Cyclists stop at the Opera House Square in downtown Oshkosh as part of a history-laden bike ride. Nick Hoffman, curator at The History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, lead the group through the streets stopping at sites that contributed to the history of bikes in the city. / Mark Ebert /For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
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Title: Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State
Authors: Jesse Gant and Nick Hoffman
Publisher: Wisconsin Historical Society Press
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OSHKOSH — Technology and innovation come in cycles, sometimes literally.
One such modern marvel caused quite the stir from the moment Edwin F. Brown and Harry S. Farwell crossed the Main Street bridge and checked into the nicest hotel in downtown Oshkosh.
Word of its arrival spread rapidly throughout town and it wasn’t long before a long line of curious onlookers formed. The city’s orchestra came out to fete the device and heralded the modern world’s arrival in Sawdust City.
Brown and Farwell didn’t bring the first iPhone or X-Box to Oshkosh; they arrived in town on July 25, 1879, traveling north from Evanston, Illinois, on their new high-wheel bicycles. Along the way, they ended up introducing much of Wisconsin to the new mode of transportation, an updated version of the bicycle’s earliest iteration called the velocipede.
Their visit to the Beckwith House, now the site of the New Moon Cafe, showcased the second of three iterations of the bicycle as it evolved from early versions to the ones we still ride today.
Appleton History Museum Curator Nick Hoffman, co-author of the new book “Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State,” said Oshkosh was a hub of the state’s bicycle boom in the late 19th century. The book traces the rise of early bicycles, their impact on the state’s culture and tells stories of long-forgotten heroes of Wisconsin cycling.
Companies in every city in Wisconsin sprung up to build velocipedes, high-wheelers and safety bicycles — the kind we still ride today — in small and large batches. Bicycles also gave rise to the first push for good roads and gave women a route to begin breaking down many of the barriers they faced in the 19th century.
Hoffman, curator of Appleton’s The History Museum at the Castle, and co-author Jesse Gant found so many ties to Oshkosh that Hoffman was able to lead about 20 cyclists on a five-mile riding tour of key locations on Oshkosh’s north side recently.
“Oshkosh was the second, big leader behind Milwaukee in the flourishing bicycle boom,” Hoffman said. “We’ve done a couple of bike tours around Wisconsin. Normally, we’re talking about the 1890s, but Oshkosh was really involved as early as the 1860s.”
The velocipede, the earliest form of a bicycle, took shape almost 200 years ago in the 1810s in France and Germany. But the new mode of transportation didn’t catch on in the United States until after the Civil War, Hoffman said.
But velocipedes, also called the ‘hobbyhorse,’ spread quickly from the east coast to the Midwest. In January 1869, Joshua Town rode a velocipede through the streets of Milwaukee and the fever took hold. By late January, the machines, early versions of which had no pedals and little steering, appeared on the streets of Eau Claire, Appleton, Fond du Lac and Oshkosh.
William Crawford was the first to ride a velocipede through Oshkosh and he went on to build and sell them. Crawford would also go on to create Oshkosh’s first velocipede rink, an indoor space on the second floor of a North Main Street building where U.S. Bank’s drive-up banking center is now located.
Hoffman said the rink was as slapdash as the velocipedes it catered to and drew frequent visits from Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reporters looking for a humorous story about crashes and collisions.
“You could basically come in and pay money to watch people crash,” Hoffman said. “All the reports on velocipede riders told stories of these crazy, mad men riding these machines.”
The interest didn’t extend far beyond a brief novelty for several reasons. First, velocipedes cost $150 to $200, making them within the reach of only the wealthiest. Second, there was a lack of refinement that made it difficult for the contraption to win support. And finally, Hoffman said, the press and the public rejected it, with most cities adopting ordinances banning the machines from their streets.
And just like that, faster than modern technology becomes obsolete, the velocipede was old news.
1879-1889: The high wheel becomes a big wheel
Following the velocipede bans, cycling innovation stalled until 1879 when Brown and Farwell arrived with their high-wheels, the comical-looking machines with large front wheels and a small rear wheel. City leaders rolled out the red carpet for the two that July and interest grew.
