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.

| July 2012

  • BicyclePlymouth-sidebar
    A man on his bicycle in Victorian Plymouth England, with a predecessor of the Starley diamond-frame
    Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

  • BicyclePlymouth-sidebar

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.