Many local dealers later moved from bikes to selling autos and motorcycles
|Wheelmen brought their bicycles with them into B.B. Dobbs’ studio on W. Holly St. to have their portrait taken, c. 1891. [Gordon Tweit Collection, Whatcom Museum of History & Art #1997.26.2]|
A bicycle craze hit the Bellingham Bay towns in the spring of 1890, as more than 40 bicycles were suddenly in daily use on local streets. It was the beginning of a decade-long infatuation with cycling.
The 1880s saw the invention of the “Safety,” a bicycle that had front and rear wheels of moderate and equal size. Once available, the Safety quickly replaced the old-fashioned “Ordinary,” or Penny-Farthing, with its huge front wheel and little back wheel.
Because an Ordinary rider perched about five feet up, balance was difficult and “going over” resulted in a “header” or other frightful injury. It was of little use, and certainly no fun, to ride a high-wheeler on our wagon-furrowed mud roads. The Safety, however, had a hardier frame and fatter tires much like a modern mountain bike. Here was a bicycle for the frontier!
Dozens of Safety brands were available from eastern manufacturers that advertised in New Whatcom and Fairhaven newspapers, including the “Waverly Scorcher,” the “Monarch, King of All Bicycles,” and the “25 lb. Acme Road Racer with wood rims.”
The Petaluma Incubator Co. of California made chicken brooders and, oddly enough, the Erie Safety. Illustrated ads placed by Petaluma in the Bellingham Bay Reveille featured the peculiar juxtaposition of a bicycle standing beside an egg incubator.
As early as May 1890, a tiny ad in the Bellingham Bay Express announced that Frizell Hardware on Holly Street was the “sole agent for the Gypsy Safety Bicycle.” Over the next three years, William Frizell managed to secure the Victor, Giant and Columbia franchises when competition was fierce to garner the dealership of a particular brand.
Upon arrival here from Iowa in 1893, Charles Stanbra opened a sporting goods store next to Morse Hardware on Elk (State) Street.
Stanbra boasted the county’s “exclusive agency” for Crawford and Phoenix bicycles. His shop also specialized in bike repair “from mending a common puncture to making a new frame or enameling your old one.”
George McIntosh’s Hardware store was first to retail bikes in Fairhaven and did a thriving trade in Sterns’ bicycles. Though available in a variety of colors, the Safety model built by E.C. Sterns & Co., of Syracuse, N.Y., was commonly promoted as “the Yellow Fellow.”
But the elite brand of the 1890s was by far the Columbia, trade name for bikes built by the Pope Mfg. Co. In 1878, Albert A. Pope had been the first manufacturer of bicycles in America and Columbia remained at the forefront of innovation. Pope introduced pneumatic tires on a bicycle, as well as the first diamond-shaped frame, coaster brake, spring fork and tandem bike. The firm worked out of the Weed Sewing Machine factory in Hartford, Conn.
In 1895, Long Brothers Hardware on West Holly succeeded Frizell as the local Columbia dealership. At that time a Columbia Safety retailed for an astronomical $150! To promote cycling (and sales), Long Brothers held in-store meetings of wheelmen and launched the Bellingham Bay Cycling Club in May 1895.
On Independence Day, Long Brothers sponsored a bike parade, “Bicycle Hill-Climbing Contest” and a “Slow Bicycle Race.” The grueling slow race was an endurance test of balance with contestants disqualified for putting a foot down. The winner was the one who finished last.
|Safety bikes were popular with both ladies and gents, c. 1905. [Whatcom Museum of History & Art #1981.45.7]|
By July 1898, Long Brothers switched to the lower-priced Crescent in hopes of higher sales. Morse Hardware picked up the coveted Columbia, adding it to an existing stock of Monarch, Eldridge, Sterns and other brands “bought in carload lots direct from the factories.” Robert I. Morse explained his business strategy: “We buy bicycles in large quantities same as stoves and ranges. The best in the market at the lowest possible cash prices, sell ‘em low, send and get more.”
The strangest bicycle offered by Morse Hardware was the Companion, made by the Punnett Cycle Mfg. Co. of Rochester, N.Y. Debuting at Morse in 1894, the Companion was a Safety built for two riders that were not seated front and back like on a standard tandem, but side-by-side! Suspecting an awkward design, Morse only ordered one.
When the single Companion didn’t sell, Morse gave it to his two accountants, the brothers Herbert and Clarence Fisher. Living out on Eldridge Avenue, the Fishers were seen each morning riding the Companion across town to Morse Hardware. The bookkeeping brothers also rode home together for lunch every day, back to work, then home again in the evening.
On March 24, 1900, Morse Hardware displayed its $12,000 inventory of bicycles in a grand promotional parade. With bikes tethered upright on horse-drawn wagons, a brass band led the awesome caravan of cycles through the streets of New Whatcom to the cheers of bystanders. That month every person who bought a bicycle from Morse was given “five guesses as to the number of beans contained in a glass jar.” The closest guess had the price of their bike refunded.
Other merchants, whose usual line of goods had nothing to do with bicycles, abruptly added bikes to their wares. In New Whatcom, the “Jewelers and Opticians” firm of Nelson & Robinson began selling “White Bicycles” alongside wedding rings and eyeglasses. In Fairhaven, F. B. Graves’ Racket Store started selling “King and Queen Bicycles” in addition to “fine men and women’s apparel.” Even Herbert Koebler‘s Bellingham Bay Meat Market on Harris Avenue held a raffle for a free bicycle. The more cuts of beef you purchased the more chances you had to win.
