A Kansas family’s collection of antique bicycles offers an impressive array of treasures honoring another era. Composed of more than 100 unique pieces, the collection runs the gamut from little-known spectacles to what many consider the holy grail of antique bicycles: the elusive Evinrude.
The bicycle obsession began in 2004, when Hannah Schroller and her father, Gary Schroller, Randolph, Kan., were searching for something special for Hannah to ride on the campus of Kansas State University, where she was attending classes. As they learned about various two-wheeled contraptions, the sprockets of Gary’s imagination started turning.
“She wanted to get a balloon-tire bike and paint it up, fix it up and ride it — so we bought a J.C. Higgins Colorflow from about 1951,” Gary says. “We didn’t know one bike from another but that Higgins was a real fancy one with (decorative) jewels; we just lucked into finding that.” The Schrollers intended to do little more than replace the tires and spray paint the bike, but instead they took it to a body shop and had it painted and rechromed. They ended up putting $1,000 into the bike. But it was money well-spent: Hannah used the bike so often during her four years at KSU that she became known as “the girl on the bike.”
The Schrollers’ fascination led to more purchases. They bought another bike of the same make and model, then started buying all the J.C. Higgins bikes they could find. It wasn’t long until they started collecting other brands. “We started looking for any original girls’ bikes in good condition from that time frame,” Hannah says. “It just kind of snowballed from there.”
As a rule, the Schrollers focus on girls’ bikes, but they occasionally find a boys’ bike that’s too special to pass up. “Some bikes weren’t made in girls’ models and they’re so rare we’ve got to have them,” Gary says. “Once we restored the first one for Hannah to ride, we found so many variations. Back in that era they were chroming everything like crazy and they all had springer front ends and they really decked them out.”
The collection is scattered throughout the family’s house, garage, box storage trailer and barn in a way that allows each bike’s level of uniqueness or rarity to be, perhaps with some accuracy, inferred from its location. If a bike is in the barn it’s probably just a parts bike. Bikes near the back of the trailer have some degree of rarity. Those near the front have special stories. “Of all 80 bicycles we have in the storage trailer, nothing’s touched up. It’s all original,” Gary says. Some of the bikes, especially some in the garage, are extraordinary. But there’s only one bike in the entryway of the Schrollers’ home: a 1937 Evinrude Streamflow.
Evinrude Outboard Motors Co. manufactured fewer than 300 Streamflow bicycles before the bike’s fragile, unsafe design dictated a recall. Only one or two dozen are said to have survived, Gary says. The Schrollers’ Evinrude, serial no. 61, is perhaps the best-preserved original remaining, and it’s one of the few boys’ bikes in the Schrollers’ collection.
“Our friend Harvey found it for us,” Gary says. “He knew Hannah collected them, and I had sold him a pedal tractor for nothing just because he’s a nice guy and he had done me a favor. He called one night and said, ‘Gary, would you guys be interested in an Evinrude?’ I thought he had talked to somebody and they were pulling my chain so I said, ‘Oh no, we’ve got plenty of those.’ Then I realized he was serious. He said, ‘Oh, there’s a local auction here and there’s an Evinrude,’ and he said he’d go to the sale for me.”
The Evinrude was at an estate tag sale in New York, where the first 30 people to stand in line were allowed to shop for five minutes before anyone else was allowed in. “I told Harvey I’d give him $500 if he’d go camp out and get me that bike,” Gary says. “So he went down there and he was number 15 in line. If he had left to get a cup of coffee or something, he would’ve gone to the back of the line. He said he could see the bike through the window while he was waiting. It was by the checkout. He said when he first got in there everybody started running. But he just walked up to the checkout and said, ‘I’d like to buy this bike.’ And while he was writing the check some guy just comes running down the aisle behind him yelling ‘I want the bike! I want the bike!’ But Harvey just handed the cashier the check and said, ‘It’s going to Kansas.’”
The Evinrude features a speedometer, aluminum “torpedo” headlight, ignition-style key lock and a seat suspended on springs with a seat bar connected to the pedals. “It’s a neat concept because your feet go up and down with the seat but it just doesn’t feel right on the bike,” Gary says. “And of all the ones that we know to exist, this is the only one with an aluminum headlight; there are people out there with ‘wanted’ ads that would just kill for that. The odometer shows 1,200 miles on it, and for this one to not be broken at 1,200 miles, somebody really babied this bike and took care of it.”
The Schrollers’ collection contains many unique bicycles, but perhaps their most extraordinary-looking one is an 1896 Featherstone triangle-sprocket bicycle. Gary says they bought it from a good friend in Illinois and it’s the only one known to exist, which isn’t surprising by the look of it. At first glance the bike looks to be humorously designed without function, but upon closer inspection one can see the brilliance of the concept.
“You would think when the sprocket comes up on the low side the chain would get slack in it. What they’ve done is this,” Gary explains. “The back sprocket isn’t drilled in the center so it wobbles back and forth and it’s timed 3-to-1 so that when the front sprocket’s in a low spot the rear sprocket’s in the back position. As you pedal, the rear sprocket goes back and forth so that the chain stays on. It’s a mechanical marvel.”
Another contender for the Schrollers’ most unique bike is an adult tandem tricycle made by Gormully & Jeffery Mfg. Co. in 1889, one of about four known to exist, Gary says. A friend of his found it in pieces at an auto salvage yard and paid $1 for it, not knowing what it was. A pile of mixed parts, it was missing the down-tubes and there were two sets of pedals in the heap. After some research online, the Schrollers realized it was meant to be a single unit. Gary recast a bunch of the parts and reassembled the bike.
Although bicycles are a comparatively recent fascination for the Schrollers, the old iron hobby has been part of Gary’s life since childhood. Perhaps it began with the lawn mowing business he launched at age 10. Buying and fixing up lawn mowers allowed him to sharpen skills and realize his knack for restoring mechanical things — that, and he was already collecting antiques.
“When I was 10 years old I was collecting cast iron toys,” Gary says. “I loved antique toys when I was little. I’m not sure what that was about.”
At about age 12, Gary started selling car parts. He had lots of books about the Ford Model T and did plenty of research on which parts to buy from the auto salvage yard across the street from his childhood home. Back then his customers had to call his mother to do business with him.
Now Gary makes a living running Schroller Repair in Randolph, Kan., an antique John Deere salvage business with about 300 John Deere parts tractors. “We ship parts every day and do swap meets all the time,” Gary says. “I was silly enough to work for a few years back in the ‘70s, but I made more money swapping parts than I did at my union job.” Over the years he’s collected everything, it seems: vintage cars, John Deere tractors, Cushman scooters, advertisement signage, one-of-a-kind contraptions and much more.
Hannah’s been attending farm shows and sharing in her father’s hobby her whole life. After graduating from KSU, Hannah earned a law degree at Washburn University in Topeka; she opened her own law office in 2013. She’s also an avid participant in demolition derbies and equestrian competitions.
When it comes to their love of old iron, Gary and Hannah are two peas in a pod, especially when it comes to things they can ride. “She likes anything with wheels,” Gary says. “She’s just as bad as me.” FC
For more information:
— Schroller Repair, 21401 Tuttle Creek Blvd., Randolph, KS 66554; phone (785) 363-2458.
— Hannah Schroller, firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt Kelly is the assistant editor of Farm Collector. Contact him at email@example.com.