The history of the bicycle in Minnesota began, perhaps, on a Tuesday in January 1869, when a two-wheeled contraption called a velocipede arrived in Winona on order from local druggist J.C. Slorah. The Mantorville Express newspaper of Dodge County reported unequivocally in its editions of Feb. 2, 1869, that the shipment was the “first velocipede brought to Minnesota.” The arrival, according to the published account, “has been watched with great interest and amusement by our citizens.”
These accounts are important now because 2017 is being celebrated across the globe as the bicentennial of the invention of the bicycle. German inventor Baron Karl von Drais was inspired, it is widely said, by a shortage of horses in the widespread famine that followed the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in present-day Indonesia. He built a two-wheeled, mostly wooden apparatus to get around town, powered by the shuffling of his feet. Pedal propulsion would arrive some years later, followed eventually by tubed tires, quick-release hubs and titanium frames.
In celebration of the bicentennial, the Star Tribune’s Outdoors section is publishing brief stories and historical anecdotes each month during the warm weather cycling season that highlight the bicycle’s place in Minnesota history.
If Winona’s bike wasn’t Minnesota’s first, it was probably close. (In the same year, 1869, The Minneapolis Daily Tribune published a front-page story on the first sighting of a “monocycle” in Paris, reporting, “It is said to work perfectly and to be considerably superior in speed to the bicycle.”) The druggist Slorah in Winona was in any case intrepid. He apparently made his first, awkward bike rides in public — in January. It cannot have been pretty. But the Express suggested that, early on, he got both the hang of the machine and the regard of his neighbors:
“His velocipede is the two-wheeled, or bicycle machine — the most difficult to ride — and it is therefore much to (Slorah’s) credit that the next day after its arrival he was able to ride the distance of a block, and now he goes several blocks with the utmost ease and independence.”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.