As far as we know, the first Lenawee County bicycle was imported by Irvin Finch in 1883, 20 years before the first automobile appeared.
Irvin’s bike was of a “Hi-Wheel” design, which made it a rough and dangerous machine, difficult for the rider and dangerous for the rider and nearby pedestrians.
It was a direct-drive machine having pedals attached directly to the front wheel axle, which was often around 6 feet in diameter, preventing the rider’s feet from reaching the ground. One author called it a “high-seat, two-wheeled contraption.” One of these machines is on display at the Lenawee Historical Museum in Adrian.
The bicycle quickly became popular, and a few intrepid young men in the city equipped themselves with the new means of transportation and, in 1893, founded the Adrian Bicycle Club. The club sponsored dances, social gatherings and runs and took frequent group walks or runs.
Within a few years a safer version of the bike, known as the “safety bike”, was introduced which almost, but not entirely, replaced the Hi-Wheel. The new design was made possible because the chain drive allowed the wheels to be more reasonably sized.
Over time, the club went through a series of ups and downs to become the Adrian Maple Wheelers of today. Along the way, competing clubs were organized with names such as “The Four B’s” and “Chain Gang”. Even the YMCA got involved.
The informal organization of riders, known as the “wheelers”, had been in existence for several years when an announcement in the June 17, 1893, Daily Telegram invited all interested parties to attend a meeting at the buggy, horse-drawn carriage and bicycle shop of CC VanDoren on Winter Street. Ed Cleveland chaired the meeting and said, “No city…Adrian’s size had such a large representation of ‘bike’ cyclists, and the interests of all would be enhanced by proper organization.” The meeting took place on July 21, and the “Adrian City Cycling Club” was officially organized to “advance interest in wheeling” with Cleveland as its first president.
The first meeting was busy. Officers and a board of directors were elected, and an ordinances committee was formed to “talk to the fathers of the town” about ordinances governing the helmsmen. The newly created Race Committee got to work organizing bike races at the Lenawee County Fair.
With over 200 members in July 1897, the club did more than organize rides and races. They raised funds and supported efforts to build safe bike paths.
Similar clubs sprung up in the decades that followed. A Ladies’ Bicycle Club was organized in Adrian on 8 May 1896, with membership limited to 30 members. Initial dues were 25 cents, with 5 cents weekly dues thereafter, with profits to be used for “club entertainment.” The Ladies’ Club rides were short at first and extended “as the ladies felt able to take longer rides”. During the years of racial segregation, Adrian’s African-American bicycle enthusiasts also formed a club.
In June 1897, the club called a meeting of all “helmsmen” to meet in Adrian’s council chamber for the purpose of perfecting the organization. A hundred cyclists moved. They discussed building new bike lanes and extending existing Adrian trails to connect to trails in Britton, Tecumseh, Hudson and beyond.
Bicycle clubs were prolific in the county and across the country. They promoted cycling safety and provided an opportunity for community exercise and social interaction. They even insured members’ bicycles against theft for $25 as a membership benefit.
Bicycle clubs were formed at Clinton, Britton, Tecumseh and Morenci, as well as at the Presbyterian Church, before the end of the century. Even the children got into the spirit when a boys’ cycle club was formed in Blissfield in 1921. Milla Brees’ fifth year class at Onsted School formed a cycle club in 1958. Not to be outdone by young people, a club exclusively for seniors was formed in Adrian in 1974.
Bike clubs were not unique to the United States. A 1902 newspaper article announced that a dozen “high-class” young Japanese girls from Tokyo had organized a bicycle club “to the astonishment of the whole nation”.
Incidentally, the Hi-Wheel was also known as the “Penny-Farthing” because the relative sizes of the wheels resembled the relative sizes of the British penny and farthing coins.
Bob Wessel is Vice President of the Lenawee County Historical Society and can be reached at [email protected].