Editor's Note: This article is part of a regular monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
As we delve into the history of Webster City, sometimes surprising tidbits of information pop up. Those gems remind us that there is definitely "nothing new under the sun."
From the July 13, 1888 issue of the Webster City Tribune came the one sentence statement, "The State bicycle club will pass through this city, on their annual tour to Spirit Lake, Thursday, July 19th, remaining for the night."
- Submitted photo
Charles Whitacre, William G. Bale, Fred F. Cash, Charles Crary, Nick O'Connor, Turner Welch, Elon Lee, Clint Slack, John Clifton, John M. Richardson, Charles Kearns, Bert Arthur, Emil Beck and Ed Lecky were the original members of the Webster City Wheelmen. Bale and Cash were two of the four men who rode the old-style 'high wheelers.”
It was rather astonishing to read that Webster City was slated to be an overnight town on a bicycle tour 124 years ago.
The state bicycle club referred to was the Iowa Wheelmen, an Iowa division of the League of American Wheelmen, formed by representatives from different parts of the state in June of 1884. These young men embraced the new form of healthful recreation by cycling about their towns and the state despite unimproved roads. The 1888 tour was slated to begin in Grinnell and to pass through Marshalltown, Eldora, Iowa Falls, Webster City, Ft. Dodge, Humboldt, Algona, Emmetsburg and Estherville to end in Spirit Lake a week later for the Iowa State regatta. The majority of the bikers on this tour probably were riding the newly available "safety bicycle."
The new "safety bicycle," similar to what we ride today, became the bike of choice to replace the dangerous "high wheelers" during the mid-1880's. Initially priced at $125 to $200 dollars, only young professional men and wealthy families could afford them.
Local residents embraced the hobby, with the young professional downtown businessmen being the most enthusiastic. In fact, in early 1891, the group, numbering 15, formed the Webster City Wheelmen. Four of the riders still rode the old-style "high wheeler" while the remainder sported the fashionable "safety bike." They purchased fancy, matching riding togs and toured about the county on weekend excursions. They decorated their bikes and rode as the Bicycle Brigade during local parades, performing a manual of drill on the march. After the parades, they participated in bicycle races at the current fairgrounds with classes for the "high wheelers" and the "safety bicycle."
It appears that the club only existed in early 1891, as the local newspapers soon reported on "the number of young ladies who have become expert bicycle riders."
All of the Webster City newspapers published ads from out-of-state manufacturers and local businesses promoting the bicycle. The ads were for both the new "safety" bike and the old- style "high wheeler." The ads boasted of single tube tires, detachable sprockets and saddles, brakes, lamp brackets and new pedals. Ladies bikes were advertised with a double curve drop frame with dress and mud guards, weighing 37 pounds. The men's bikes were advertised to weigh in at 30 to 35 pounds.
Historians assert that the invention of the "safety bicycle" aided in the liberation of women from the confining Victorian era. The machine allowed women the freedom of travel, the freedom to tour the country and the freedom of healthful exercise. The greatest freedom gained, however, was said to be the release from the constraints of the Victorian fashions of heavy skirts and confining body corsets. By necessity, the women bicycle riders came up with bloomers to more freely participate in the sport. The daring bloomers were criticized by male doctors as unhealthful and by men of all ages as unfeminine.
Bicycle repair and supply shops opened and thrived in every community. F. F. Dalbey and the Smisor Brothers each had shops off main street. The Smisor Brothers also manufactured the Neff Adjustable Handle Bicycle Bar invented and patented by Charles W. Neff, an employee of W. J. Zitterell Construction Company, a Webster City business. The bar featured a spring in the middle of the handle bar mount which absorbed shock and made riding more enjoyable. The Smisor firm, along with the city's Commercial Club forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce - even attempted to lure a Chicago firm, a manufacturer of bicycle hangers, to town.
Bike trail plans
There were plans for a bike trail to Fort Dodge and a possible recreational area devoted to cycling, none of which reached maturity.
Cyclists were quick to realize that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line and began utilizing the railroad train tracks and right of ways as thoroughfares. Often times these routes offered a much improved surface over the muddy, unpaved roads. However, numerous accidents prompted the railroads to ban such use of their land. Laws were passed making it a crime to use the tracks and surrounding lands for cycling. In self-defense, after several cyclists were killed by trains on the tracks, the railroads began erecting barbed wire fences to discourage use.
As more and more bicycles appeared on the streets of Webster City, citizens began to complain about cyclists riding on the sidewalks and other safety matters. In response, in May of 1896, the Webster City City Council passed a new bicycle ordinance which provided that all wheels be equipped at night with a bell and lamp and during the day with a bell; that no wheelman could ride on the business streets at a speed greater than eight miles an hour; that not more than three wheels could run side by side and that it was unlawful to ride on the sidewalks in any part of the city. The fine for violation of any of the provisions was up to $25 for each offense.
The City Council passed the ordinance on a Monday to take effect on the following Friday. On that Friday night, May 15, 1896, Webster City Tribune reported that bicyclists appeared on the city streets observing the ordinance with a vengeance.
"No less than 25 boys and girls appeared upon the streets with cow bells, dinner horns, dinner bells and sleigh bells and the noise they created was enough to cause a stranger to believe that a band of calithumpians had been turned loose for noon. The Marshal sent for the Mayor and together they proceeded to divest the boys of their instruments of alarm in the most approved fashion. It was all in fun and the spectators seemed to enjoy it hugely."
Just a week later, a poking-fun-at-Webster City news report in the Alden Times expanded the number of revelers to 100 and stated that as punishment for the demonstration, the council now threatens to legislate the bicycle out of town. The Alden Times report continued, "Webster City is the same town that has the compulsory hay scales and the man who invented the barbed wire telephone."
By the late 1890's, as the bike craze spread across the county, the financial panic of 1893 and European imports brought the price of the now mass-produced product down to where just about everyone could afford the new sport. The frenzy vanished and bicycling became just another part of American life.
And what about the 75 Iowa Wheelmen on the July 1888 bike tour expected to overnight in Webster City? It rained hard that July week, making the roads impassable. The Iowa Wheelmen, having their fill of wet conditions and muddy roads, loaded their bikes on the train at Iowa Falls and enjoyed a dry, comfortable ride to Spirit Lake. The town of Williams had also prepared a full lunch for them on the day they were expected to pass through on their way to Webster City. It wasn't until a week later that Williams and Webster City learned that their no-show visitors had hopped the train to their vacation destination.
This July, Webster City will extend a warm welcome to the thousands of bikers expected to overnight here on the RAGBRAI tour. It's for sure that they will show up and their visit will be no problem to Webster City residents - the roads are paved and we have 124 years of experience preparing for them.