Category Archives: Literary musings

The 10 best books about bicycling

Bicycling and books are two topics that I can get pretty excited about. So a combination of the two is sure to catch my attention.
Such an instance is an online compilation by the editors of Bicycling magazine of the 10 best books about bicycling.
Topping that list, at No. 1, is a book by a friend, David Herlihy, Bicycle: The History, which Bicycling called “a comprehensive guide to the early evolution of the bicycle.”
David’s book, published in 2004 by Yale University Press, has proved to be an excellent reference for posts in this blog.
He is also the author of the 2010 book The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of An American Adventurer and His Disappearance, about which I’ve written in this blog.

David Herlihy

Here’s what Bicycling magazine had to say about Bicycle: The History:
Filled with anecdotes from the late 19th and early 20th century, along with hundreds of photos, drawings and catalog excerpts, this is a book that can be consumed in bits, browsed or read with careful attention.
Herlihy examines not just the machines and riders, but the changes in society and the world brought about by “the poor man’s horse.” The marketing of bicycles, the role of the machine in liberating women from the confines of Victorian society, the development of paved roads, and other tales fill more than 400 pages, yet the book does not drag or feel padded.

Thomas McCall on his rear-driven velocipede in 1869. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While Herlihy’s history gives context to our current age, those looking for details on modern developments had best look elsewhere. No single book can adequately cover so broad a subject with such a long and rich history, so Herlihy has wisely chosen to focus the bulk of his energies in examining the first 50 years of bicycling.
Here’s the rest of the list of Bicycling’s 10 best books:
The Dancing Chain: History and Development of the Derailleur Bicycle, Frank Berto
Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, Dervla Murphy
Ghost Trails: Journeys Through a Lifetime, Jill Homer
Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet, Mia Birk
Major Taylor: The Extraordinary Career of a Champion Bicycle Racer, Andrew Ritchie
Need for the Bike, Paul Fournel
Park Tool Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair, C. Calvin Jones
Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France, Richard Moore
The Wonderful Ride: Being the true journal of Mr. George T. Loher who in 1895 cycled from coast to coast on his Yellow Fellow wheel, George T. Loher


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Filed under Americana, Literary musings, Travels

A hometown hero, long forgotten

Little did I know, until I made the acquaintance of author David Herlihy, that one of the pioneers of long-distance bicycling was from my hometown, Alton, Ill.

David Herlihy

Although I fancy myself a history buff, I had never heard of William Sachtleben as I was growing up in Alton, on the Mississippi River just upstream from St. Louis.
Herlihy wrote about Sachtleben in his 2010 book, The Lost Cyclist, which takes its name from the mysterious case of Frank Lenz. Lenz, of Pittsburgh, was bicycling around the world east to west when he went missing in 1894 in a lawless area of eastern Turkey.
Sachtleben, who had just completed a round-the-world cycling trip in the opposite direction with Thomas Allen Jr., was dispatched on an unsuccessful mission to find Lenz by Outing magazine, which had been publishing reports from Lenz on his journey.
Now, Herlihy has written a magazine piece bout the globe-girdling trip of Sachtleben and Allen, fellow graduates of Washington University in St. Louis who became national heroes just as the “golden age” of cycling in America was about to begin.
“The day after graduation, in June 1890, the men boarded a train to New York City, and thence a steamer to Liverpool, England, where they promptly purchased a pair of Singer safeties, with hard tires,” Herlihy writes in the August issue of Washington, the magazine of Washington University.
“They intended merely to spend the summer tooling around the British Isles. But they enjoyed that experience so much that they resolved to continue pedaling eastward, taking ships only when necessary, until they had completed a global circuit.”
The most arduous leg of that trip was the passage across Siberia and northern China, including a trek through the Gobi Desert. The journey was chronicled in their book Across Asia on a Bicycle: The journey of two American students from Constantinople to Peking.
The pair had with them a newly introduced Kodak film camera, with which they chronicled their travels photographically. David said in a message exchange today that UCLA is scanning some 400 nitrate negatives shot by Sachtleben and Allen and hopes to have the results in about a month. I’ll certainly post some of the best.
Sachtleben and Allen, unfortunately, are little remembered today in their hometowns.
Allen, who lived in the St. Louis suburbs of Ferguson and Kirkwood, became an engineer. Sachtleben eventually settled in Houston, where he was the longtime manager of the Majestic Theater.
The house of Sachtleben’s youth still stands in Alton, on the corner of Seventh and Langdon Streets in an old neighborhood dotted with beautifully restored Victorian homes that the town is noted for.
Born in Alton on March 29, 1866, of German parentage, Sachtleben graduated from Alton High School, the cross-town rival of my alma mater, Marquette High School. His house, which I photographed on a recent visit, was only a few blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which was called “the German church” when my paternal grandparents were married there in 1907.
Both Alton and St. Louis had thriving communities of German immigrants at the time.
Shortly before his death in 1953, Sachtleben paid a visit to his old hometown and stopped in at the Alton Evening Telegraph on Oct. 28, 1952, for a chat with editor Paul Cousley, whose family still owned the newspaper when I worked there part-time as a college student in the 1960s.

