Inside an auto garage off Route 821 in Noble County, Bryan Rayner stands behind a counter smoking a cigarette in a brown U-Haul jacket, blue baseball cap and work boots. Graying hair hangs from under his hat and chin. A camper sits nearby, housing the pieces of a historic U.S. zeppelin that crashed near Ava 85 years ago. Bryan and his wife have collected memorabilia from donors and auctions—their attempt to preserve history is both a hobby and a family duty.
Bryan and Theresa Rayner are collectors and historians dedicated to preserving the memory of the U.S. naval airship, the USS Shenandoah. The giant aircraft was a naval blimp used for surveillance in the early 20th century. The U.S. had three other zeppelins: the USS Los Angeles, the USS Akron and the USS Macon. The Los Angeles was German-made and retired after a decade. The other three, including the Shenandoah, were American-made, and all crashed within two years of their maiden flights.
The 680-foot-long, 78-foot-wide, 93-foot-tall zeppelin known as the Shenandoah was made from duralumin, a lightweight alloy that is as strong as steel. The airship was named for an Algonquian word meaning “daughter of the stars.”
Its last journey was meant to be a publicity tour spanning more than 40 cities. On Sept. 3, 1925, the airship met a thunderstorm that ripped the aircraft in half, leaving the control car to crash east of Ava. The rest of the airship floated miles away to a nearby farm. The crash killed Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne and 13 of his crewmembers. Twenty-nine crewmembers survived.
The Rayners’ goal is to keep the Shenandoah’s legacy alive, and Bryan is more than qualified to tell the story. In the 1940s, his grandfather Martin Luther “Boots” Rayner bought land where pieces of the ship crashed. Bryan’s grandfather taught him to share the Shenandoah story since Bryan was 5 or 6. “At first it was just getting to go to the farm with Grandpa,” Bryan says. “I guess I just kind of got into the stories.”
The stories are the true appeal behind this shrine to the Shenandoah. Without context, many of the crushed Campbell’s Soup cans and pieces of scrap metal would not leave an impression on visitors.
Each item sits in a camper with USS Shenandoah stenciled on the side and an Ohio Historical Marker by the door. One wall is lined with wood-framed glass cases and framed pictures. A scrap of aluminum-coated cloth, which was shrunk over the frame of the Shenandoah to seal it, sits on the table. Eighty-five years later, it feels like a worn down plastic tablecloth that has been creased and cracked by the weather.
A set of rings made of melted metal from the airship hangs in rows in a cabinet, each cast from a bottle cap, drilled into a ring and sold as a souvenir. Half of a worn-down, compact mirror was at first mistaken as a hatpin. A uniform with USS Shenandoah embroidered on it hangs in a case. It was purchased on eBay and may be from a water ship of the same name, not the airship that the Rayners are working to preserve. The shirt, along with every piece in the camper, adds to the mysterious air of the museum.
The largest item in the collection is a part of the aircraft’s frame, purchased at an auction, that resembles one in a black-and-white photo of Bryan’s grandfather. The section of frame was found in Noble County and could be the missing piece portrayed in the photo. The auctioneer suggested someone could break down the large frame and sell it. Appalled by the idea of ruining history to make money, Bryan bought it. When he had a chance, he looked closer and found that it was not the same part from his grandfather’s photo. The piece may not be a link to his family, but it still holds historical significance to Bryan—despite the high price.
This year marks the 85th anniversary of the crash, and the couple hopes to reunite the Lansdowne family for the event, which will include a 21-gun salute in memory of those who lost their lives. One year, around 1,100 people attended the memorial service in Ava. Every five years, the Rayners try to plan something different to honor the memory of the deceased crewmembers. The event includes a visit to the Shenandoah Memorial that was constructed by the federal government.
Fewer and fewer people remember the history, but those who do add something to the Rayners’ everyday lives. Phone calls from people across the country who want to contribute to the collection help the museum evolve. Theresa’s passion for Shenandoah history comes from meeting the people who have been affected. “You can read about history,” she says, “but it’s more than dates and names—it’s people.”