Historians and writers, including Joel Hoekstra in his excellent article “Streetscapes: When horses ruled city streets” (Feb. 13), often miss an important link in America’s conversion from horse to automobile.
For several decades before and after the turn of the 19th century, before transitioning from horse to automobile for personal transportation, many Minnesotans first converted from equine steed to steel steeds. Before being widely accepted, however, these cyclists, called wheelmen at that time, were loathed by horsemen, causing a bitter feud that lasted decades. In fact, the original seeds of what we call “road rage” started not between cars and bicycles but among horsemen and wheelmen.
Bewildered politicians agonized over just how to classify a cyclist. “He is not a pedestrian and cannot be catalogued as a horse,” said one lawmaker, “and consequently he is ordinarily at war with commissioners, superintendents and policeman.” Irate horsemen were known to spread glass and tacks to keep cyclists off “their” roads. Some gleefully pointed their horses at the nearest cyclists and purposely ran them down. Lawmakers, many with extensive ties to the livery industry, responded with laws ranging from the absurd to the draconian, including one bill compelling cyclists to dismount anytime they came within 100 yards of horses. Cities mandated that bikes be saddled with bells, gongs, whistles, sirens and kerosene lanterns. And if all of those gadgets didn’t slow a rider down, the 10-mile-per-hour speed limit imposed on Nicollet Avenue’s cedar-paved surface certainly did.
The conversion and the craze
By the 1890s, horsemen were quickly being replaced by the whirling eddy of bicycle spokes. That’s when Americans first bought more bicycles than horses. One-third of all patents were bicycle-related. Railcars were refitted to carry bicycles. Newspapers were snowed under with bicycle-related ads and commentary detailing every aspect of the sport and recreation. Barbers spoke of bicycles during haircuts, doctors during exams, preachers during sermons. Politicians ran on platforms of “being friendly to wheelmen.”
Those who couldn’t afford bicycles simply employed a little American ingenuity. “Will swap my wife,” read one classified ad, “28 years old and trim looking, for any two wheeled bicycle.” Few inventions had a greater impact on women, including how they dressed and in their newly found freedoms. The New York Herald reassured all brides-to-be that a bicycle was a better matchmaker than a mother and that, more often than not, the tinkling of a bicycle’s bell turned into the pealing of wedding bells. Susan B. Anthony believed that bicycles did “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”
In 1895, bicycles held center stage in American culture. The Pope Manufacturing Co. was the largest employer in New England, manufacturing more than 1 million Columbia bicycles. Long before creating Ford Motor Co., Henry Ford reportedly visited Pope’s assembly lines, where 800 separate parts were inspected 500 times by 24 quality-control inspectors before being shipped to 3,000 sales agents positioned all over the world. Years later Henry Ford would be credited with inventing the assembly line.
“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia” — H.G. Wells
Outdoor bicycle tracks, called velodromes, were erected in many cities. Some were outfitted with as many as 25,000 seats, billiard rooms, massage salons, press boxes and camera rooms. At the League of American Wheelmen annual convention held in Philadelphia in August 1897, orchestras entertained 50,000 fans dressed in Kentucky-Derby-like attire, the largest paying crowd in American sports history. One detailed report at the end of 1897 concluded that 8 million paying spectators had attended bicycle races that year, making it the nation’s most popular form of entertainment.
Sports fans who were drawn to the high speed and danger of bicycle track racing would not be disappointed. In addition to frequent injuries, from 1890 to 1929 at least 47 professional racers died tragic deaths on bicycle tracks, including a Minneapolis racer named Joseph Griebler, who cracked his skull after catapulting over the track’s embankment. “Take a spill off a speeding bicycle on a hardwood track,” wrote race promoter William Brady, who also managed heavyweight boxing champion Jim Corbett, “and you’d be better off if you’d stopped one of Joe Louis’ punches.”
King of the track
From 1896 to 1910, Major Taylor, an oft-persecuted black cyclist from Indianapolis, dominated the sport. Sports fans in America, Europe and Australia flocked to watch him race. One Australian race promoter stated that crowds of 50,000 to 60,000 were common when Taylor raced. In Paris, 85,000 fans attended one of his multiday race meets. In 1903-04, it was estimated that Taylor earned between $40,000 and $50,000, a figure unmatched by any baseball player until Babe Ruth nearly two decades later.
But it wasn’t just athletic prowess that attracted people to Taylor. Carrying the scriptures with him always, this deeply religious man turned down enormous sums of money because he refused to race on Sundays. Thousands were captivated by his eloquent, peaceful delivery of messages about faith and kindness, and his mystical capacity to forgive those who persecuted him.
Though Taylor may have drawn more fans than any other athlete in any sport anywhere in the world, his immense fame came against incredible odds. He was repeatedly kicked out of restaurants and hotels, was forced to sleep in horse stables and was terrorized out of cities by threats of violence.
When Major Taylor died in Depression-riddled Chicago in 1932, the halcyon days were over. One by one, the vibrant velodromes that had roared with thousands of voices became wind-whipped and deserted, to be replaced by the sound of baseball bats cracking and the roar of race cars.
Conrad Kerber, of Eden Prairie, and Terry Kerber, of Excelsior, are the authors of “Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame.”