Text and photos submitted by Terry L. Ommen
he bicycle! It’s an amazing mechanical contraption that when pedaled using human power propels the rider forward. It can move quickly or slowly, keep the operator upright or tip over, sending the rider to the ground. It has been praised and cursed over the years and, after all the hoopla, it is more popular than ever.
When we think of this vehicle today, we sometimes think of it as streamlined, highly polished with an advanced metal lightweight frame. But it wasn’t always that way. It had its share of early primitive years.
The beginning of the bicycle, or “wheel” as it was called, seems to have had its start with a Frenchman in about 1864. A few years later, a New Yorker tinkered with the basic design and Americans were in the bicycle business. By the 1870s, the somewhat odd-looking “high wheel” variety made its appearance, but it didn’t stay around long. It was just too awkward and unsafe — enter the more traditional style.
Just exactly when the bicycle first appeared on the streets of Visalia has been lost to history, but in 1892, the “safety bicycle” — so-called because of the improvements made to the high wheel — was relatively common. Even though there were plenty of them, it was apparent that the bicycle was still a recent arrival when the Rev. A.W. Hunsaker and his team of horses were startled by one of them. The surprise encounter caused $25 worth of damage to the holy man’s buggy.
There were other sightings that year as well. Earl Kimball, a youngster who worked for the Daily Visalia Delta, was spotted delivering newspapers on his new Credenda brand bike, complete with “cushion” tires. Hattie Kay, wife of Tulare County Sheriff Eugene Kay, got one, too. Then there was a cycling group at the Admission Day Parade that delighted the crowd with its bicycle “lantern” display.
Some riders were not content with just leisurely moving along the streets. Walter Geldert, for example, liked to put his bicycle and his physical endurance to the test with speed runs to neighboring towns. On one occasion, he made the trip between Visalia and Porterville in slightly more than 3 hours and, on another, he traveled the 12-mile jaunt to Tulare in 56 minutes, a good time even though a pesky flock of sheep wandered onto his path, delaying him.
By 1895, Visalia had two bicycle shops. One was owned by Walcott & Wall. Not only did the shop sell them, it repaired them and even rented them by the hour, day and week. In the following year, Leila Lawrence, a Visalia lad considered to be one of the town’s best riders, decided that a bicycle count needed to be taken. His tally revealed that the town had 86 bicycles owned by individuals with 27 different brands represented — the Rambler being the most popular by far.
But the bicycle was not without controversy. In many circles, women who wanted to ride were expected to wear the normal “lady-like” dress. But this attire posed a problem, so knickers or bloomers came on the scene. Many resisted the new clothing style. One local newspaper editor was such a bitter enemy of bloomers that he “sold his bicycle and gave up wheeling because several of his lady acquaintances announced their intention of wearing that bifurcated garment [bloomers].” Bicycles and bloomers stayed in Visalia and throughout the country, causing Susan B. Anthony to proudly comment, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
Despite its critics, the bicycle stayed and its popularity grew. But as with anything wildly popular, it attracted thieves. Joe Roemer, the well-known Palm Garden saloonkeeper, kept his Rambler bicycle inside his establishment. Despite this safeguard, someone took it from the card room. Then there was Marcel Howard. He worked at the French Laundry and one day he took a fellow worker’s bicycle to Fresno without permission. His transgression was discovered and he was arrested by authorities there. Visalia Marshal Bob Watson picked up the man and returned him to Visalia in shackles. For his grand larceny, Howard was sentenced to one year in San Quentin. Not unexpectedly, the popularity of the two-wheel phenomena brought about the need for regulation.
On one occasion, the local newspaper forcefully pointed out that one of the biggest problems in town was cyclists riding on sidewalks. The paper facetiously reported, “Bicycle riders are so numerous on the sidewalks of Visalia that there is serious talk of building ‘double deckers’ to accommodate people who walk.” Then there was the problem of cyclists speeding, or “scorching,” as many called it. The Delta newspaper warned, “If you must scorch, don’t do so on a crowded street.” But the Visalia Board of Trustees (City Council) wanted to put some teeth in the admonishment. In 1896, it passed an ordinance requiring bicycle riders not to travel faster than 6 mph on Main Street or more than 8 mph on other streets.
But for those who craved speed, there were opportunities to do it legally. Visalia had authorized bicycle races. There was even a 6-mile course northwest of town. But despite the racing track, most races were on city streets as part of a city-sanctioned activity. Bicycle races frequently became an event, especially as part of a holiday celebration. In 1899, for example, bicycles played a big part in the Independence Day festivities. At 10 a.m., the parade began at Court and Main streets with cyclists from Porterville, Hanford, Dinuba, Goshen and Visalia taking part in the procession. Following that, several street races of various lengths for both adults and children were held. There was even a Chinese bicycle race.
As Visalia entered the 20th century, bicycles continued to be a popular form of pleasure and transportation. They moved from curiosity to commonplace. For more than 130 years, the bicycle has been an important part of Visalia’s past, and this two-wheel marvel deserves a prominent place in the history of the town.
The Trader’s Union store in the 200 block of West Main Street sold bicycles. Circa 1905.
The bicycle was a popular form of transportation. Here, one can be seen parked at Askin Plumbing in the 200 block of West Main.
Numerous bicycles can be seen in front of the Visalia Bakery in the 200 block of East Main Street. Circa 1898.