Guilderland’s wheelmen take to the roads

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

The adult craze for wheeling came to an abrupt end when the first automobiles began rolling into towns and chugging out past the farms on country roads. This postcard view of Altamont’s Lainhart block tells the story. After that time, bicycles were for children. The Lainhart block, on Maple Avenue, not far from Main Street, burned in the late 20th Century; a public parking lot fills the space today.

— Photo from the Guilderland Historical Society

These three youngsters posed with their bicycles in front of the Dunnsville Hotel’s crowded porch. The photo is probably about the same vintage as the Altamont postcard view.

One September weekend in the mid-1890s found Fred DeGraff of Guilderland Hamlet and four friends mounting their wheels, pedaling over to Pittstown to visit a friend while, on another I.K. Stafford, Fred Keenholts and Andrew Oliver traveled from Altamont to New Jersey to Asbury Park for an extensive cycle tour.

They reported to The Enterprise, “The wheeling in New Jersey was very fine.” As interest and participation in cycling spread, The Enterprise was abuzz with local bicycle news during the decade of the 1890s, often called the Golden Age of the Bicycle.

This craze for wheels, as bicycles were then commonly called, took off in the 1890s as the technological advances of the previous decade came together to create a practical modern bicycle. It began with the concept of two spoked wheels of equal size on a tubular frame followed by the invention of pneumatic tires to provide a smoother ride and propulsion from pedals connected to a chain driven sprocket.

However, early braking systems were less than adequate until the invention of the coaster brake in 1898. Wheels didn’t come cheap, ranging from $25 for a used bicycle in the mid-1890s to over $100 for the finest models in 1890s’ dollars, a luxury for most people at that time.

Advertisements of bicycles for sale showed up in The Enterprise as early as 1890, some inserted by the manufacturers themselves. Monarch Cycle Co.’s appeared frequently, claiming theirs was “absolutely the best” with elegant designs and unsurpassed workmanship using the finest materials.

H.A. Lozier & Co. not only bragged about the Cleveland bicycle’s construction, but added the practical information that its “resilient” tire could be repaired “quicker and easier than any other tire in the market.” Several Albany dealers jumped into the market and, sensing a good business opportunity, some Altamont men began selling wheels and advertising their wares in the paper as well.

“Notes From Gotham,” a July 1893 Enterprise front-page column, noted there was “a growing interest in bicycling as an amusement,” claiming that there was “a popular craze” for the sport, “destined to be the most popular form of outdoor entertainment that has ever engaged the American people.”

While bicycle owners could be found in all parts of Guilderland, by far most cyclists seemed to be concentrated in Altamont, so many that in 1893 sixteen men joined together to organize “The Altamont Wheelmen.” After electing officers headed by I.K. Stafford, plans were made to find club rooms.

Soon they moved into “commodious” and “airy” rooms on the second floor of J.S. Secors new warehouse where a new coal stove supplied not only heat but hot water for the bathtub they installed! It was claimed that they had a “very cozy room and it makes a pleasant place to spend one’s evenings, if they must be spent from home.” A year later for reasons not given, they moved to space over the post office

Immediately after the club’s formation, its members began planning runs to Amsterdam, Albany via Voorheesville, Guilderland Center, Averill Park, South Bethlehem, Slingerlands, and Sloan’s (now Guilderland Hamlet). Remembering the dirt roads of that time, this was an ambitious undertaking but reports in the ensuing weeks indicate that they really did pedal their wheels to these destinations.

As 1894 came to a close, 36 men had been voted into membership, especially once it was made known that actually being a wheelman wasn’t a requirement to becoming a member. The Wheelmen had become not only a cycle club, but a male social club as well.

At the last meeting of 1894, members were treated to an oyster supper, followed by “soft drinks” and cigars, all this hosted for the 25 men present by the club’s president I.K. Stafford and Altamont bicycle dealer Fred Keenholts.

Another dinner the next year mentions an “elaborate spread, merriment and good cheer.” Another type of social function were “smokers” where the men entertained themselves with reminiscences of the past season’s cycling “through columns of smoke.”

“Bicycle Notes,” a sporadic column appearing in The Enterprise, related the latest bicycle chatter from around town, including the names of those who had recently purchased a new or used bicycle. Abe Tygert got a high-grade Niagara while Andrew Ostrander purchased a 22-pound Relay — those were just two of the many proud owners identified over the decade.

If used, the previous owner’s name was also listed: “Lucius Frederick is the possessor of a wheel, having purchased the one ridden by Aaron Oliver last season, and Chas. Stevell who now rides the wheel which J. Van Benscoten rode during 1894.”

