“The bicycle fever is at its full height; on any country road, in any direction from town, you will meet young gentlemen in knicker-bockers and leggings, spinning along at a comfortable pace.” The Vermont Phoenix, Nov. 15, 1878.
|"The Ordinary" or high wheeler made its appearance in the early 1870s. "Taking a header" was one of the dangers of riding this high bike on rough roads.|
|Safety Bike: With improvements in brakes, tires, spokes and gears, the safety bike made its appearance in the 1890s. This Burlington youngster shows off his new bike in the 1890s. (Courtesy Glenn Eames)|
|1950s Models: By the 1950s, many young people had bicycles such as the ones shown above. My dad, Ray Coffin sold similar ones from our Orford Bridge Street home.|
May is National Bicycle Month and this year is the bicentennial of the laufmaschine, the first two-wheeled human-powered device. This column explores the bicycle’s development from its first local appearances to the 1960s. Information was taken from The National Bicycle History Archive, Vermont newspapers, online sources and research on Orford provided by Art Pease.
As with many inventions, there were a number of individuals connected with the bicycle’s advent. In 1817, there were reports of a horseless carriage, “two-wheeled, peddle-less device propelled by pushing your feet against the ground.” Invented by European Karl Von Drais, it was known as the draisine or fastwalker.
The drasine or “dandy-horse” appeared in America in 1819. After an initial popularity, the fad rapidly subsided. Bicycles were too expensive for most, could not be balanced on rough roads and lacked practical usefulness. The riders who could afford them faced significant ridicule.
When metal wheels replace wooden ones and pedals were added in the early 1860s, interest in bikes increased. A new device known as the Velocipede or bone shaker came on the market in a craze that last just one year. Indoor riding rinks using these opened across the nation.
In 1869, Bradford’s National Opinion reported the opening “in full blast” of two Velocipedes, one at Waterbury and the other at Littleton. “Fifteen cents is the price for witnessing the comical features of amateur performers.”
The “Ordinary” or high wheeler, with its oversized front wheel, made its appearance in the early 1870s. It was the first all-metal bicycle and featured pedals, solid rubber tires and a smoother ride than earlier models. But it was still very expensive and since the rider was perched high, “taking a header” was likely when riding on rough roads.
The first American manufacturing of cycles began in 1878 with the Columbia Bicycle by Weed Sewing Machine Company. Advertisements for this bicycle appeared in Vermont newspapers the following year.
Cycling began to be more organized with the creation of the Brattleboro-based Vermont Wheel Club in 1884. It was one of the pioneer cycling organizations in America. Its beautifully-appointed meeting rooms were an indication of the prosperity of its members. Similar clubs were created in Rutland and Manchester, New Hampshire, and sponsored tours for the members.
In 1886, the “Vermont Bicycle” cycling journal was established in West Rutland and published in West Randolph. It promoted itself as being “devoted to good roads, healthful recreation and the wheel interest.”
Improvements in brakes, tires, spokes and gears led to the development of the so-called “safety bike.” In appearance closer to the modern bicycle, it was mass produced and experienced increased popularity in the 1890s.
“Bradford needs a bicycle agency.” The United Opinion stated in its May 28, 1893 edition, “The machine now here has created a desire among the youth and older ones to own a wheel.” Within two years, both J.M. Warden and V. A. Doty, both of Bradford were offering the Lovell Diamond Bicycle and Doe Bros. was an agent for Columbia.
In 1896, F. W. Bittinger open a bicycle shop in Woodsville and in 1897, C. E. Flanders became an agent for Hudson Bicycles in Post Mills. Willard’s of Orford began to offer “anything in bicycles you want.” During those years, every edition of the local newspaper carried at least one large ad for one of these dealers.
The interest in cycling was noted in a number of newspaper articles. In Orford in 1893: “Bicycles are all the rage here now.” In 1896: “Bicycling is increasing in favor this season and more ladies are riding than ever. Thus far it can be said to their credit, that they have adhered to conservative costumes and therefore maintain their womanly dignity.”
Cycling had a liberating impact on many women. Women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony spoke of that in 1896: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
One Vermont newspaper reported in 1896 on the bicycle’s increased popularity. “The bicycle trade in Vermont this season is going to be something remarkable. There never was such a demand for wheels.” That same year, Vermont made bicycle theft punishable by a two-year sentence in the State prison, the most severe law in the nation.
From the precarious heights of a high-wheeler to more modern bikes, the chances of accidents were common. In 1884 Mark Twain wrote: “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.”
Newspaper columns often reported broken collarbones or arms. Attacks by dogs were another cause for injury to cyclists. Collisions with vehicles, either horse drawn or motorized usually meant more injury to the rider than the vehicle.
Riding bicycles on local sidewalks created problems and crashes involving pedestrians lead to restrictions. In 1893, the Bradford Village Trustees posted notices forbidding the riding of bicycles on the sidewalks.
Bradford historian Harold Haskins confirmed, “the action was hastened by the reckless riding of a few boys, whose only desire was to ride as fast as possible, regardless of the safety of pedestrians.”
On July 23, 1897, the newspaper reported that Orford selectmen had posted notice “forbidding riding bicycles on the sidewalks.” A week later a report indicated they had changed their mind, “allowing bicycles to be ridden on the sidewalks from sunrise to sunset by having a bell on them which shall be rung twenty feet before meeting or passing any person.”
