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Eddie Rickenbacker with Medal of Honor

Eddie Rickenbacker, the Columbus Boy

Eddie Rickenbacker, world famous flying ace of World War I, grew up on the hard side of the streets of Columbus. He was the son of German-speaking immigrants, William and Elizabeth Rickenbacher. During the first World War, Eddie would change the spelling of the family name, changing the "H" to a "K" because he felt the name looked less German.

His father William left Switzerland and arrived in America 1879. Upon entering the country William traveled directly to Columbus Ohio where his Uncle John Rickenbacher lived. John had been here a while and had become a well known tailor and a Sheriff of Franklin County. William Richenbacher found a place to live in a crowded home at 669 South High Street and worked at various manual jobs including the railroad.

Elizabeth Basler, Eddie's mother, said goodbye to her home in Switzerland with nothing more than a round of hard cheese and the knowledge that her bother worked on a dairy farm somewhere on the north side of Columbus Ohio. After working her way from the east coast, when she arrived in Columbus she could not speak any English and there was no one who understood her Swiss-Deutsch dialect. Elizabeth became extremely upset and afraid enough so that the sheriff had to be called. The sheriff arriving on the scene was John Rickenbacher. John Rickenbacher was able to speak to Elizabeth in her own language and immediately calmed her down. She thought that this sheriff was a gift from God.

With a little research, John Richenbacher was able to locate the farm and get her settled with her brother. A few years later, in 1882, Elizabeth was attending a band concert at Livingston Avenue Park. It was at this concert that she met the sheriff that had rescued her along with his nephew, William Richenbacher. The couple would be married 3 years later in 1885.

Rickenbacker HouseThe little family grew and on October 8th 1890 Edward Rickenbacher, their 3rd child entered the world at 247 South Pearl Street.

Though times were hard, the Rickenbacher family was able to acquire 2 lots far out of town on Livingston Ave. It is here they built their home.

In time there would be 7 children and 2 adults living in this small east side home. Everyone in the family who was able, worked to make ends meet. Eddie remembers gathering walnuts and walking the railroad lines picking up coal just to heat the home.

Young Eddie RickenbackerAt age 5, young Eddie was up at 4:00 a.m. to pickup his supply of daily newspapers from the Columbus Dispatch, to sell on a downtown street corner. Accidents seemed to follow Eddie with regularity. One incident almost cost him his life when his heel got stuck in the tracks of an oncoming streetcar, but there always seemed to be a protective force around him, and Eddie was able to free himself before the streetcar reached him.

Later in his childhood he became the leader of a gang of boys called the Horse Head Club. The police visited his home on many occasions sternly speaking to his parents about his antics. After the police left, William beat Eddie severely. Both his parents were convinced Eddie's future would unfortunately lay behind the walls of the Ohio State Penitentiary. This would all change on the 18th of July 1904.

William Richenbacher was working for the Beasley Company laying concrete sidewalks in the heat of a July day. During the men's lunch break on this day, William was approached by an African- American man named William Gaines who asked if William could spare some of his lunch. William told him that if there was anything left from his lunch, it would be going to his own family. An argument broke out, and a quick fight pursued. Gaines picked up a cement leveler and swung it, hitting William and breaking his arm. Gaines then struck him again, fracturing his skull. William Rickenbacher was taken to St. Francis Hospital were he hung on to life in and out of a coma until early on the morning of August 26th when William Rickenbacher died.

With the burial of his father at Greenlawn Cemetery, Eddie understood just what a fragile position the family now teetered on. With only a 7th grade education, young Eddie decided not to go back to school and instead sought work at the Federal Glass Company on South Parsons Ave. Concerned that Eddie hadn't returned to school that fall, officials came to the house and asked Elizabeth why Eddie wasn't in school. She let them see him sleeping in bed, exhausted. Elizabeth and the rest of the family needed Eddie's earnings to survive and wouldn't return him to school.

Eddie took other jobs that increased his income. First, to Buckeye Casting Company, his 2nd move was as a capper in a brewery and then polishing marble at a monument works. He became quite good at his work as a stone polisher and even began to do carving.

Eddie Rickenbacker's Father's Headstone

He would carve the name FATHER into William's headstone. The marble dust, however, created breathing problems for him at night and Eddie had to leave the job behind. Discouraged, as he would later recall, he found himself taking a slow walk through the streets of downtown Columbus. It was here he saw a crowd of people gathered at the corner of Broad and High. They were looking at the first 2 passenger Ford runabout to visit the city. Eddie spoke to the salesman and was able to convince him to take him for a ride. Though the trip was short it was memorable. His love affair with these beautiful machines would take his life into new directions leading him far from Columbus and into a life he never dreamed possible.


Next: Eddie Rickenbacker the Racer and Ace

See also:

Eddie Rickenbacker the Racer and Ace

Eddie Rickenbacker and the Airlines

Eddie Rickenbacker's Return to Columbus

Eddie Rickenbacker's Columbus Homestead

94th Aero Squadron Restaurant