On sunny days, the workday commute resembled a Sunday outing as Fairhaven and New Whatcom businessmen bicycled to and from their jobs. Among them were attorney C. H. Hurlbut, Judge Jeremiah Neterer, pharmacist Fred Offerman, department store owner Charles Cissna, banker Cliff McMillin, dry goods manager Dan McCush, printer John Edson, newspaper editor Frank Teck and assistant postmaster Will Pratt.
News reporter Paul Gooding pursued stories on a stylish Ben Hur Safety. In the summer of 1895, local insurance agent S. E. Barrett pedaled through three counties selling farm policies, resulting in leg muscles “that will place him among the long distance racers.”
Town-marshal Andrew Land and Fire Chief Elmer Sherwood made their patrols on bicycles. New Whatcom maintained a small fleet of bikes for official use, a pedal-powered precursor to the City’s motor pool.
Safety bicycles were equally popular among women, who’d been unable to ride high-wheelers in dresses. In fact, the Safety even came in a “Ladies Model” with low center bar to accommodate ankle-length fashions. Mina Bloedel, Bertha Hanes, Nellie Coupe, Amelia Dahlquist, Minnie Nolte and Mollie Tresize were just a few of the ardent “wheelwomen” of the Bellingham Bay towns. In 1895, New Whatcom’s Daily Reveille described the feminine cyclist as “flying along the road upon a bicycle, her checks aglow with health and enthusiasm, life and electricity tingling in every vein.”
Wheelwomen became the darlings of advertising illustrations. Typical were the charming ads from Holly Street druggists Collins & Co., which ran in The Weekly Blade during August 1899, depicting a woman riding a Lady’s Safety in stylish hat, billowy blouse, full-length skirt and high button shoes. There’s a camera in a basket on the handlebars. The text reads: “Nothing so fits into the Pleasures of Bicycling as Photography. Better make pictures while the sun shines.”
Many now familiar bike accessories were introduced in the 1890s, such as “mud guards,” repair kits, bells, racks and toe-clips. Thankfully some old versions have since been improved, like the “Never-out” bike lamp that carried a 16-hour supply of kerosene and the “Kalamazoo Baby Carrier” that snapped onto the front handlebars. And gone completely is the need for “wheelmen’s hose supporters” and “wood rim liquid cement.”
A good bike lock has always been paramount. On July 16, 1895, The Daily Reveille reported that “the bicycle craze” in New Whatcom had made bicycle stealing practically “a new industry,” which was “evidently a safer and more lucrative one than horse stealing.” To combat the crime wave, New Whatcom initiated bicycle licensing. Serial numbers were registered with the police to give an owner at least minimal recourse if their bicycle was stolen.
In August 1899, cycling enthusiasts organized as the New Whatcom Wheelmen. Membership was “open to both ladies and gentlemen” and required only that one have a current bicycle license. The license cost one dollar per year. Intent on “securing good roads and paths” for cycling, they held their meetings in City Hall to ensure that the Council passed “proper legislation to protect the interests of wheelmen.” Revenue from the license went to the city’s Bicycle Fund, which was earmarked for construction of bike trails and boulevards. New Whatcom licensed 662 bicycles in 1899.
By May 1900, local bike sales had already doubled those of the best previous year and the New Whatcom Wheelmen reorganized as the Whatcom County Bicycle Club. At the very next meeting they renamed themselves the Whatcom County Good Roads Club.
Besides lobbying for better thoroughfares, wheelmen pledged to pick up litter on city streets. At year’s end, 893 bicycle licenses had been issued and the money generated went to the completion of a bike road from Woburn St. to Lake Whatcom.
In 1903, Charles Stanbra moved to 1315 Railroad Ave. and expanded his inventory of “Baseball Goods, Guns, Bicycles, Cutlery and Fishing Tackle.” Two of Stanbra’s bicycle repairmen, Hugh Diehl and Charles Simpson, quit the shop in 1908 to start an automobile dealership together (today’s Diehl Ford).
Stanbra switched his focus in 1913 to a different two-wheeled vehicle and became an Indian Motorcycle dealer. Long Brothers did the same by becoming an agency for the “Flying Merkel,” the “only two-speed, self-starting motor cycle on Earth.”
The number of bicycle manufacturers in the U.S. peaked at 312 in 1900, but quickly shrank to 101 by 1905. As the automobile gained popularity and status, bicycles came to be considered mainly for “errand boys and office girls.” This attitude was expressed in 1917 by Bellingham’s Sunday American-Reveille in an article about school teacher Nellie Coupe.
Coupe purchased her first bicycle, a Columbia, back in 1892. Twenty-five years later, at age 72, she was still riding a bike on her rounds as a private tutor.
The newspaper viewed “Miss Nellie” as an oddity for favoring her “old wheel” in preference to a motor car. “I don’t see anything peculiar in my riding a bicycle,” she told the
reporter. “My trusty bicycle has served me well, and I hope to keep on pedaling my way here and there for many years to come.”
Coupe lived to be 92.