The Vanishing Village: Newfangled Machine Puts Salesmanship to the Test

An excerpt from "The Vanishing Village" tells of introducing the safety bicycle to a small, turn of the 20th century New York village.

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A man on his bicycle in Victorian Plymouth England, with a predecessor of the Starley diamond-frame

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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In his delightful book, The Vanishing Village, about life in a small upstate New York village around the turn of the 20th century, author Will Rose tells of the village’s first bicycle. Will’s father Abe ran a general store in the village and was one of its leading citizens.

One day Abe’s business partner, Will Elwyn, came to Abe with the news that he could get the agency for the Columbia bicycle. No one in Woodstock had yet seen the new-fangled safety bicycle; all they knew were the old high wheelers, which weren’t much good for travel on the rutted dirt roads and streets then common.

Abe was hesitant. Will assured him that if they stocked two bikes and they didn’t sell, he and Abe could ride them. Abe said, “Do you think I could learn to ride one? A man almost 40?” Will told him age had nothing to do with it and they decided to order the bikes and a line of accessories.

Soon the bikes arrived and Will, who had never ridden before, undertook to demonstrate one to a crowd of men and boys who had gathered at the store.
From Rose’s book: “Will took a bike out in front of the store and headed it toward the Dutch Reformed Church and the village green. Will said: ‘I know how this thing is done, but it may take some practice.’ He waved the crowd out of the way. ‘Can’t mount the right way,’ he said, ‘but I’ll just run alongside and jump on.’

“He got on the seat all right, and got his feet on the pedals after feeling around for them quite a spell, and with the bicycle weaving this way and that. He was beginning to pedal, but he was covering the whole road from side to side.

“Just then Will’s front wheel hit the curb that runs all around the village green, and he went right over the handlebars, kerplunk, and landed on his back on the grass.

“Will wasn’t hurt, pushed the bike back and said, ‘Now, Abe, you try it.’ Abe acted reluctant and said, ‘I wouldn’t want to break a limb or maybe my neck, you know.’ The crowd urged him on and Abe said, ‘Well, we’re in the bicycle business now, and we always rise or fall with our merchandise. But if I am going to do it, I’ll do it right. Wait a minute.’

“Abe went into the store and came out with clips on his pants legs and wearing a bicycle cap of blue and orange and a bicycle coat with stripes of blue and white in it.”

Rose continues: “My father took the red wheel with the upturned handlebars and walked out in front of the store with it. He didn’t head it past Mower’s alongside the village green, but acted as if he was going to ride right out the main street toward Snyder’s store.     

“He stood alongside the bicycle, took hold of the upturned handlebars, lifted the rear wheel and put the left pedal so that it was up on an angle toward the front wheel, and placed his left foot on this pedal. He turned to the crowd. ‘Well, boys,’ he said, ‘here goes.’ He stepped on the pedal and lifted his other leg over the bicycle, and rode off in a beeline as easy as pie. The crowd went quiet as if a big blanket had dropped over it from the sky. ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ said Ed Harder.”

When questioned later by his family, Abe admitted that he had gone to a nearby town and learned to ride ahead of time. “Folks won’t buy bicycles if they think they have to cripple themselves,” he said. “It has to look easy and pleasant and so I figured that I would prove it.” FC 

Excerpted from The Vanishing Village by Will Rose, published by Citadel Press, 1963. 

Read more about the history of bicycles in Farm Machinery Manufacturers and the Great American Bicycle Craze.