League of American Wheelmen 1896 Rally
by Joe Ward
For the League of American Bicyclists 1999 National Rally in Louisville, the League of American Wheelmen 1896 National Meet -- also in Louisville -- had to be a hard act to follow. Even if it was over 100 years ago.
It was a very big deal.
For one thing, the 1896 event drew 40,000 people, according to one Courier-Journal estimate a year later. Another Courier-Journal estimate about the same time put it at 30,000 people. But give or take 10,000, that’s a lot of people. The meet hit the front page on several days between Aug. 9 and Aug. 16. Headlines screamed. On Aug. 9, the Sunday before the meet, the banner across the top of an inside section declared, “The Bicycle Has the Right of Way This Week.” On Monday, several more pages of stories started out under this headline:
Get Off The Road
Or The Wheelmen Will Run
Hundreds Arrived Yesterday
And Thousands More Will Come
To-day and To-morrow
Busy Scenes at Fontaine Ferry Park
It was that way all week. On that first day, the writer -- anonymous, as many reporters were in those days -- made an effort to give some perspective to the importance of cycling and the Meet, the League’s main summer gathering. He suggested that developments in the 1896 presidential campaign -- then just a month past Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech -- were insignificant beside events unfolding in Louisville.
“Do you ride a Wheel,” he asked.
“Can you discuss intelligently and dispassionately the seventeen sacred propositions concerning gears? Have you an honest partisan preference among saddles? Are you in possession of sincere and unwavering convictions on the profound question of tires? Have you in secret prayed to be enlightened as to whether the handle-bar steers the wheel or the weight steers the handle-bar? As a chivalrous gentleman do you tremble at the revolution involved in bloomers?
“No? Then why continue to live?”
The League -- which changed its name from Wheelmen to Bicyclists in 1993 -- would have had 75,000 to 80,000 members in 1896, compared to 35,000 now. My quick run through the week’s worth of newspapers on microfilm didn’t turn up an actual figure. But membership passed 80,000 for the first time about a year later, and was pretty near its zenith for most of the period from 1895 to 1898. Cycling was very fashionable then. The newspapers were full of ads for cycling clothes, which many people wore even if they didn’t ride. Society news featured bicycle outings. The league had a good deal of prestige and even power, controlling legislatures in some states, and advancing the cause of “good roads” across the country. And there were many thousands of cyclists outside the club. League president Sterling Elliott declared that if all cyclists would join, the league could elect a president. In Louisville, cyclists did elect the mayor -- Charles P. Weaver -- in 1897, after he promised to pave Broadway from First Street to Ninth, among other things.
LOUISVILLE WORKED HARD to get the national meet, which previously had been held in such cities as Boston, New York, Washington and St. Louis. Local cyclists and business leaders sent a 15-man recruiting committee to Baltimore in 1895 to work on delegates to the league’s National Assembly, which chose meet sites. They went with “supplies enough to entertain an army,” a Courier-Journal story said. It didn’t say what kind of supplies, but I’m guessing they included bourbon. The committee set up a hospitality room in a Baltimore hotel. Its members each had specific tasks. Thomas Jefferis, for example, keep track of the committee’s $1,000 budget. Jefferis was the brother of Howard Jefferis, who in effect is a progenitor of the current Louisville cycling club. An old man in 1940, he hired teenager Gil Morris to work in his bike shop, and showed him many of the routes we ride now. Gil led formation of the current club in the 1960s. Other members of that 1895 committee included one representative each of The Courier-Journal, the Louisville Times, and the now-defunct Herald-Post, who entertained newsmen covering the assembly, and glad-handed delegates. One committee member “kept an eye on Toledo,” which had been favored to get the meet until Louisville showed up.
Back in Louisville, prominent people such as John B. Castleman -- then president of the Board of Park Commissioners -- joined the effort. Castleman was chairman of the meet’s Entertainment and Reception committee, whose members included Howard Jefferis, among others. There were more than 16 committees and subcommittees, to handle various events and excursions. One event put bikes on a steamboat for a river trip to Madison, Ind., and a bike ride back. Another was a century ride to Frankfort and back, over the course taken by the first recorded U.S. century in 1880. The meet’s press committee somehow got larded up with 13 members. A suspicion crossed my mind that some just wanted to get into the bike races free.
THE MEET RACES WERE A MAJOR ATTRACTION, drawing top riders from across the country and even around the world. They broke world records that week at Fontaine Ferry track. Participants such as Eddie “Cannon” Bald, of Buffalo, and Tom Cooper, of Detroit, enjoyed considerable fame in those days. They made big money -- $10,000 a year and more, about $520,000 in today’s money -- and traveled the race circuit in sumptuous railroad cars. Conspicuous by his absence in 1896 was Marshall “Major” Taylor, a black cyclist from Indianapolis who was later a world champion. Blacks had been banned from league membership by a National Assembly that met in Louisville in 1894.
