We have no record of exactly when the tall, lean stranger sporting a handlebar arrived in town, moving down the dusty streets of Fort Worth, turning heads and leaving behind a narrow track amid the horse manure and stogie butts. But the stranger would do for Cowtown what all innovations—from railroads to radio, from baseball to bombers—have done: help transform Fort Worth from a frontier outpost into a city with all the trappings of modernity.
Yes, sometime in the 1880s a town that had been hoof-based (its economy was the cow; its transportation was the horse) would saddle up and ride toward the twentieth century on . . .
The first generation of bicycles was penny farthings like those ridden in England. This is an 1889 American Champion model by Gormully & Jeffery of Chicago. Penny farthings were also called “high wheels.”
The Fort Worth Daily Democrat in 1883 printed these rules of the road for the new conveyance. The newspaper reported that tricycles were preferred by women “on account of the non-elevated and less prominent position of the rider.”
Throughout the 1880s as the craze spread, there were questions about how to classify the new contraption. Was it a vehicle? What were the legal rights of wheelmen, as bicyclists were known? Should bicycles be allowed in parks, much less on roadways with horses and buggies?
In 1884 Ol’ Paint went toe to toe—or at least hoof to wheel—with the new competition. The bicyclists beat the equestrians by considerably more than a nose.
By 1887 America had 150,000 bicycles, the Fort Worth Gazette reported.
One of those 150,000 bicycles went missing during a ride from Fort Worth to Weatherford as two wheelmen found themselves one banker short.
Definitely not embracing the new craze in 1887 was John Ruskin, English art critic, social analyst, and all-around fuddy duddy.
By 1890 bicycles had become affordable to the middle class (barely—the $15 in A. J. Anderson‘s ad of 1890 would be $360 today).
In this classified ad in the Fort Worth Gazette in 1890, I suspect “158” should be “58,” the diameter of the front wheel of a penny farthing.
High roller: Sometime in the 1890s David Swartz took this studio photo of Eugene C. Pendery with a penny farthing. (Eugene’s brother, grocer DeWitt Clinton Pendery, in 1870 began selling chilies and spices in Fort Worth. The Pendery family business continues as “Pendery’s World of Chilies & Spices.”) (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Library.)
By 1890 the penny farthing was being replaced by a bicycle that looks much more familiar to us today: the safety bicycle, which was chain driven and had two wheels of equal size.
Have lens, will travel: David Swartz’s brother, photographer Charles Lee Swartz, featured a safety bicycle in this advertisement. (Photo from Library of Congress.)
The safety bicycle was a dramatic improvement, allowing greater distances. In 1891 the Dallas wheelmen invited their counterparts from Sherman and Fort Worth to take part in a San Jacinto Day celebration.
In 1894 the Gazette got in on the craze, selling the Plymouth Rock safety bicycle for $60 ($1,700 today). That price included a year’s subscription to the newspaper.
Tobacco road: An editorial cartoonist of 1895 predicted that women would simultaneously embrace two pastimes: bicycling and smoking. Indeed, the bicycle became the “freedom machine” of feminists and suffragists—America’s “new women” of the late nineteenth century. Susan B. Anthony said in 1896: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel . . . the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Crazes generate fashions. And local stores, including Sanger Bros, were ready with bicycle attire.
“Polite and trusty boys” saddled up bicycles to deliver messages at ten cents a mile.
Schwinn, place, and show: People love to compete, and bicycles were a natural for racing. In 1897 two men raced from City Park (Trinity Park) to Arlington Heights and back. “The winner will sip a glass of soda water, while his opponent drinks Trinity river water.”
In the 1890s Henry Cromer had begun selling Rambler brand bicycles in downtown Fort Worth. The Rambler was manufactured by Gormully & Jeffery (which also manufactured the American Champion penny farthing) from 1878 to 1900. The Rambler bicycle was the predecessor of the Rambler automobile. And Henry Cromer would become Fort Worth’s first automobilist in 1902 when he bought a “gas machine”—a Rambler, naturally.
There’s a Ford in your future: In fact, before the end of the nineteenth century, the bicycle could hear footsteps—or at least backfires—closing in behind it. An even newer conveyance, the automobile, had four wheels, not two, and a bellyful of gasoline. And it was about to do to the bicycle what the bicycle had done to the horse: