by Shannon Butler

How many of you history nerds are also avid cyclists? It was certainly comforting to discover that local bicycle shops are considered essential during our current crisis (due to the fact that they service bicycles which are considered a form of personal and commercial transportation). There is nothing quite as freeing as hopping on a bike and heading out onto the open road or rail trail and going as far as you can (until your rear end starts to hurt and then you might question the length of the ride). Long ago in the days before automotive racing, football, and basketball, bicycle races were considered to be the premier sporting event watched by thousands.

In 1883, local drugstore owner Frank J. Schwartz (seen on his Penny-Farthing Bicycle to the right) took first place at the major race of the Dutchess County Fair. Back then, bicycle races were the big attraction to see and just as popular as horse racing, perhaps because they could sometimes be more dangerous. Bicycle races at the Poughkeepsie riding park were a very common thing to see on summer nights (You can see the Poughkeepsie bicycle club’s 1893 photo on the right). For example, the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle reported in August of 1896 of the races as the main form of entertainment at St. Mary’s Gala where 3,000 people attended. The final race of the evening involved local manufacturers’ teams and near the end of the race, Homer Storm “took a tumble and ran over the tape without his wheel.” He then went back to the scene of the accident to grab his bike and run across the finish line in order to place.

At the original Madison Square Garden in NYC, the bike track was the main attraction, especially the infamous ‘Six-Day race’, where cyclists would race non-stop without food or sleep for six days. In many cases this sort of brutal excursion would cause severe fatigue leading to major crashes, pile-ups and countless broken bones. It made for a highly entertaining experience (we Americans sure do love our violent sports) and it is even said that this was the preferred sport for placing a bet and gangsters like Al Capone could easily be found track-side watching in suspense.

The bicycle also played a big role in women’s liberation as corsets and dresses were redesigned to accommodate female bicycle enthusiasts beginning in the 1880s. Women were now given the freedom to move beyond the restrictions of their clothing and it was a sign of the changing times (check out the ad for bicycle corsets on the right). Munsey’s Magazine wrote in 1896, “To men, the bicycle, in the beginning, was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.”

Hopefully you will be able to get out for a nice bike ride this weekend. There are so many great trails and historic places to bike through. Please remember to practice safe riding habits and social distancing. Also, make sure you check out “Bike Touring through Poughkeepsie” with PPLD Teen Librarian Angela as she explores some scenic places and historic landmarks on her bike. The video will be available on June 9th at 9 am.

Sources –

Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle – Sept 20th 1883

Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle – May 3rd 1897

Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle – 1891, 1894, 1895

Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle – May 15 1896

Wheels of change : how women rode the bicycle to freedom (with a few flat tires along the way) by Sue Macy, 2011 (J 796.608 Mac)