By John Gurda
July 6, 2013
I’m known in some circles these days as “the guy on the bike.” It’s been happening for two years now, ever since I became the on-camera historian for “Around the Corner with John McGivern,” a popular Milwaukee Public Television series that profiles a different Wisconsin community each episode.
At the beginning of every show, I pedal up to John at some likely spot and tell him the story of the place we’re visiting — in 31/2 minutes or less. I can gauge the popularity of “Around the Corner” by the number of people who stop me on the street and ask, “Where’s your bike?”
The truth is that it’s never far away. Ever since bad knees forced me to hang up my running shoes, biking has been my preferred form of exercise, and I ride both summer and winter. I’ve put more than 800 miles on my aluminum steed since early April, many of them for work — exploring Milwaukee neighborhoods for a new book — but even more for fun and adventure.
My friend Mike Brady and I pedaled around Lake Winnebago in early June, and my wife, Sonja, and I did the ferry-to-ferry circuit across Lake Michigan last weekend, biking from Muskegon to Ludington on one side and from Manitowoc back to Milwaukee on the other.
We’re continuing a venerable tradition. Every time I hit the streets, I’m aware that I’m riding in the tracks of countless Milwaukeeans who pedaled before me. The first bicycle, in fact, appeared in 1876, when the city was just 30 years old. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that the contraption “was gazed at with undisguised amazement by the startled natives, who hurried to their windows and crowded upon the sidewalks to get a look at the strange thing that sped noiselessly by.”
We’d probably do the same in 2013. That first bicycle was a classic “bone-shaker,” with a front wheel nearly 5 feet in diameter and a minuscule rear wheel. Riders found the vehicles hard to get on and even harder to get off. “As soon as the speed of the bicycle is checked,” reported the Sentinel, “it begins to wobble like a dying top, and if the inexperienced rider can manage to dismount without falling off, he is exceptionally lucky.” Unless there was someone nearby to help him, continued the paper, “the unskillful bicyclist has to choose between riding on forever and stopping the machine and dismounting in that miscellaneous manner that is so fatal to limbs and clothing.”
The hazards of the high-wheeler didn’t stop people from riding them. The Milwaukee Bicycle Club was founded in 1880 and grew quickly to 65 members, making it the largest in the nation for a time. The group raced on occasion, but its real passion was touring the dusty roads of Waukesha County. The club thoughtfully published its route before each ride so that farmers with skittish horses knew which roads to avoid.
Although it became a fairly familiar sight, the inherent difficulty of the high-wheeler limited its appeal. The sport’s real breakthrough came in the 1880s, when manufacturers introduced the “safety bicycle,” with two wheels of equal size, air-filled rubber tires, a chain drive and coaster brakes. It was, in other words, a simpler, heavier version of the bicycle that every baby-boomer learned to ride as a child. Easy to use, faster than walking and cheaper than the streetcar, safety bicycles became a coast-to-coast craze. By 1900, 4 million Americans were riding them — in a country of 76 million.
Milwaukee shared in the general excitement. Local ridership soared to 15,000 in 1895, up from an estimated 250 in the high-wheeler era. Every celebration, it seemed, had to showcase bicycles in some fashion. On the Fourth of July in 1896, the Cream City Wheelmen held their first-ever road race over a 12-mile course that ran from N. 28th and W. Vliet streets to Wauwatosa and back. The winner was Edward Rosenberg, a 15-year-old who had borrowed his brother’s bike. Nearly 8,000 spectators turned out to watch the contest.
The Milwaukee Country Club, then located in Shorewood, took the opposite tack, holding a “slow bicycle race” on the same 1896 holiday. The object, reported the Sentinel, “was to be the last to cross the line, without dismounting or deviating from the general direction toward the finish.” The victor was George Merriweather, who was the only rider still on his bike after 100 yards.
As the sport’s popularity grew, everyone got on board. A Protestant minister praised the bicycle as “the two-wheeled evangelist of health and happiness” and declared that it was “doing for man’s health what steam has done for industry.” But the preacher also had words of warning. “The wheel is seeking to run the Sabbath out of the week,” he cautioned, since so many enthusiasts rode on Sunday.
Doctors touted the health benefits of cycling. “The effete materials in the tissues are rapidly removed,” wrote one, “and oxidation, which is essential to health, is more perfectly performed.” His meaning may be lost on modern readers. The physician was clearer when he addressed the sport’s psychological benefits: “No one can ride a bicycle and not have his thoughts taken out of himself, and at the same time have his attention pleasantly engaged.” That’s something I experience nearly every time I get on a bike.
The new vehicles weren’t especially cheap. One of Milwaukee’s larger dealers was Julius Andrae, whose son, Terry, was a state racing champion — and the man for whom a popular state park is named. In 1893, the Andrae shop sold the Featherstone, an entry-level bike, for $35 — about $875 in today’s dollars. That was a significant sum in a blue-collar town like Milwaukee, but thousands made the investment.
A high point of sorts was reached in 1895, when 3,000 cyclists were the featured attraction in a civic parade that drew more than 100,000 spectators. There were costumes, lanterns, floats, miles of bunting and even a woman rider wearing bloomers. “Never in the history of the Northwest was there a more pleasing parade,” gushed the Sentinel, “and Milwaukee may live and thrive another fifty years before the cycling interests of Wisconsin are marshalled again in such a dazzling array.”
That proved to be an understatement. I doubt that Milwaukee has ever had another parade featuring 3,000 cyclists. Just as the safety bicycle pushed the bone-shaker into oblivion, a new vehicle — one with four wheels — ended the bicycle craze. The first mass-produced automobiles appeared at the turn of the century and quickly took the market by storm. Henry Ford’s Model T sold for as little as $260 — not much more than a high-end bicycle. Why settle for a bike when you could have twice the wheels and an engine besides?
The bicycle never really went away, but it was relegated to secondary status: a toy for kids, not a vehicle for grown-ups. Only in recent decades has the cycle come round again. For reasons of health, economy, the environment and just plain fun, millions of us are riding, and there are more bikes on the road every year. Thousands of them are in Wisconsin. Our state has become a national leader in rail-to-trail conversions, and Milwaukee is steadily enlarging its reputation as a bike-friendly city.
It’s both a pleasure and a privilege to be “the guy on the bike.” As shooting for the McGivern show continues in a third season, I’ll be pedaling all over the state, from West Allis and La Crosse to Hartford and Chippewa Falls. See you around the corner.