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Dayhoff: Viva la bicyclette de Carroll County: Local cycling traced back to 19th century

Couples such as this enjoyed bicycling during the summers in the past in Westminster. This undated photo from approximately 1898 was taken when Main Street in Westminster was still dirt, in front of William Keefer’s grocery store at 86 East Main Street in Westminster – near where the old post office was later located.
Couples such as this enjoyed bicycling during the summers in the past in Westminster. This undated photo from approximately 1898 was taken when Main Street in Westminster was still dirt, in front of William Keefer’s grocery store at 86 East Main Street in Westminster – near where the old post office was later located. (HIstorical Society of Carroll County)

Although the eyes of the bicycling world are currently on the Tour de France, did you know that there were several celebrated bicycle races in Carroll County long before the first Tour de France in 1903?

On Sept. 4, 1897 the Westminster American Sentinel newspaper carried an article which reported, “The bicycle season is at its height. The weather is perfect and the roads in splendid condition. Everybody has taken to the wheel, and the cool weather has made long distance riding quite the vogue…”

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The article was found as a result of research by historian Jay Graybeal for the Historical Society of Carroll County. The article further reports, “We are informed on good authority that the largest century run ever starting from this county will shortly be called. The route will be from Westminster to Wrightsville Pa. on the banks of the Susquehanna, and return, a distance of 104 miles. As this is an easy [race,] it ought to be patronized by a great many ladies as well as gentlemen…”

According to Graybeal, “The approach of cooler fall weather opened the bicycle season for local residents [over] a century ago. Cycling had become a favorite pastime for men and women alike by the 1890s and local clubs, such as the Cycling Ramblers organized outings for their members…”

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Other research by the Historical Society tells us the first bicycle sold in Westminster “was in 1883, and in 1884 the [Cycling Ramblers] took its first excursion, going up the Valley of Virginia to the Natural Bridge in Rockbridge county, about 150 miles from Harper’s Ferry. The club was the third organized in the state, the first being in Baltimore, and the second in Frederick…”

The September 1897 article went on to explain, “Incidentally some records have been broken by some of our local men… Wm. F. Long, paced by Wm. A. Stultz and Wm. Null, lowered the records between here and Reisterstown from 42 to 35 minutes on Sunday …

“Mr. Elmer C. Davis, the holder of the world’s 24-hour road record, visited … last Sunday, and … broke the unpaced records from Westminster to Baltimore, making the ride in one hour, thirty-two minutes and three-fifth seconds …”

Thanks to research for the Historical Society by historian Mary Ann Ashcraft, much of the history of the bicycle in Carroll County has been brought to life. On June 25, 1898, the American Sentinel wrote that “Thursday, the 30th day of June, will be the greatest day among cyclists in Carroll County that has ever occurred in its history. The great Bicycle Race Meet under the supervision of the Cycling Ramblers of Westminster, the third oldest club of its character in the State… Carroll County has between four and five thousand riders in the race…

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“Every place of business in Westminster will promptly close at 12 o’clock noon on the day of the meet, and the city will be put in holiday attire in honor of the event.”

The “Cycling Ramblers,” had 15 uniformed members in 1887 and according to Graybeal, “was organized like a militia company of its day. Westminster jeweler A. H. Wentz was the Captain and John H. Cunningham was his Lieutenant; I. S. Weaver was the organization’s bugler.”

However, for those who may ponder what it may have been like to ride a bike in those days on dirt roads without cars; do not overlook the challenges of awkwardly interacting on the road with horse-drawn wagons and buggies. According to an article in the April 1896 Democratic Advocate newspaper bicycling was considered dangerous, “The Bicycle is a foreign invention...

“Those sky-scrapers, with one large wheel and a little one behind, with the riders up in the clouds, were of English invention, and were first imported in this country about twenty years ago... (They are) dangerous, and yet their use was spreading.”

As a matter of fact, on August 28, 1897 the American Sentinel reported, “Mr. G. W. Yeiser, of Union Mills, while returning from the Granger’s picnic at Williams Grove, Pa., on his bicycle, about 8 o’clock, Wednesday evening, collided with a two horse buggy, on the Littlestown turnpike, near LeFevre’s Station… (He) was knocked insensible into the ditch by the roadside…” In addition to bicycle accidents, there was a steady diet of newspaper articles about sensational horse and buggy accidents in the 1800s.

Meanwhile, this year, a delayed Tour de France bicycle race, originally slated for June 27 through July 19, began in Nice, France, on Aug. 29. The race has traditionally taken place in June and July, however COVID-19 delayed the race this year. According to a recent article by the Associated Press, “the number of daily COVID-19 cases has been rising steadily across France, prompting concerns the Tour will have to be stopped if the situation deteriorates further… The AP article referred to this year’s Tour as the “strangest Tour ever…” That is saying a lot.

The Tour de France is reported to be the largest sporting event in the world. In the past it was not uncommon for as many as 15 million spectators to line the route to personally witness the race — at no charge. And what they will see will whirl past them in approximately 30 to 40 seconds.

For those not familiar with the Tour de France, it is dangerous, complex, and highly choreographed — if not ritualized. It is an exotic annual cycling event that very well may be considered the high opera of world sports. Every year the intrigue, mystery, drama, crashes, and much debated inevitable controversy is almost as exciting as the actual race itself. This year much of the tension will center upon whether the French authorities allow the race to finish.

The year 2020 is certainly a strange trip in search of reality — whatever that is?

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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