The old leather cap and scarf were lying in a pool room in the back of a Sacramento, Calif., estate sale shop with a note.
Longtime collector Mike Doyle admits he didn’t know what it was, but it was enough to intrigue him.
He paid $40 last April for the hat, scarf and a nondescript book, which he used to protect the note on the ride home.
Once home, he got on the internet.
The end result is some Kansas historians think Doyle may have discovered aviation pioneer Albin Longren’s pilot’s hat and scarf.
Longren was the first person to fly a Kansas-made aircraft over Kansas, on Sept. 2, 1911. It helped establish Kansas, and later Wichita, as aviation giants.
After seven decades, the hat and scarf have returned to Kansas and are in the process of being authenticated, preserved and readied for Kansans to look at again.
“Albin Longren is extraordinary,” said aviation historian Richard Harris of Wichita, who purchased the items from Doyle. “He invented the way in which airplanes are manufactured. It evolved out of his handiwork in the 1900s.
“It’s something that is not known by people, not even in the aviation community.”
A hat and scarf
The note Doyle found attached to the “wind helmet and scarf” was simple and to the point:
“Protective helmet worn by A.K. Longren in his early day air plane, which had only an open cock pit — (no windshield.) Scarf was used as a chest protector against the wind. Entered by Leda Steele.”
Doyle remembers thinking the hat looked medieval, like something worn in “Game of Thrones.”
“I just looked on my phone who AK Longren was,” Doyle said. “I saw he was an early pioneer of Kansas aviation, so I held onto the note and continued walking around this busy estate sale.
“I reached up and grabbed a book on the shelf and stuck the note inside. I purchased it, and when I got home, my wife and I both went in different directions on the internet.”
They searched for photos of Longren wearing the cap. They searched for Leda Steele.
They found records of her once living in Adin, Calif., during the 1940s, a time that Longren was living there as well.
The estate sale, Doyle said, was for Steele’s grandson, Edward, who lived in Sacramento.
And then they searched some more on who this A.K. Longren really was.
It was Sept. 2, 1911, when Longren flew a biplane he and his brother, E.J., had built themselves. Neither had flown a plane before.
The brothers were mechanics and car salesmen from Clay Center. They had been inspired after seeing an air show in 1910.
So they built a 39-foot plane with their own vision and ingenuity – part by part – in a downtown Topeka building. When it was completed, Albin Longren manned the controls in a brief test flight southeast of Topeka.
He later wrote in his journal:
“The plane was also an unknown quantity, because its balance and airworthiness was a big question.”
Nine days later, Longren flew the plane again, flying 15 miles at an altitude of 1,000 feet over Topeka.
During the early part of the 20th century, Longren barnstormed throughout the Midwest, making 1,372 exhibition flights from 1911 to 1914 without a major mishap.
It was a remarkable feat considering other early aviation giants were making their initial flights at the same time.
For instance, in 1911, Clyde Cessna was also learning to fly. His first 12 flights ended in 12 crashes.
In the 1920s, Longren began to channel his interest in barnstorming to aircraft design and construction. He designed a plane that featured folding wings, which allowed it to be towed on public roads and stored in garages.
His wife, Dolly, helped promote the plane with the motto: “Watch it climb, see it fly, you’ll own a Longren by and by.”
In 1924, the U.S. Navy expressed interest in the plane and bought three, but the planes were never produced on a major scale. The Longren Aircraft Corp. in Topeka turned out only nine planes before it closed in 1926.
By then, Wichita had begun to surface as a major player in aircraft production. Longren later worked for several airplane manufacturers, including Cessna in Wichita.
He died in 1950 and is buried in his hometown of Leonardville near Topeka. In 1997, Longren was inducted into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame.
So, how did Longren’s hat and scarf end up in an estate sale in California?
The barnstorming pilot took the hat and scarf to California, Doyle said, when he retired. In Adin, Calif., Longren met Leda Steele, the woman who wrote the note.
A friendship between historians
After buying the artifacts, Doyle said he contacted some Kansas museums. But, he said, he was disappointed that none showed a particular interest or enthusiasm about the pieces like Harris did.
“… you seem quite passionate about the history of the piece and I have gotten so much out of my research — I am truly intrigued after finding this helmet,” Doyle wrote in an email to Harris.
Late in July, Doyle sent Harris the hat and scarf. Harris purchased the two items for $40 — the cost Doyle paid in the estate sale — plus postage. They were officially unwrapped at the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum days ago.
And now, Harris said they are in a secure location in Wichita.
The artifacts, Harris said, “Shows the struggles of early aviators. Longren had to fly at speeds of 70 to 80 mph in the bitter Kansas winds … It’s like finding Walter Beech’s helmet or Clyde Cessna’s.”
Harris said he is hopeful he can work with museums across Kansas to display the artifacts along with other memorabilia connected with Longren.