Madison exhibit tracks history of bicycling in Wisconsin

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By Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 11, 2015

MADISON—Among the historic bicycles included in a new exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum is a small, slightly beat-up bike built in 2012.

It's much younger than the 1868 Sargent velocipede, an all-wood Crabtree Special ridden from Madison to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and an ornately carved mono-wheel. But the Razor 3Sixty bike is a part of Wisconsin's bicycling history.

Because it was ridden by a very large Green Bay Packer.

“Shifting Gears: A Cyclical History of Badger Bicycling” spotlights the state's unusual and rich heritage on two wheels, ranging from bicycle manufacturers and a tourism industry that has catered to bicyclists since the 1890s to advocacy efforts to build better roads and bike trails in the state.

The exhibit opened Feb. 27 at the museum on Madison's Capitol Square and runs through Oct. 10 before moving to the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton in November. At 2,800 square feet, “Shifting Gears” is the largest temporary exhibit at the museum in 15 years.

Among the artifacts is a bike whose tires surely groaned under the 298-pound frame of Packers center Corey Linsley as he rode across Lambeau Field's parking lot between the team's practice field and locker room. The tradition of kids offering their bikes to players started in the 1970s. Museum visitors also will be able to pedal a Wisconsin-built Saris stationary bike while watching a video filmed last summer of Packer defensive back Micah Hyde as he rides to practice with a camera attached to the handle bars.

The Packers bicycle “very much fits with the content of this show,” said Joe Kapler, curator of cultural history for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Bicycles, in the form of bone-rattling velocipedes, began showing up in Wisconsin a few years after the Civil War as the contraption worked its way in popularity from Europe to the East Coast and westward across the United States.

Wisconsin played a crucial role in two national bicycling eras: the 1890s, when hordes of pedaling tourists came to Wisconsin's relatively flat landscape, and the 2000s, as the state earned a name for precision bicycles from manufacturers including Trek Corp. and Waterford Precision Cycles.

“It's a uniquely Wisconsin commuter story,” Kapler said. “Sometimes you do an exhibition and the contents might not be familiar to many visitors. But almost everybody has ridden a bike.”

The idea for the exhibit grew out of the popularity of the 2013 book “Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State” by Jesse Gant and Nicholas Hoffman, published by Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The exhibit features 23 bicycles, photos and interactive displays. Artifacts include jerseys worn by Wisconsin racers, a bugle used by 19th-century wheel men to signal each other into formations, and bike lights, from an acetyline-based lamp made in Kenosha at Badger Brass Manufacturing Co. to an LED-powered light from Planet Bike in Madison.

Bicycling exploded in popularity soon after the contraptions came to the U.S., though initially it was only strong and wealthy men who could control the bikes and afford to ride them.

The front wheel ballooned, making it quicker to cover more ground but more dangerous—the term “taking a header” arose from riders vaulting over handlebars. Then chain technology, which started in Europe in the 1870s, transformed the industry as wheels shrank and bikes became safer and easier to ride, Hoffman said.

They also moved indoors.

“It's hard to ride outside in the winter,” Hoffman said. “So they made these indoor velocipede rinks in cities as small as Fox Lake and of course in Milwaukee.”

By the 1890s when bicycles had become cheaper and easier to ride, Wisconsin had transformed itself into a bicycling destination because of its scenic beauty, relatively flat terrain and fairly good roads. Curators digitized several pages of a 138-page guide from 1897 that was given to bicycle tourists in Wisconsin. The book features maps of roads and bicycle trails, hotels and bicycle repair shops.

Bicycle racing was huge during the 1890s when Wisconsin champion racers Walter Sanger and Terry Andrae were winning trophies. Andrae was nicknamed “the Flying Badger,” and his father opened Julius Andrae and Sons Bicycle Shop in Milwaukee. Thousands of people bought tickets to watch cyclists race.

“It's right up there with boxing and baseball. It's one of the top three sports in Wisconsin,” Hoffman said.

While some of the items came from the Wisconsin Historical Society archives and collections, curators also acquired artifacts on loan from museums and collectors around the state. All of the bicycles are either made in Wisconsin or noteworthy to Badger bicycling history, including a 1917 Harley-Davidson bicycle, a gorgeous 1941 Schwinn Autocycle and the first B-cycle checked out from a rack in Madison when the bike-sharing business opened in May 2011.

Another bicycle tells the story of an unsolved mystery. Included in the exhibit is a Victor Model C bicycle just like the one ridden by Frank Lenz on his around-the-world quest. The Philadelphia man left Pennsylvania in 1892 and headed west across the U.S., stopping in Wisconsin on his way to San Francisco.

Lenz traveled through Japan and China, Burma and Iran. Sponsored by Outing magazine, Lenz filed photos and dispatches along his journey. While traveling from Tabriz, Iran, to Erzurum, Turkey, in 1894, he disappeared. Lenz was never seen again. Neither was his bicycle.

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