Ladies, too

Appearance and manners were topics once touched on in “Bicycle Notes” when the writer, pleased that more riders were sitting upright, described any rider as “silly” to “hump” himself over the handlebars unless racing. And ladies should always sit upright so as not to “stoop in the slightest degree.”

Noting that pedestrians had the right of way, cyclists were to respect them and, in addition, to avoid running down children and old people. His parting comment was, “There are all sorts of road hogs in the world and it is regretted some of them ride bicycles … Young boys and fresh young men are the greatest offenders.”

A rumor appeared in “Bicycle Notes” that some of the ladies were learning to ride and soon their names began to show up in print. Miss Blanche Warner’s wheel was a “handsome new Remington,” while Miss J. Libbie Osborn chose an Erie. Herbert Winne finally bought a used bike to enable him to accompany his wife, the experienced rider of the family. Unlike the men, women were never mentioned riding any distance from home.

Risky business

Racing appealed greatly to younger, athletic riders and quickly became a popular local spectator sport with the racetrack at the fairgrounds the perfect venue for competition. Independence Day, the Altamont Hose Company’s Field Day and Clam Bake, and the Altamont Fair itself all became occasions for bicycle races.

Prizes were given in cash, objects such as a $5 clock or certificates for merchandise at Albany stores. Often local wheelmen traveled out of town to participate in races. Pity Lew Hart who lost count of the number of laps in a Cobleskill race and missed being one of the winners.

Being a wheelman was a risky business due to inadequate brakes; locally hilly, rutted roads; and in some cases the riders’ own inexperience. One time at the fairgrounds, three entrants tangled during a race resulting in bruises and badly mangled bicycles. During another race, Elias Stafford had his ego rather than his body bruised after a spill at the race track when the paper commented the next week, “The spectacle was too ludicrous for anything.”

Guilderland Center resident John Stewart took a bad spill on the curvy hill at Frenchs Hollow, but the most tragic accident befell an Albany man out riding with James Keenholts near Altamont. He was seriously injured after losing control as he turned his wheel, going down off a bridge near Altamont onto some rocks below.

After Dr. Barton tended to his obvious injuries, he was helped to board the evening train heading to Albany. “It is feared he is hurt internally” was the comment in the next week’s Enterprise.

L.A.W. and order

The League of American Wheelmen, an organization promoting cycling and good roads, had been formed in the 1880s. So many Americans were swept up in the bicycle craze that by 1898 membership in L.A.W. topped 102,000 including some of the Altamont Wheelmen. I.K. Stafford, one of the founders and president of the Altamont Wheelmen, became sanctioned by L.A.W. to officiate bicycle races, which he did at the Altamont Fair for many, many years.

Long before automobiles were traveling the nation’s highways, L.A.W. began to press for improved roads for cyclists, preferably paved. Locally, there was a call for cycle paths, at that time more commonly called sidepaths.

By 1898, pressure from wheelmen forced the Albany County Board of Supervisors to create a County Sidepath Commission. Routes out of Albany were being considered and of course, a route to Altamont through Guilderland Hamlet and Guilderland Center was hoped for by residents here.

A sidepath went out as far as Albany Country Club (now the University at Albany campus) east of McKownville with William Witbeck extending it west as far as his tavern (site of present day Burger King), but it never went beyond that, although sidepaths were laid out from Albany to Schenectady and from Albany to Slingerlands.

The Enterprise reported the discovery that, not only did the cyclists like the sidepaths, but pedestrians found “that it makes a very desirable walk.” In 1902, it was reported the Albany County Sidepath Commission had spent $5,000 building new paths and repairing old ones. License badges — “same price as last year” — had to be attached to bicycles.

Wheeling was difficult enough over the poor country roads, but the lack of signs made finding your way, once out of your own immediate area, maddening. By 1896, The Enterprise demanded that “sign boards should be erected at every crossroad in the town” for travelers and especially the many out-of-town cyclists who passed through.

Within a few months, it was announced that L.A.W. would begin placing in all parts of the state blue metal road signs with raised yellow lettering that would identify the village or hamlet and give the distance to the next one.

As is typical of developments in American technology, prices of wheels came down, the market became saturated, owning a bicycle was no longer so fashionable, and a new technology had arrived to take the bicycle’s place. If he felt there was nothing “to be compared with the exhilarating excitement in riding a light running and responsive wheel,” wait until the wheelman had his first automobile ride!

Within a few years membership fell so low that L.A.W. and the Altamont Wheelmen were disbanded and bicycles were relegated to children.