The Sachtleben house, Alton, Ill.

“‘I have often thought of Alton,’ the eighty-six-year-old confided to Cousley, Herlihy wrote in the prologue to The Lost Cyclist. ‘Of my loving mother, also born here, who left us children so early in life, and of my self-sacrificing father, who said to me as we walked down the hill to the Chicago & Alton railroad station the day after my graduation from Washington College: “Well, son, stay away until you get your fill.” Added the aged adventurer with a sly smile: ‘I reckon I did just that.’”
In Sachtleben’s youth, the exploits of globe-trotting bicyclists were much like those of pioneer aviators in later generations. They were national figures on a par with a Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart.
But when the aging Sachtleben dropped in to visit Cousley in 1952, he was largely forgotten, even in the town where he was born and raised.
“Time was when Will Sachtleben was a popular hero in Alton, known to everyone,” the editor wrote in his newspaper with a tinge of nostalgia the day after his meeting with Sachtleben. “His fame was nationwide, and wider still, because of his daring deeds.”


Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels

A winter reading list

It’s cold and rainy today in North Texas, a crappy day to be out on a bicycle. For a retired guy like me, it’s a fine day to tuck into a good book.

Photo by April Streeter

So I’m pleased to report that April Streeter, who writes and blogs on bicycling and environmental issues in Portland, Ore., has put together a list of 10 relatively new books on biking for just such winter days as today.
The eclectic list, on the Treehugger website, includes an urban cyclist’s survival guide, a book of 50 essays on how “the new bike culture can change your life,” and three books on the history of early cycling, including a children’s book and one on “how women rode the bicycle to freedom.”
The only book on Streeter’s list that I currently have is one of the three on cycling history, The Lost Cyclist by David V. Herlihy, which I’ve already read and reviewed. (See March 26, 2010, blog post, “The search for the lost cyclist.”)
So I guess I’ll spend a chunk of the day re-reading John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in advance of seeing the new movie based on the book.


Filed under Environment, History, Literary musings, Urban cycling

The neighborhood heathens

I don’t have to guess what some preachers in the 1890s would have made of our neighborhood bicycling group riding on Sunday mornings.
History tells us that we’d be castigated as a band of heathens, out on our “diabolical devices of the demon of darkness” while righteous, God-fearing people are sitting in pews rather than on bicycle saddles — or worse, on a barstool for a post-ride beer.
I was prompted to make this excursion into bicycling history by a random Internet search for cycling images. It turned up one from the July 21, 1897, edition of Puck magazine, which envisioned what hell would be like for bicyclists who don’t attend church on Sunday morning.

A vision of a bicyclists' hell from the July 21, 1897, edition of Puck magazine, contemplating the fate of nonobservant bicyclists who spent their Sunday mornings in the saddle rather than a pew

The decade of the 1890s was considered the golden age of bicycling in America, a time during which the New York Tribune trumpeted in 1895, perhaps with a shade of hyperbole: “The discovery and progressive improvement of the bicycle is of more importance to mankind than all the victories and defeats of Napoleon, with the First and Second Punic Wars … thrown in.” Wow!
The U.S. Census Bureau offered a more sober assessment of the previous decade in its report on the 1900 census: “Few articles ever used by man have ever created so great a revolution in social conditions.”
But that revolution, which included such changes as easier social interaction between the sexes and more streamlined items of female attire, such as shorter, more form-fitting skirts, didn’t sit well with some who saw themselves as guardians of public morality.
According to a 1995 book, Merry Wheels and Spokes of Steel: A Social History of the Bicycle by Robert A. Smith, an unidentified Baltimore preacher railed in 1896:
“These bladder-wheeled bicycles are diabolical devices of the demon of darkness. They are contrivances to trap the feet of the unwary and skin the nose of the innocent. They are full of guile and deceit. When you think you have broken one to ride, and subdued its wild and Satanic nature, behold, it bucketh you off in the road and teareth a great hole in your pants. Look not on the bike when it bloweth upon its wheels, for at last it bucketh like a bronco and hurteth like thunder. Who has skinned legs? Who has a bloody nose? Who has ripped breeches? They that dally along with the bicycle.”
I myself have suffered skinned knees, “ripped breeches” and a fractured collar bone while dallying with a bicycle. Maybe I should have attributed those pratfalls to Satan rather than to a defective inner tube, debris on the road or just plain carelessness.

Man with a penny farthing

The 19th-century obsession with the bicycle actually began in the 1870s with the “ordinary” bicycle, sometimes called the “high wheel” or the “penny farthing” because it had a big front wheel like the English penny and a small rear wheel like a farthing. But the bicycle craze really took off in the 1880s with the introduction of the “safety” bicycle, one with two wheels of equal size and pneumatic tires.
“Millions of riders rode around the nation’s cities, wore bicycle clothes purchased at bicycle shops, read bicycle publications, attended bicycle training academies, watched bicycle races, formed bicycle clubs, rode in urban velodromes, and agitated for legislation to promote bicycling,” says a page on highway history on the website of the Federal Highway Administration.
“When a craze of any kind really catches on in this republic, restraint does not characterize its reception,” wrote Fred C. Kelly in “The Great Bicycle Craze,” an article published in the December 1956 edition of American Heritage magazine.
The “craze attracted attention in churches, too, where it drew mixed reviews,” Ron Spreng wrote in the journal Minnesota History in the summer 1995 issue. Some preachers censured bicycles as tools of Satan and threatened to excommunicate cyclists, Spreng wrote in an article on the history of the bicycling craze in Minnesota’s Red River Valley. But other men of the cloth “proclaimed the sport a symbol of human progress to be used to carry the gospel to the lost.”
“Some pastors were forced out of their pulpits for riding,” Spreng wrote, “but in the Red River Valley at least two ministers took to the road, the Rev. Longfellow wheeling to Grand Forks ‘by the bike route’ after delivering ‘a lecture at the Detroit Lakes summer assembly’ and the Rev. A.T. Foster completing a 100-mile ‘century’ ride from Casselton to Grand Forks.

Some preachers figured, "If you can't beat them, join them."

“The Grand Forks Herald, quick to support bicycling, endorsed a plan to encourage cyclists to attend church by providing racks, pointing out that ‘cyclers are numerous’ and ‘to a great extent young and in the fullest need of the instruction and guidance which the church offers them.’ A Baptist church threw in its lot with the cyclists when the women’s group sponsored a popular bicycle social.”
I’m relieved that times have changed somewhat since then. No one, as yet, has threatened our excommunication from polite society or ministered to us on the road. Nevertheless, perhaps we should call our neighborhood cycling group “The Heathens of Mistletoe Heights.” Now that would look cool on a jersey.


Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, History, Literary musings, Urban cycling

Wheels of change

Susan B. Anthony

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” pioneer women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony declared in 1896 at the height of America’s craze for a new form of transportation and recreation.
“I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.”
Those changes in society wrought by the bicycle — in social interaction between the sexes, in women’s clothing, in perceptions of women’s physical capabilities — are explored in a new children’s book by Sue Macy, Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way).
Published by National Geographic and issued Jan. 11, the book is aimed at children aged 10 and older and contains 25 color illustrations, some of which are shown in a slideshow below.
A mini-review of the book on the website cites this quote from Munsey’s Magazine 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.”
From the publisher’s synopsis:
“Take a lively look at women’s history from aboard a bicycle, which granted females the freedom of mobility and helped empower women’s liberation. Through vintage photographs, advertisements, cartoons, and songs, Wheels of Change transports young readers to bygone eras to see how women used the bicycle to improve their lives. Witty in tone and scrapbook-like in presentation, the book deftly covers early (and comical) objections, influence on fashion, and impact on social change inspired by the bicycle …”

Annie Kopchovsky

Among the story’s in Macy’s book is that of a pioneer female cyclist whom I had written about previously in this blog, Annie Cohen Kopchovsky.
Kopchovsky, who used the name Annie Londonderry, was a Latvian-born Jew and the working mother of three who sought to escape her humdrum life in the tenements of Boston’s West End by setting off around the world on a bicycle in the mid-1890s. (See April 29, 2010, post, “Books about biking.”)
My wife is a librarian at a Fort Worth elementary school. Macy’s book would seem to be an excellent addition to the school’s library.

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Sunday riders

“Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling.”
— James E. Starrs, editor of the book The Literary Cyclist: Great Bicycling Scenes in Literature, 1999

Nearly every Sunday morning for the past several years, a group of friends and neighbors — sometimes as many as 15 — have gathered in Mistletoe Heights, a neighborhood on Fort Worth’s Near South Side, for a bike ride ranging in distance from about 20 to 35 miles.
Here is a photo that I shot during a break in the ride on Sunday, the first day of spring. The group was small because some of the usuals were out of town or otherwise indisposed.
From left to right: Phil Love, Rick Lee, Erik Hansen, Jeff Gibbons and Ralph Watterson. Yes, during the spring and summer, Ralph usually rides in a Hawaian shirt.


Filed under Literary musings, Urban cycling

Kissin’ Jenny and Buckshot Dot

“Oh, that glass! I woke up thirsty in the night, and, do you know, I’ve been having a crazy dream ever since that I swallowed a marble.”
— Quote attributed to Kissin’ Jenny

One of the most interesting bits of feedback since I began writing this blog two years ago comes from a woman with the nom de plume “Buckshot Dot.”