“These guys really created a stir,” Hoffman said. “It was a really big deal.”
Unlike the velocipede, the high-wheel bicycle, and is successor, the safety bicycle, stuck.
Nationally, “Colonel” Albert Augustus Pope founded the Pope Manufacturing Company, which would go on to produce Columbia bicycles, in 1878. At the same time, local companies in almost every city in the state sprung up to produce their own version of a bicycle, even if they lacked experience or know-how.
“Everybody was making bikes during the boom. They were all trying to build and sell them,” Hoffman said. “We went into the really big manufacturers, but there were so many craft manufacturers.”
In the 100 and 200 blocks of North Main Street, Hoffman said a “bicycle row” sprang up complete with manufacturers, mechanics and retailers trying to capitalize on the latest fad. The 1880s also saw the formation of cycling clubs.
Pope would do more than just found one of the most-recognized names in cycling. In 1880, in an effort to help sell more of his products, Pope also helped found the League of American Wheelmen, a powerful advocacy group that would campaign for good roads, develop cycling etiquette and advocate for the rights of cyclists.
The Oshkosh Wheelmen, as the local LAW chapter was called, formed in 1882 with Benjamin Hooper serving as president. The Oshkosh Wheelmen wore gray, military-style uniforms and pith hats on rides, and individual club leaders were often called commanders or colonels.
“They kind of looked like Shriners in a parade,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said each city’s club would also have a designated “consult” whose job was to arrange meals, accommodations and riding routes in the countryside for visiting cyclists.
They would also bar women and African Americans from joining or riding with them.
1890s: The horseless carriage turns boom to bust
On the Oshkosh Normal School campus in the 1890s, biology Professor George M. Brown figured he would capitalize on the popularity of the new high wheelers and safety bicycles, so he created Bonnie’s Botanical Cycling Club to encourage his students to venture out into the countryside to study flora and fauna.
Bonnie’s Botanicals and the Lawrence University Cycling Club provided some of the first clubs that welcomed women. Many women who embraced cycling also became supporters of the suffragettes’ fight for the right to vote. In Oshkosh, he said noted suffragette Jessie Jack Hooper would often ride her safety bicycle along city streets much to the city fathers’ consternation.
“Cycling helped break down some of those barriers ahead of the suffragette movement,” Hoffman said.
It remained an important force for change and progress right up until the horseless carriage, or automobile, rendered the bicycles of the time obsolete as a mode of transportation.
But before its time passed, Oshkosh, once again became the central focus of Wisconsin bicyclists on July 7-8, 1892, when the Wisconsin State Meet was held at Edgar Sawyer’s “Base Ball Park” located around what is now Prospect Avenue between Jackson and North Main streets.
Sawyer created a cinder track for the races and $400 was set aside for the maintenance and upkeep of the track in the future. The meet brought more than 300 cyclists from every corner of Wisconsin to town for competitive races as well as a parade, a grand ball and a three-quarter mile race among Oshkosh celebrities that was deemed “a fizzle” by the staff of The Pneumatic, a cycling newspaper that published in 1892 and 1893.
The event was a raging success.
“The melodious name of Oshkosh has traveled to the uttermost parts of the earth, but her fame is no greater than she deserves. Such is the testimony not only of her 25,000 inhabitants, but of all who partake of her boundless hospitality,” a recap of the meet recalled. “(N)ow she puts forth another claim to renown. It is a current opinion in the United States that Boston is the hub of the universe. Why may not Oshkosh wear a prouder title still? — the “hubtown” of all good bicyclists. And what bicyclists are not good?”
By the late 1890s and early 1900s, though, the bicycle boom began to pass as “the hum of the horseless carriage” captivated the nation.
“Unsold bicycles filled warehouses and worker strikes signaled the end of the industry,” Hoffman said. “The Good Roads movement transferred to automobiles from there and the bicycle became a child’s toy. Not until the 1970s did the U.S. come back to bicycles.”
Jeff Bollier: (920) 426-6688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.