Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: Farm machinery manufacturers, including Deere & Co., played a part in the great American bicycle craze
Bicycles have been around for a long time. France’s Comte Mede de Sivrac may or may not have invented the first one in the 1790s. Called a celerifere, the comte’s creation featured a wooden horse with a wooden wheel between the front and back legs. The rider propelled it by pushing his feet against the ground and steered by leaning. Some sources suggest that the story of the comte and his celerifere was in fact invented by another Frenchman in 1891.
It does seem likely, however, that in about 1818 Baron Karl von Drais of Germany came up with a steerable walking machine that he could use to sort of ride around his palace gardens. The baron’s machine was introduced in Paris, where it was called a draisienne. This machine was later brought to Great Britain, where it became known as a hobby-horse or dandy horse.
In 1861 in Paris, Pierre Michaux and his son Ernest attached two cranks that could be rotated by the rider’s feet to the front wheel of a draisienne, allowing it to be pedaled. In 1866, French mechanic Pierre Lallement showed up in New Haven, Conn., where, with James Carroll, Ansonia, Conn., he was awarded the first U.S. bicycle patent.
In order to get more speed, the front wheels of these early hobby-horses kept growing bigger, resulting in the “high-wheelers” that gained such popularity by the late 1880s. Although millions of high-wheelers were sold, they weren’t very safe. The rider sat up high, over the large front wheel, and it was a long way to the ground in case of a fall. In addition, when the front wheel was steered right or left, it interfered with the rider’s ability to keep his feet on the pedals. The short wheelbase and rough roads of the day often resulted in the rider being thrown forward over the handlebars.
The first chain-driven bicycle appeared in 1879. Built by Englishman Henry Lawson, the machine had two medium-sized wheels of equal diameter. The rear wheel was driven by a chain from a sprocket wheel upon which a crank and pedals were mounted, similar to a modern bicycle. This so-called “safety bicycle” featured much better stability, braking and ease of mounting than the high-front-wheeled “ordinary” bicycle. In 1885, another Englishman, John K. Starley, introduced his Rover Safety model, which quickly became the standard.
By the early 1890s, the high-wheeled “ordinary” bikes were off the market. The early safety bicycles had solid rubber tires but in 1888, John Boyd Dunlop, a veterinarian in Belfast, Ireland, invented the pneumatic tire. The pneumatic (or air tire) on the safety bicycle resulted in a machine that anyone, even women and children, could comfortably ride, setting off a bicycling craze that swept America in the 1890s. By 1893, the bicycle had a modern diamond-shaped frame, with a roller-chain drive and pneumatic-tire wheels.
Several farm machinery manufacturers, including Deere & Co., got into the bicycle business at the height of the great bicycle craze. One of John Deere’s grandsons, C.C. Webber, had been manager of Deere’s Minneapolis branch (then known as Deere & Webber Co.) since the 1880s. Webber had long been extremely conservative about new product lines. During the 1880s, the St. Louis branch and Deere, Wells & Co. in Council Bluffs, Iowa, began to handle wagons and buggies. Up in Minneapolis, Webber still wasn’t sure buggies were a good idea. He wrote to the San Francisco branch manager: “Your traveler’s (salesman’s) first duty is to get the plow trade. In the hustle for wagon (and) buggy trade, none of us want to overlook the fact that the plow trade is our principal mission.”
That’s why it’s odd that Webber so enthusiastically embraced the bicycle, involving the Minneapolis branch in what was dubbed within the company “the bicycle caper.” In another letter to a branch manager in 1893, Webber wrote: “If there is anything in this bicycle business, any money to be made, we want to take hold of it.” Another of John Deere’s grandsons, Charles Velie, was also at the Minneapolis branch at the time and was the bike expert.
In 1894, Deere & Webber ordered 1,000 bicycles and a year later had sold more than $150,000 ($3.8 million today) worth of the little two-wheeled machines at a handsome profit. In 1896, at the height of the craze, three models – the Deere Roadster, the Deere Leader and the Moline Special – were built exclusively for Deere & Webber. Deere also handled two outside models, the Tribune and the Peerless. The Kansas City and Omaha branch houses also sold bikes.
Velie organized a 20-mile “Deere Road Race” in August 1895. More than 100 racers participated; 90 finished the race, which was won by a St. Paul man with a time of 54 minutes, 17 seconds (about 22 mph). Historical accounts do not specify whether the winner rode a Deere bike. In 1896, Velie developed a bicycle trademark with an antlered deer riding a bicycle and the company arranged large exhibits at several major bicycle shows.
For a few years, Americans loved the bicycle, and everyone wanted to own his or her very own “wheel.” Some pundits predicted the machine would eliminate the need for horses, except for draft purposes. People rode their bikes during every leisure minute, and theaters and churches complained of a drop in attendance. However, in 1897, the bicycle craze began to fade. By 1900, Deere was out of the bicycle business. In 1914, Arthur S. Dewing wrote of America’s brief flirtation with the machine: “Public taste, fickle at all times, and especially fickle regarding its amusements, became suddenly weary of the plaything, and threw it aside. Millions of dollars worth of property invested in the manufacture of bicycles consequently became worthless.”
From 1972 to 1975, Deere again took a flier in bicycles, with about 200,000 Taiwan-built bicycles being sold by John Deere dealers. Today, those John Deere bikes are hot collectibles.
So you see, John Deere wasn’t only about tractors and plows. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about the history of bicycles in A Bicycle Built for Two and The Vanishing Village: Newfangled Machine Puts Salesmanship to the Test.