Buckshot Dot

Buckshot Dot, whose real name is Dee Strickland Johnson, is an author and poet of some renown with a speciality in the “cowboy” genre. She had stumbled across a June 10, 2009, post to Jim’s Bike Blog about how Phoenix became the Arizona state capital rather than Prescott or Tucson. Figuring prominently in the tale are a prostitute called “Kissin’ Jenny” and a vain state legislator with a glass eye.
I had unearthed this nugget of Arizona trivia while doing research on the places I would pass through during a transcontinental bicycle ride along the Southern Tier of the United States, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., in the autumn of 2009. It was too good not to post.
Buckshot Dot, I learned in an exchange of e-mails, has also told the story of Kissin’ Jenny in a book of verse called Arizona Women — Weird, Wild and Wonderful. The book, published by Cowboy Miner Productions of Phoenix, won a Will Rogers Medallion Award in 2007 for “outstanding achievement in the publishing of cowboy poetry.” The Western Music Association named it the “cowboy poetry book of the year” for 2008.
Kissin’ Jenny plied her trade in the latter half of the 19th century when Arizona was still a rambunctious territory and its legislators couldn’t seem to make up their minds on where the capital should be.
“Arizona’s first Territorial Capital was Prescott in 1864, next was the old town of Tucson in 1867, and Prescott once again in 1877,” Buckshot Dot wrote in her e-mail. “In 1889 the 15th Legislature met at Prescott to determine which town would be awarded the capital — Prescott in Yavapai County, Tucson in Pima County or that upstart town between them known as Phoenix in Maricopa County.”
Politicians then, as now, were not above using a bit of chicanery to achieve their goals, and that’s where Kissin’ Jenny figures in the story.
“Knowing that the vote would be close, the Maricopa delegates needed to ensure that a Yavapai County delegate would miss the crucial vote,” says a three-volume 2004 work edited by Benjamin P. Shearer, The Uniting States: The Story of Statehood for the Fifty United States. “Making a deal with Kissin’ Jenny, a lady of the evening who worked in Prescott, the Maricopa delegates saw to it that their fellow legislator was delayed.”
But I’ll let Buckshot Dot tell the tale in verse:

My name is “Kissin’ Jenny”– and I’ve earned it, don’t you know.
I’m the foremost Prescott girl of my profession.
The Maricopa County gents all treated me to drinks
on the eve of that big shindig of a session.

The 15th Legislature, Arizona Territory,
from the competition, looked like quite a race!
The delegates from Prescott determined (that’s the story)
to put the capital back in it’s rightful place.

One of Yavapai’s staunch delegates, a regular of mine,
Was meticulous and vain and very proud,
He just wouldn’t venture anywhere without his fine glass eye —
much less meet with politicians in a crowd.

First he would avail himself of two or three libations;
Then he’d tap upon my door, and I would heed.
Then with terms of adulation, he would woo me for awhile,
And then the evening’s business would proceed.

On the morning when the session was fixing to convene,
He awoke and asked me, “Where is my glass eye?
I put it in a glass of water right here beside the bed!”
I said, “Bill, the best laid plans can go awry:

One of the "soiled doves" who worked in the saloons and brothels of the Old West

“In the night I woke up thirsty, and I drank that water down.
I didn’t know that your glass eye was in it!”
Well, Yavapai’s contingent were soon pounding on my door
Crying, “Hurry, Bill, we cannot spare a minute!”

Well, Bill explained the problem — how I’d swallowed his glass eye,
And had they any reason, then, to doubt it?
The delegates demanded that I cough the darn thing up!
Did they really think that I would up and spout it?

But I couldn’t — or I wouldn’t — how were they to know which one?
And they knew Bill would refuse to go without it.
And all of you know, surely, how developments transpired —
Prescott lost without Bill’s vote. You’ve heard about it.

Well, Yavapai and Pima both cursed their darn hard luck,
And Phoenix still remains the capital city
and all because some floozy got real thirsty in the night.
(Don’t you find that situation kind of witty?)

Do you think that I swallowed old William’s glass eye?
Do you think that I was paid to go and hide it?
Is there buried in the back yard a red lace camisole
With a glass eye, wrapped up carefully inside it?

I suppose that I should tell you — or shall I let you guess?
It’s been, Oh, so many long long years ago!
Did I really swallow Billy’s now famous old glass eye?
Well, now, wouldn’t you just really like to know!

“With the Yavapai County delegate unwilling to attend the legislative assembly,” says a Wikipedia entry on the affair, “the bill to move the capital to Phoenix passed by one vote.”
Legislative Act No. 1, signed by Gov. C. Meyer Zulick on Jan. 26, moved the capital to Phoenix on Feb. 4, 1889.

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Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, History, Literary musings, Politics, Travels