Tuesday, 9 December 2008

My Visit to the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum

Mr. Carl Burgwardt, collector extraordinaire, with an Ordinary and in front of the Marine Bicycle

A number of years ago while driving along Interstate 81 from Washington to Ottawa, I stopped at the New York State Visitors’ Center just inside the state line and picked up some maps and brochures. Among them was a leaflet for a bicycle museum just outside of Buffalo, New York. It looked interesting and I thought that I would have to visit it when I next went to see my mother in the Toronto area. However, like so many good intentions, this came to nothing until I read on a cycling blog that the museum, considered a major one for bicycles, was going to close in 2009 as the owner retired. He planned to sell the collection and I was now determined to see it before it was dispersed or otherwise entered private hands and became invisible.

On Saturday morning I left on the 90 minute drive to Buffalo and then headed west on I-90 to Orchard Park. I had actually passed this town on several of my trips to Toronto without realizing it. It would have been worth stopping here as Orchard Park is quite charming (certainly compared to what you see of downtown Buffalo from the Interstate–that city is now ranked as the poorest in the United States) and I had found on the Internet what sounded like a good place for lunch. I drove past the museum on North Buffalo Road and easily found Mangia, a quite good Italian café and restaurant. After an excellent espresso and a panino (for that Italian road racer feeling), I drove back to the unprepossessing building that houses the Pedaling History Bicycle Museum. There was quite a bit of snow around but the parking lot was nicely plowed. Mine was also one of the only cars there.

I entered the building and found myself in a impressively cluttered gift shop where I paid my $7.50 admission. Mr. Carl Burgwardt, the proprietor and the man who was responsible for this startling collection, took my money and suggested how best to see the museum. It is simply laid out in a circle, with an additional room housing a poster gallery and space for educational events. In front of various exhibits is a speaker with a red button. Push the button and Mr. Burgwardt’s voice explains the significance of what you are looking at. You would think that going through a bicycle museum would not take very long but it was to be over three hours (and 127 photos!) before I headed out the exit. The Pedaling History collection is a very significant one and I learned a great deal from it.

Reproduction of the Draisine

At first one is a bit overwhelmed by what appears to be genial clutter but in fact is a well-ordered and logical progression. First the visitor walks by a large collection of children’s wheel vehicles, including tricycles and hobby-horses, before passing a novel kind-of-bicycle used for riding railway lines. There is a long history of these devices and I recall that when touring the park in Cass the guide mentioned that the local doctor used one to go up to the logging camps. The railbike lives on in Europe, where there are stretches of track where one can use a pedal- or hand-operated vehicle to tour the countryside. These vehicles, known in German as “Draisine” or in Sweden as “Dressin” immortalize the inventor of what was to eventually become the bicycle, Karl Drais. Or more properly Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Christian Ludwig, Freiherr Drais von Sauerbronn (1785-1851).

His “Laufmaschine” , or “running machine” was meant to assist him in his work as a forestry official, and it is referred to in English as a “draisine,” not to be confused with the railcar thing noted. The museum has two reproductions of the Baron Drais’ invention, the first two-wheeler, consisting of those two wheels, a wooden beam to which they were attached, a steering tiller and a cushion-cum-seat. I cannot imagine this heavy device could have been very efficient at all and not much of an improvement over walking but it survived long enough to enjoy a craze as wealthy young bucks took up the sport in France and England.

Moving from Baron Drais, the following exhibits are devoted to the next iteration of the bicycle, the velocipede, more aptly named “the Boneshaker.” This looks somewhat more efficient as pedals have been attached to the front wheel so no more pounding the ground by the rider’s feet for propulsion but weighing a hundred pounds or so, with a heavy steel frame and metal-shod wooden wheels it probably was not much fun to ride either. The boneshakers were often ridden indoors in arenas and the first recorded bicycle race featured them in 1868. Pierre Lallement, a Frenchman who immigrated to America in 1865, patented the boneshaker but unable to interest American manufacturers he returned to France. The museum boasts several Lallement-type machines. The inventor was to return to America where he was later to work for Col. Albert Pope, the bicycle manufacturing tycoon who bought his patent.

With the inevitable desire to go faster, the next stage of bicycle evolution was set as the English took advantage of advances in metallurgy to build lightweight curved frames and increase the size of the front wheel and thus was born that unmistakable icon of cycling, the Ordinary. Known also the Penny Farthing and the High-Wheeler, the Ordinary launched the 1880s bicycle craze as athletic young men were attracted to their (comparatively) breakneck speed. For the first time, people could go faster than a horse entirely on their own power. The aforementioned Col. Pope, after seeing an English Ordinary at one of the seemingly endless World’s Fairs of the day (in that case it was Philadelphia and 1876), felt that this was the coming thing and his sewing machine business soon switched into making bicycles in a big way. His firm, Columbia, became the world’s largest bicycle maker and developed many advanced manufacturing techniques in its Hartford, Connecticut operations. The Pedaling History Museum has a large collection of Ordinaries and one can see that these simple machines boasted increasingly excellent craftsmanship.

