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Tale of the Wheel

Apr 28th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Front Page

      Originally from the Elizabethtown Chronicle

You have probably seen old pictures of bicycles with huge front wheels and small back wheels.  The riders in the faded pictures were seated five feet off the ground on a seat mounted just behind the center point of the front wheel.  The “wheels,” as these early bicycles were known, were the first self-powered machines used for overland transportation.

You never see these wheels being ridden, except by trained professionals, because they were outlawed in 1890.  It was easy for the rider to get his weight too far forward causing him to fly over the handlebars if he hit a bump in the road.  Many of the people who flew over the handlebars from that height ended up with broken necks and that’s why the state government prohibited their use.

Today the Victorian Highwheelers from Tamaqua have a collection of wheels that they display and ride.  Donald R. Serfass and Dennis G. Schafer brought some of their wheels to Elizabethtown for the 2005 Christmas parade and the New Years Eve celebration.  On New Years Eve they even had a display of wheels and early bicycles in the annex of the Elizabethtown Historical Society.  The wheels originally sold for about $125 in the 1880s. The last one The Victorian Highwheelers purchased cost them $10,000.

Wheels were not only dangerous to ride; they were dangerous to mount and dismount.  As the rider pushed the wheel forward, he put one foot on a pedal and quickly lifted the other leg over the high seat to reach the other pedal to keep it moving.  The dismount required quickness also because the wheel did not stand for a second by itself without momentum, and it was easy for the rider to get his legs tangled in the spokes of the front wheel as he slid down the wheel frame toward the small wheel while going forward.  Donald dislocated his shoulder when learning to ride the wheel and Dennis has had minor injuries.

The front wheel was huge for two reasons.  First, the huge wheel went a great distance with one revolution of the pedal, and secondly, people thought they had to be as far off the ground as in the saddle of a horse to get a satisfactory ride.

Although the wheel worked well on level or gently sloping terrain with smooth trails, hills were a different matter.  When going uphill, the rider had to pump the pedals very hard and on the descent, the rider had trouble controlling the rapidly increasing speed.  A braking device could be purchased.  It was made to slow the wheel by way of a clamping action applied to the front wheel.  Many riders took a header because they applied the brake in hast, at excessive speed, or on too steep a grade.

The first wheels actually came to America from England in 1876.  They were demonstrated at the Philadelphia Exposition, and were immediately adopted as a mode of transportation that challenged the horse.  Just one year after they were introduced in Philadelphia, wheels were manufactured in the United States.

The American people wanted a cheap, clean, and speedy form of transportation.  People were moving to cities to find wage paying jobs, but keeping a horse in town was expensive and inconvenient.

You had to have a barn to shelter the animal, a supply of oats and hay to feed it, and a supply of straw for bedding.  By the way, what did they do with the manure when they changed the bedding?  Some of it went on the family garden and some of it probably had to be given to a local farmer for his fields.

If you walk behind the homes on South Market Street or those on East High Street in Elizabethtown, you will see remnants of the horse transportation era.  If you look close you can tell which present day garages started as horse barns because they are two stories high and have a center door on the second story.  They stored the hay and straw on the second floor.

The Victorian Highwheelers had an old boneshaker bicycle on display that had a metal and wooden frame and wheels.  These early bicycles were made by blacksmiths, they were very heavy and hard to push much less ride.  Later, wooden wheel rims were used with a new discovery by Dunlop, an air filled tire.  After 1890 the safety bicycle, which closely resembled modern bicycles, became the rage.  When Dr. George Kersey and other people of Elizabethtown started riding modern and safer bicycles at end of the 19th century, the use of the horse for local transportation was finished.

Initially, women did not ride the wheel but riding it became fashionable and many women did not want to be left out.  Amelia Bloomer and other women formed an organization to fight for women’s rights including the right to ride the wheel.  She recommended that women wear a short skirt and full trousers, known as bloomers, when they chose to ride.

Some men became mesmerized with the mechanics involved in the wheel and other bicycles and expanded on it.  Orville and Wilbur Wright used the facilities of their bicycle repair shop and their knowledge of light-weight wheels and tubing to experiment with the construction of an early airplane.  Glen Curtiss had a bicycle shop and became interested in adding a motor to bicycles developing Curtiss engines.  Henry Ford, another bicycle shop owner, used his mechanical ability to develop and then mass produce the Model T car.

After the wheel was outlawed, people stored them in cellars and barns.  In 1914, however, the metal in their frames became valuable.  The United States entered the World War I on the side of England and France.  Rifles and bullets were needed for the soldiers in the trenches.  When the scrap metal drives came to town people went to their barns and donated their wheels.  Most of the frames were melted for the war effort.

PHOTO CAPTION: Some fellows rode their safety bicycles to Falmouth about 1897 and rested in the shade of a tree with friends.

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