#379: The Columbia Wheelmen

September 29th, 2014

The following is the story originally intended for last week, but postponed due to that sleep-killing jerkface Edward Paul Brennan (1866-1942).

Enjoy, and may all your historical street references be correctly numbered.

It’s a field now, been one for maybe a year or two since they tore down the lumberyard. I guess it’s going to be a five-story luxury condo dealie, because lord knows Wicker Park needs more of those.

I had been here before, wrote about an art shop forced to move for progress. Even in the pre-this-blog days, I wrote about a video game-based musical performed there. It was part of Wicker weird for a while.

But right now, in the slice of time between lumberyard and rich people encased in glass and steel, it’s a field with weeds, a few butterflies, some graffiti and the former home of the Columbia Wheelmen.

The Age of Cycling

Before Divvy, before Bike the Drive, before WNBR and before the Trib’s junior league Roykoteer started his weird jihad against the skinny, Chicago was a bike town.

In 1898, about two-thirds of the nation’s bikes were built by Chicago’s 88 separate bike companies.

Bike-mad Mayor Carter Harrison II, son of a previous mayor and a League of American Wheelmen member, courted the powerful bicycle vote in 1897 with images of him on a bike and the slogan “Not the champion cyclist, but the cyclists’ champion.”

That quid’s pro quo was a bike path along Sheridan Road from Edgewater to Evanston.

“An Unpleasant Flatulence”

Cycling clubs like the Columbia Wheelmen (who only rode the Columbia bicycles I tried to track down last week) faced off in high-speed track runs or vicious, six-day endurance events against the likes of the Midnight Wheelmen, the Pandemonium Club, the Century Road Club of America, the Two-Fifty Club, the Owl Cycling Club, the Chicago Cycling Club, the Chicago Colored Cycling Club, the Cook County Wheelmen, the Que Wheelmen, the Æolus Cycling Club,the Lincoln Cycling Club, the Illinois Cycling Club and clubs in Lake View, Englewood, “Plzen,” Ravenswood and Blue Island.

Chicago had 54 cycling clubs with more than 10,000 members by one account and more than 500 clubs by another.

“Go slow, Chicago, go slow,” a Chicago-based cycling magazine called The Bearings wrote in 1892. “Too much dessert spoils a good dinner, and too many attempts at centering cycling nationalism in the Windy City may cause an unpleasant flatulence.”

“Who Wears the Wooden Shoes? Wallie!”

One of the big stars of 1800s biking was a bruiser from Milwaukee, Wisc., called Walter Sanger. To the fans’ cries of “Who wears the wooden shoes? Wallie!” because it was the 1800s and that sort of thing made sense, Sanger seemed unbeatable.

In one race he was so far ahead that when his pedal fell off, he was able to stop, go back and get the pedal, hammer it back in and still win the race. He used to break horses on his bike. This was not a man to fuck with.

So the Chicago Cycling Club did.

Biking was a nasty matter in the 1890s, with allegations and tempers flaring at race after race. Sanger alleged at an 1892 race that Davis of the Chicago Cycling Club intentionally crashed into him, causing a broken rib, gashes and bruising, echoing claims John Johnson made earlier about the Chicago C.C.’s nasty tricks.

The Bearings magazine discounted Sanger’s claims under headlines like “More Nonsense About Sanger,” “Some Untruths” and “Po-or L-i-tt-l-e Wal-lie!”

Bearings publisher N.H. Van Sicklen was the captain of the Chicago Cycling Club, incidentally.

The Wheel and Cycle Trade Review also recounted the incident, albeit with less 19th-century snark.

The Nasty Side

Beyond crashes, nastiness, political cronyism and varied dirty tricks, cycling was also expensive.

An 1888 Expert Columbia, one of the brand the wheelmen of my Wicker Park field rode, would go for about $130 at the Pope Manufacturing branch house on Wabash. That’s $3,250 in today’s cash. Some bikes mid-craze would go for up to $400, or $10,000 in 2014 dollars.

Ten years later, you could get a decent bike for $20, a measly $571.43 today.

Another issue was just basic human nature. When there’s an organization and a power structure, people will try to climb it.

That’s what happened with the Columbia Wheelmen. Just five years after breaking ground on their clubhouse at what’s now 1815 W. Division, the Wheelmen had a massive row about whether to stay focused on cycling or become more of a social club.

But soon, none of that would matter. The fad was about to die.

Vroom with a View

“All these guys, the manufacturers, the racers, they all transitioned over to automobiles by the early 1900s,” a historian told Wisconsin Public Radio during a segment on Sanger.

Between 1897 and 1904, bike sales plummeted 79 percent as those who could traded bikes for faster motorcycles and cars.

Sanger would race motors for a bit before opening a car dealership in Milwaukee. Pope Manufacturing, maker of the Columbia, would move into cars and motorcycles until filing for bankruptcy in 1915. Even N.H. Van Sicklen of The Bearings would move into the auto industry.

Many of those 88 bike manufacturers consolidated into the ill-fated American Bicycle Company, but they weren’t able to save the city’s bike industry. Chicago kept Schwinn until the 1990s, but that’s about it.

The Columbia brand is still around, made by a company most known for public school chairs.

And there’s a field in Wicker Park that’s going to house luxury condominiums. There are weeds, a few butterflies, some graffiti and the former home of the Columbia Wheelmen.

Comment on this story

Read “Why Should I Ride a Bicycle?” an 1892 pamphlet from Columbia

See a photo gallery of old bicycle pictures

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