October 4, 2021 — In 1895, the New York Tribune reported the bicycle was “of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars...thrown in.” A hundred years later, the Minnesota Historical Society published an article by Bemidji professor Ron Spreng titled: The 1890s Bicycling Craze in the Red River Valley. Spreng’s research revealed many surprises; for example, who would have thought it was bicycle mania that led to the “first concerted movement for improved roads?”
The country’s first cycle, which appeared around 1870, was the “velocipede,” a 150-pound, hand-forged contraption with wooden wheels and solid tires. Six years later, an “ordinary” cycle was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition – it was English-made, with a front wheel up to five feet in diameter, with a little trailer wheel to stabilize the ride. The high front wheel made for a fast ride, but unfortunately, it also often led to the dreaded “face in the dirt.” Within a decade, a “safety” bicycle was introduced, using front and rear wheels of the same size, and soon after, inflatable pneumatic tires ended the safety’s jarring, bone-clattering ride.
Clever illustrated ads for the Svensgaard Bicycle Company in Fergus Falls helped launch a cycling craze in the Red River Valley in 1892. An economic depression the following year saw the bicycle quickly fall out of favor, but by the summer of 1894, valley residents were once more enjoying activities like lawn tennis, croquet, baseball and cycling.
The Grand Forks Cycle and Pleasure Club took 10- to 12-mile evening outings “under the captaincy of Mr. Dressen” that resembled military formations. It wasn’t long, though, before cycling took a scandalous turn – ladies starting riding without “escorts of the sterner sex.”
There were about 300 cyclists in Grand Forks by the spring of 1895 – by the end of the summer, that count rose to 500. Businesses stopped referring to bikes as safeties and started calling them “wheels.” Newspapers printed cycling news almost every day during the summer. Cycling clubs quickly sprang up in St. Thomas, Forest River, Jamestown, Fargo, Drayton, Larimore, Minto, Towner, Hillsboro, Neche, Pembina, Dickinson, Church’s Ferry, Park River, Grafton, Gilby, Epworth, Lakota, and Buffalo.
A major topic of discussion concerned the “new woman.” Women finally had a practical reason to wear bloomers (or pantaloons). Bloomers were initially worn under skirts when they were invented, but they created an almost hysterical response in 1852, because “most ladies would not admit they had legs, much less display them.” Forty years later, women found they couldn’t ride their cycles without admitting they had legs. Soon, they defiantly shed their corsets and petticoats and embraced baggy trousers for riding. Of course, the unthinkable became inevitable; women started wearing pantaloons even when they weren’t riding! Others shortened their skirts.
Preachers began proclaiming bicycles were “diabolical devices of the demon of darkness,” and some threatened to excommunicate members who used wheels. Others said the sport was a symbol of human progress and that cycles could be used to carry the gospel to the lost.
Some pastors were fired for riding, but in the Red River Valley at least two ministers took to the road. Reverend Longfellow wheeled to Grand Forks “by the bike route” after delivering a lecture in a Detroit Lakes summer assembly, and Reverend A. T. Foster completed a 100-mile “century” ride from Casselton to Grand Forks.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.