Castleman and prominent Louisville cyclists entertained visitors all week from a headquarters at Hampton College, which was on Walnut Street -- now Muhammad Ali Boulevard -- between Third and Fourth Streets. League members were greeted inside the front door by a white porcelain bathtub filled with punch, floating large cakes of ice. Outside temperatures reached 102 during the week. No recipe for the punch was given. But a story said the committee served the same concoction in Baltimore, and delegates raved about it. So they promised that visitors would be able to take a bath in it if Louisville got the meet. Other drinks, including beer, whiskey and champagne, were available in other rooms at headquarters. One table was piled high with tobacco, and 1,000 pipes, which were quickly pilfered by visitors. Nightly entertainment included “smokers,” where, the paper said, “funny stories were told, punch and beer were dispensed, corncob pipes were smoked, and much hilarity was indulged in.” You don’t see THAT on the Bardstown ride.
Several rides a day went out from the headquarters, mostly to various city parks and to the track at Fontaine Ferry, though some crossed the K&I bridge to Indiana, and others went to Mt. Washington and other towns. First day coverage gave visitors detailed directions to Corydon, Mammoth Cave, Frankfort, Lexington and the bluegrass area, and some organized rides took groups in some of those directions after the meet. Distances must have been trickier in those days of muddy and boulder-strewn roads. Zachary Taylor’s tomb -- then presumably where it is now, off Brownsboro Road seven or so miles from downtown -- was described as an hour’s ride from town.
ONE OF THE MAIN EVENTS OF THE WEEK was a parade that went from headquarters out Walnut to Eighth Street, down Eighth to Main, back on Main to Third Street. It went south on Third Street and Southern Parkway, then called “The Boulevard,” to the Iroquois Cycling and Driving Club’s clubhouse somewhere in the vicinity of where the Watterson Expressway crosses now. The 1896 parade is not to be confused with the 10,000-cyclist event that traveled Third and The Boulevard the following year, but it apparently drew a good deal of attention. The newspaper said every window on Main Street from Eighth to Third had men and women in it, and Third itself was said to be “a bank of white dresses on either side, from Main to the Confederate Monument.” The paper said about 1,000 cyclists rode, and they were watched by about 25,000 people on the sidelines. The procession was led by policemen on bicycles, league officials, and clubs organized according to bicycle brands. They included a group on Victor bicycles led by our Jefferis brothers, who had a bike shop on Third Street. Many of the bicycles were decorated with flags and brightly-colored bunting. “Freak” entries, much advanced in the newspapers for several days, brought up the rear. They included one tricycle with wheels almost nine feet high pedaled by eight men, a “giraffe” cycle with its seat nine feet above the street, and a tandem cycle on which the rear rider was “upstairs.” A trick rider dressed as a country hick, who had previously wowed Louisvillians by riding down the front steps of the court house, wobbled along, falling in front of a street car and then miraculously scrambling to safety at the last minute. One troupe of 20 male riders in bloomers got a lot of laughs, as did three very heavy cyclists -- including, the paper said, “Jim Grimes of Cincinnati, known as Fatty because he weighs 482 pounds.”
A “watermelon feast” on the grounds of the Iroquois club, scheduled to follow the arrival of the parade there, turned into a sort of a free-for-all. The papers had said for days that several wagon loads of watermelon would be distributed to meet participants. “Word spread,” the paper said. People from the parade’s sidelines -- and apparently from all walks of life, including farmers, city slickers, society girls and many young boys, on foot, on bicycles and in carriages -- filled The Boulevard behind the last parade bicycles, moving toward the club grounds. The paper said it was “as motley a gathering as ever assembled at an open air feast.” When the first wagon arrived, the crowd surged through a ramshackle wooden fence around the picnic site, pushed up against the wagon and began filching melons. There was much shouting and laughter. The people in charge gave up on defending their cargo and began lobbing the melons out into the crowd. “Several persons were jolted by the melons on the head and shoulders, but in the excitement of the moment, no attention was paid to such trivial matters,” the paper said.
And so it went. A couple of visiting young women scandalized the gathering one day by wearing knickerbockers -- instead of cycling skirts -- on a ride down The Boulevard. Omaha wheelmen campaigned hard to get the meet in ’98. Elliott, the league president, took up Bryan’s campaign theme in the league’s battle for better roads. “He says you shall not press the crown of muddy roads on the heads of the laboring wheelman: you shall not crucify him upon a cross-roads so rough that a duck could not navigate them in gum boots,” the paper reported. Somebody made Elliott a Kentucky Colonel. Crowds formed outside the meet headquarters every night, to listen to music and to stories. On Saturday night, the last night, at 10 p.m., league members came out onto the street and everybody sang “My Old Kentucky Home.” Then they headed back to their hotels, and to trains and bikes out of town the next day.