John Van Benschoten: A Man on Wheels

In the time period between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II (less than 75 years), there were a crazy amount of new and life-changing inventions being made available to the public. From the bicycle, to the automobile, to the airplane, the advancements in technology were hard to keep up with: unless you were a visionary man like John Van Benschoten. In order to supply the demands of the modern world you had to be well read on the advancements that were being made in designs, engines, wheels, tires, tools, you name it! For half a century, Mr. Van Benschoten was the man to see if you needed servicing on any of these new machines. 

The year was 1889 and a group of very athletic men charged their way down Albany Post Road from Poughkeepsie to Wappingers Falls. Leading the pack was a young man named John Van Benschoten, riding a 58-inch Expert Columbia high-wheeler bicycle (see image of him as an older man with his bike at right). John won that race and would continue to win many others over the course of the next few years. His love for bicycles inspired him to create a business around them, and in 1892, he began selling the newest models in his own store on Catharine Street. We see the first of many John Van Benschoten advertisements in the paper on March 11th, 1892. By 1894, not only was he running his business, but he also operated a bicycle school in the Winnikee Rink at the corner of Winnikee and Smith Streets (he would later use that same building to sell used cars). He wanted everyone to learn cycling, from men to women, from old to young.

At the turn of the 20th century, the new craze was the automobile. John began selling cars sporadically at first, with his first sale in August of 1900 to a dentist in Millbrook. Today, it’s hard to imagine walking into a dealership that offers both bikes and cars for sale, but by 1904, his advertisements mentioned both Oldsmobile cars and Columbia bicycles available in his showroom. In 1909, he and his wife Carolyn took a trip in one of their cars all the way to Chicago to visit various automobile factories and pick out which cars to sell. Van’s Garage (as his store became known) on Catharine Street would sell everything from Thomas Flyers, to Mitchells and Chalmers, to Fords and Dodge Brothers. He didn’t seem particularly loyal to any brand, if he liked it, he sold it. He also offered taxis for hire and car storage. 

Upon the invention of flight, John became interested in the future of airplanes. While on a trip out west in 1917, he discovered that several of the automobile manufactures that he had worked with were now building engines for planes. As cool as it was to many, John didn’t actually fly in a plane until 1941 when both of his sons, John Jr. and Wesley, joined the Army Air Corps. That seems surprisingly late considering what he had seen while venturing out west over 20 years before. In 1942, the Poughkeepsie Journal asked him if he would venture into the business of airplanes, to which he replied that he didn’t believe he would be doing much more business after the war and that it was entirely up to his sons. 

That idea quickly changed in 1946, when he traveled in his son’s plane from Chicago to Poughkeepsie and suddenly informed the press that he hoped to add airplanes to his list of business ventures: “I hope to have been in all three businesses before I die.” In the end, he stuck with automobiles and it was his sons who continued in their father’s work, though he didn’t give up working very easily. John continued to work regularly into his 80s. He died in 1965 at the age of 94. The building that once held his garage and showroom is still standing on Catharine Street. 

Poughkeepsie Journal – 11 Mar 1892, 4 May 1893, 12 Mar 1894, 25 Aug 1900, 9 Jul 1901, 28 Jun 1909, 7 Feb 1912, 30 Jun 1917, 22 Nov 1942, 9 Jun 1946, 8 Jun 1952. 

01 – Image from the Poughkeepsie Journal showing an advertisement for John Van Benschoten’s selling bicycles.
02 – Image from the Poughkeepsie Journal showing an advertisement for Van’s Garage.
03 – Photograph of John with his Expert Columbia high-wheeler bike at the Amrita Club in Poughkeepsie. – LH Collections.
04 – Image from the Poughkeepsie Journal showing John and his son Wesley on a plane.
05 – A view of Catharine Street in Poughkeepsie, Van’s Garage is in the building on the right. – LH Collections