“Bicycles were the iPhones of the 1890s. Everybody had to have one,” said Elgin antique collector Jeff White, which led to both their manufacture in the city and to racing with athletes from all over the world..
White and Tom Armstrong, a former city planner who sits on the Elgin Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) and formerly worked for Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance, explained the history of making, racing and enjoying bikes in Elgin in a recent presentation in conjunction with a week of activities called “Bike. Walk. Move: Elgin.”
Armstrong said the bicycle had a literally shaky beginning in the late 1800s since “velocipedes” and “high wheelers” had one huge wheel with the pedals directly connected to it and no brakes. The term “taking a header” came from what happened when a rider hit a bump and went head-first over the handlebars.
Then the golden age of cycling hit in the 1880s and 1890s with the invention of the safety bicycle, using the present general design, he said. At least four Elgin companies are known to have manufactured bikes in 1890-1910. Two were spinoffs of other companies. The Elgin Cycle Co. was related to the Illinois Watch Case Co. on Dundee Avenue. The C.H. Woodruff Co. later evolved into the Woodruff & Edwards iron foundry, in what is now Foundry Park on North State Street.
The Elgin Sewing Machine & Bicycle Co. and Seuberth-Leach Manufacturing were based along Dickie Avenue in an area that had been targeted to become an industrial park, but never got the promised railroad spur.
Catalogs in White’s collection show Woodruff selling the male Elgin and female Lady Elgin models — apparently stealing the latter name from a model of the Elgin watch — at $100 each. “That was a pretty steep price in the late 1800s,” Armstrong said.
At least one bike made in Elgin was over the top — encrusted with $10,000 worth of diamonds and gold – and exhibited in 1897.
Elgin Cycle Co. offered an Elgin King and Elgin Queen at a more affordable $40 apiece.
Riding on the worldwide fame of the Elgin National Watch Co., Elgin Sewing Machine & Bicycle Co. sold one bike model named “The Timer.”
“Bicycle manufacturing came to an end in Elgin in 1905 through 1910. But the Elgin name lived on” as Sears, Roebuck started selling Elgin brand bikes that were not made in Elgin. And, unknown to many people, the Giant bicycle company now operates one of the biggest bicycle distribution centers in the country along Randall Road in Elgin, Armstrong said.
Bike racing in Elgin began during that golden age of the 1890s. One race went from Chicago through Oak Park to Elgin, down the Fox Valley to Aurora and then back to Chicago. At various times between 1926 and 1964, “Elgin-Chicago” races went from Elgin to Evanston and then back via Route 31 and Route 14, Armstrong said..
Racing paused in Elgin from 1964 until 2000, when the first of three Four Bridges Races were held, bringing world-class athletes from South America and Europe, he said.. Those were followed by more laid-back Elgin Cycling Classic races in 2005-2009 and 2012-2015 in the streets around Lords Park.
Now, biking enthusiasts can travel along off-road trails north to the Wisconsin border, south to Oswego or east to the inner suburbs. In addition, after passing a bikeways master plan in 2008 and setting up the bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee in 2009, the city is setting up a network of bikeways along its streets. New commercial, industrial and multi-family buildings must include space to park bikes. And 80 to 90 new bike racks will be installed soon at locations to be determined in downtown Elgin, Armstrong said.
White said one of Sears’ old Elgin Bluebirds, in good condition, can bring $4,000.. But he said his own worst bike-related mistake came during when he attached a baseball card to the spokes of his bike’s wheel to create an engine-like sound.
It was a 1956 Mickey Mantle card.
Will the current surge in bicycle popularity last? Anybody remember tennis, or rollerblades? How about the Yugo?