Michel Montgolfier was watching some clothes that were being dried over an open fire. He noticed that as smoke billowed up from the fire, it would cause the clothes to puff out and float up a little bit, until the smoke escaped. He wondered if one could create a closed fabric envelope to enclose the smoke and control its buoyancy.
Within a month, he had collared his business-savy little brother, Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier to help him devlop (and finance) his ideas. By the summer of 1783, they had demonstrated the possibility of balloon flight. By the fall of that year, they had made their first ascent over Paris — the first human flight.
Once the simplicity of the Montgolfier Brothers' ideas became apparent, aeronauts sprang up worldwide, ambitiously imitating the Montgolfiers' design and wowing crowds with displays of flight. Many appeared in the United States in the early 1800s, learning by trial and error how to fuel the hot air that made the balloons rise.
The path to successful ascents included many fatal descents.
Freeman H. Westbrook was one of these frontier aeronauts. It was purely a passion that he pursued in his spare time. Born in Knox County in 1831, Freeman got married at the age of 19 to a Welsh lass three years his senior named Elizabeth Ann Lewis. They lived near Sparta when they first got married in 1850. Their first child, Viola Alice, came a year later, followed by a brother named Lee. The family relocated to Chesterville before 1860.
During this time, Westbrook was fascinated with balloons and decided to build one of his own. Nothing is recorded about what books he read or what other aeronauts, if any, he may have conferred with, but it was noted that by the early 1860s, he had made two ascents in his balloon.
Thus it was announced that during the Fourth of July celebration in Sparta, 1862, Westbrook would once again take to the skies.
Human flight being a miracle of the day, 3,000 people gathered for the celebration. Solemn orations were given by Rev. Mills Harrod, W. L. Bane, and historian A. Banning Norton. After the inspiring speeches were finished, somewhere between 4 and 5 p.m., preparations were made to launch Westbrook's hot air balloon.
It seems that the balloon had not been flown since the previous year. As Freeman unrolled the cloth envelope, he noticed some deterioration of the fabric. He began to have some hesitations about flying the balloon, but he also did not want to disappoint the huge crowd. He began talking about possibly flying the balloon with a large rock in the basket, or perhaps a cat. Some of the men in the crowd began good-naturedly teasing Westbrook about chickening out.
A couple of men put a more serious edge on the taunting when they said Westbrook didn't dare fly in his own contraption. That was beyond joking. A dare's a dare, and the fact that Freeman Westbrook had dared to fly before suggests he had a classic daredevil's personality. There was no way he was going to turn down a public dare.
Freeman climbed into the wicker basket that hung beneath the balloon, cast off the lines and waved his hat at the crowd as he began lifting up in the air. There was a slight breeze on that mild day, and he began drifting over the hill to the field beyond as he slowly ascended.
Less than five minutes into the flight, at an altitude of around 300 or 400 feet in the air, the balloon suddenly burst “and turned inside out” as one newspaper report of the disaster described it. A. Banning Norton, who later wrote a history of Knox County (including the townships apportioned to Morrow County in 1848), said that the “miserable rotten” balloon fabric shredded into pieces.
“(It) was the most foolhardy operation we have witnessed,” Norton wrote.
The crowd watched in horror as Freeman Westbrook and the remains of his hot air balloon plummeted to the ground. The wicker basket hit the field with such force that Westbrook's legs pushed through the side of the basket and plunged two inches into the ground. Physicians in the crowd rushed to attend to the unconscious man and estimated that roughly half the bones in his body, including his legs, had been shattered by the impact. It was clear that the aeronaut would not survive.
On the spot, B.L. Swetland, a Sparta dry goods store merchant, started circling through the crowd, appealing for donations to help pay for burial expenses and the support of Westbrook's widow and children. A considerable sum was raised. Westbrook had been taken by physicians to the nearest farmhouse. Remarkably, he held on for four hours before he slipped away that evening.
Ironically, Freeman H. Westbrook is today buried in the very same cemetery where his fatal flight was launched. He had just turned 31 the month before. His wife Ann eventually remarried and outlived her first husband by 46 years, but is buried with him at the Bloomfield Cemetery.