Dayton: on the books

Curt Dalton champions city history

By Kyle Melton

Photo: Dayton Historian Curt Dalton displays “Through Flood, Through Fire: Personal Stories From Survivors of the Dayton Flood of 1913”; photo: Sydney Reynolds

In the world of academia, historical writing is a long process, guided by agendas of universities and the niche fields of study in which professors both teach and write. While this particular methodology has produced, arguably, the most thorough body of historical knowledge the world has ever known, it does not necessarily allow for a segment of historical pursuit and historians that may still provide society with vital information. 

Although not academically trained, Curt Dalton’s passion for the history of Dayton, and his prodigious output, serve the community with historical resources that very well may have passed to the sands of time.

Born in nearby Franklin, Ohio, Dalton graduated from Dixie High School in New Lebanon before spending time in New York and Arizona, and a stint as an exchange student in Brazil. Upon returning to the area and settling down into family life, Dalton soon found himself tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole as the result of a simple inquiry into the past.

“My wife’s family, the Wessaloskys, began living in Dayton in 1867,” Dalton explained.  “While researching her family’s history, I began finding the history of Dayton was amazing and fun to research. After finding little had been published on the history of Dayton since the 1930s, I began writing books on subjects about Dayton I thought other people would find interesting.”

With his “Breweries of Dayton” in 1995, Dalton began uncovering and examining several topics which stood at the brink of dissolving from the public memory: “Dayton Canoe Club: An Illustrated History” (1996); “Keeping the Secret: The WAVES and NCR” (1997); and the one-two punch of “Greater Dayton Drive-In Theaters: An Illustrated History” (1998) and “When Dayton Went to the Movies: A History of Motion Picture Theaters in Dayton” (1999).

In 1998, Dalton took on a job at the Montgomery County Historical Society, which has since evolved into Dayton History. As the Visual Resource Manager, Dalton cares for the organization’s 1.5 million photographs, negatives and motion picture films. As Dalton served in this capacity for the MCHS, his access to these images allowed him to see the history of Dayton as few others could. In many cases, the images he saw – or didn’t see – often guided his work.

“Most of the topics I write about are somewhat limited in a way,” Dalton said. “If there are few pictures to help tell the story, then I usually do not write a book about them. For instance, I’d love to do one on drive-in restaurants, but I do not have resources that have a lot of pictures of them.”

As Dalton pursued independent historical research, he soon realized a wealth of source material in area libraries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While these primary and secondary sources stood as a remarkable resource on the history of Dayton, Dalton found, due to the age of the sources, it was not easily accessible to the masses. 

“In October 2004, I began Dayton History Books Online – also known as DHBO – because I wanted to share the source material I knew about with others,” Dalton recalled. “Much of the material was either fragile or could not be checked out from libraries. Also, many of the books were not indexed and most of the articles were not online anywhere. When I saw an opportunity to place them all on one spot on the Internet that would allow people anywhere to easily search through the entire site, I just had to do it.”

While DHBO connected Dayton history buffs with numerous titles on the region’s storied past, the advent of Facebook offered another opportunity for Dalton to further connect with this audience. In fact, the degree to which the DHBO Facebook page rekindled people’s passion for historic images of Dayton well exceeded Dalton’s expectations. 

“There are over 12,750 likes at this point, and it grows bigger every week,” Dalton said. “People really enjoy the pictures and histories I put up on the site every day. I have never received this much response from anything else I’ve ever done.”

While Dalton long stood alone outside of the established institutions promoting Dayton history, there are now several additional outlets on Facebook, Instagram and the Internet at large also trumpeting the region’s past, present and future. And, in his truly humble manner, Dalton sees no problem with others joining him. 

“Well, to be honest, I really don’t feel I play that big a role anymore, which is great,” Dalton said. “Ten years ago, DHBO was something new. There are now a number of Facebook pages that have caught on as much, or even more, than mine has. … The reason behind everything I did was to promote the city’s history and to get people excited to want to live here and brag about how the city once was, what it is today and what it is becoming. Now, there are dozens of cheerleaders out there due to social media, and I love it! The DHBO Facebook page will probably only last another year or so, but I will continue the original DHBO site with the articles and books, etc. until the day comes when it is obsolete – which is only a matter of time, which is OK. As history teaches us, everything comes to an end. But I’ve learned that, many times, endings are really just the beginnings of something even greater than before.”

For a complete listing of Curt Dalton’s works, as well as more Dayton history resources, please visit daytonhistorybooks.com or the Dayton History Books Online Facebook page.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kyle Melton at KyleMelton@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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