The sidewalks in Fairlee, however, were widened in 1898 as “it was quite dusty for ladies to ride on the main road.”
The most noteworthy local bicycle accident occurred in September 1896 and involved David Blakely, an accomplished publisher and manager for John Philips Sousa. Blakely was injured when riding down Bradford’s Bank Street, resulting in a broken collar bone and bruises.
After recuperating at his Low Mansion home for a month, he returned to his office in New York City. On November 7, he died suddenly and his body was returned to Bradford for burial. The family claimed his death was the result of the bicycle accident triggering a double indemnity clause in his life insurance policy.
Blakely’s body was exhumed and returned to the city for an autopsy. The insurance company claimed the death was the result of apoplexy and the coroner agreed. The body was returned to Bradford for reburial.
Both professional and amateur cyclists participated in races. In 1895, The United Opinion reported: “Professional racing seems to have a certain hold on cycling enthusiasts throughout the country, and a prize race is now look for at every fair.” Vermont races drew up to 5,000 spectators. Cash purses were awarded to professionals and amateurs received items as prizes.
Bicycle touring in New Hampshire and Vermont became popular in the 1890s. It was not uncommon for the newspaper to carry reports of local residents taking extended bicycling vacations. Tours made the Green and White Mountains a popular destination. For many, a day-tour was enough.
The trips taken by cyclist George Trussell and Charlie Finney of Orford included the following: In July 1894, the two rode from Orfordville to New York City. “George rode ninety miles in one day. They had a pleasant trip and would not object to trying it again.”
The next year, the Topsham column reported that two men from Barton arrived locally, having ridden 70 miles in a single day. Apparently, these cyclists subscribed to the following 1895 Doe Bros. bicycle ad: “All you need is to get outdoors and let the topic of rapid motion put new blood into your veins and tissues.”
In the late 1880s, cyclists became part of the “good roads” movement. They were joined by early automobile manufacturers in a highway improvement campaign that promoted the construction of hard, smooth roads. Actually, some of the early automobile producers were bicycle manufacturers and the mechanisms used in bicycles were adapted for automobiles.
Bicycle parades became a regular part of local fairs and holiday parades. From the 1890s to the present, children have decorated their bikes to win ribbons.
In the new century, adult interest in bicycles was eclipsed by the automobile. Bicycles became considered just for youngsters. Kids bikes were introduced after World War I by several manufacturers and sold by local dealers and major catalog companies.
In 1917, the Fisk Rubber Company sponsored a nation-wide organization of bicycle clubs for boys. The company manufactured bicycle tires and used illustrator Norman Rockwell to create ads depicting boys and bikes. When one of the Fisk Bicycle Clubs was organized in Brattleboro in 1919, it was reported that there were 20,000 similar clubs nationwide.
The St. Johnsbury Caledonian highlighted the appeal of bikes for children: “A bicycle is the king of all a youngster’s desire and the best of all gifts for them.”
Those who grew up in the period from 1930s to the early 1960s provided me with interesting stores. Bicycles were obtained by selling Grit newspapers, mowing lawns, as Christmas or birthday gifts or as hand-me-downs from older siblings.
One senior from North Haverhill said he received a bike in 1939 as a Christmas gift and promptly ran it into a post. He spent the rest of Christmas in bed.
A woman who grew up in Waits River recalled getting a Schwinn bicycle for her birthday in 1940. Her sister and she would ride to East Corinth to get ice cream. The kids from the Martin farm on the Fairlee-Bradford line rode their bikes up Rte. 5 to Bonnie Brae store to get candy and then around the mountain near the Mallary Farm.
One enterprising girl saved her pennies and, in 1957, bought a used bicycle for $4. She rented it out for five cents a day to others in her Vershire neighborhood. She said that one boy rode away and promptly ended up in the nearby brook.
Very interesting to me was the story of a man who grew up on Turkey Hill in Corinth. He worked for his dad to earn a nearly new $60 Huffman single-speed bike. He said that it has a basket, white wall balloon tires, mirror, mud flaps chrome attachments and a speedometer. He used it to ride to school or just for “horsing around.”
When I asked him where he purchased it, he said from the dealer just across the bridge in Orford. That dealer was my Dad who offered bicycles for rent and sale from our Bridge Street home.
A number of the seniors with whom I spoke had no bicycle stories. They indicated they could not afford a bicycle, especially when they came from families with many children. Almost as problematic were those who had to share a bike with a sibling or two.
Bikes could be “souped-up” with home-made or purchased attachments. These might be as simple as a clothespin and card “strumming” against the spokes, creating a motor-like sound. A horn, bell, miniature license plate, race decals or a generator headlight provided added features.
Whatever safety these additions might have provided were often mitigated by the dare-devil antics of youthful riders. Stories of hair-raising, peddles-whirling rides down Dame Hill in Orford or Fairground Road in Bradford were probably not shared with parents. Seeing who could go fastest or how far one could go without touching the brakes was the challenge. Youthful wipe-outs have left road scars that still appear on aging bodies.
The editors of Bicycling magazine sum up the significance of what they call “the noblest invention.” “The inventions that change the world are often those that carry the most sublime versatility, a seamless transfer from one use to the next. The bicycle is one such invention. It is simultaneously transportation, recreation, freedom, and mobility.”
Local residents, whether they think about it or not, have agreed, both in time past and now.