Of course, the Ordinary was not without its issues. Mr. Burgwardt has a nice diorama showing a cyclist taking a “header.” This event, which involves flying over the handlebars, could happen pretty easily as the rider was really balanced on the bicycle’s centre of gravity so any sudden stop, for example caused by hitting a stone or a hole in the road, would pitch the cyclist forward with potentially unhappy results. In spite of these pitfalls, the Ordinary was quite fast, limited only by the length of the rider's inseam, and looking back at the records set then it is hard to imagine what it took to race these things. In 1884 a young Englishman, Thomas Stevens, became the first person to ride around the world on a bicycle and he used a Columbia 50 inch Ordinary.

I asked Mr. Burgwardt about how one climbs onto an Ordinary and as luck would have it at this point in the museum there is an Ordinary fixed in one spot, with a small block behind it. I was invited to mount up, which involves putting your left foot on a tiny step next to the small rear wheel, holding both ends of the handlebars and swinging the right foot up to the pedal as you pull yourself up to the seat. At least that is what I think I did, since I have photographic proof I did make it, and I managed to get off again pretty easily as well. The view from the seat, which in this case was around five feet off the ground, is quite commanding and Mr. Burgwardt reminded me that back in the 1880s people were used to riding horses so sitting up so high was not as alien as it is to us. Of course, I also thought that pitching forward on your face and falling five feet down could not have been any fun at all and the records of the day suggested that serious injury and even death was not uncommon.

The Age of the Ordinary was also apparently the Age of Innovation as the idea of what was a bicycle was not really very settled. The inventiveness of people towards this human-scaled machine is amazing. The most extraordinary example is the Otto Dicycle, one of the stupidest devices to ever be ridden on a road. The museum has the only one in North America and there are four or five others in Europe. It is inconceivable that 953 of these monstrosities were built.Mr. Otto came up with the idea of a two-wheel but instead of the wheels being back-to-front they were side-by-side. A seat was located between the two large wheels and the dicyclist spun pedals connected to a chain-and-belt system that turned the axle and the wheels. This is totally unstable but Mr. Otto included a small wheel to the back so that the rider would not pitch backwards but had to figure out how not to do a face plant on his own since there was no corresponding wheel to the front.

In order to absorb shock the spokes of the wheels were wavy rather than straight but I cannot imagine anyone riding one of these fast enough to worry about road shock. Mr. Burgwardt said that they did nothing to provide any suspension anyway. A celebrated manufacturer, BSA, built these things in London. Whimsical for sure, but what was Mr. Otto thinking? Here we had many of the disadvantages of the Ordinary with greater weight, complexity and cost coupled with lower speed. It probably needed a garage-sized structure to store it in. On the plus side, it sure doesn’t look like anything else.

It was evident that pretty soon people got tired of falling on their faces and attempts were made to introduce Safety Ordinaries. There were two ways to do this: you could turn the Ordinary around so that the small wheel is in front, meaning you won’t pitch forward (but you can pitch backward) as was exemplified by the rather elegant Star bicycle produced by the H.B. Smith Machine Company in New Jersey; or you could reduce the size of the front wheel by using gearing. The most celebrated of these was the Kangaroo, produced in England in 1884, and the museum has an example of this and several of its competitors. Amazingly, a firm in the Czech Republic will actually build you a new Kangaroo.

But time was running out for the Ordinary, whether in standard or safety format as the real Safety Bicycle was making its debut, once again in England. With its chain drive, wheels of equal size and hub gear it was not only fast and attractive but could be ridden by women as well and not simply wild young “scorchers.” The Safety soon made the Ordinary obsolete but although it resembles the bicycles of today innovation was not ended by a long shot yet. The museum has a very large collection of early Safeties but what immediately struck me is that like the Ordinaries they all used hard, solid rubber tires. While an improvement over the iron-shod wheels of the Boneshakers or the early Ordinaries, they were heavy and didn’t do much for comfort. This was to change in 1891, when John Boyd Dunlop’s pneumatic tire let us all ride on air. All the safety bicycles in the collection from this point on have inflated tires but there are still other novelties, such as frames made of hickory or aluminum or chainless transmissions, using beveled gears at the end of encased shaft drivetrains.

The museum has an exhibit representing a blacksmith’s shop of the day, even including a bicycle that has never been removed from its shipping crate. Typically the smith would have gone from horses to bicycle repair to fixing cars. Many famous people in the transportation industry had their start as bicycle mechanics, including the Wright Brothers, Henry Ford and Glenn Curtiss. This is another strength of the museum, which has focused almost exclusively on the industry in the United States as the story of the bicycle, its manufacture and promotion, is an important element of industrial development of the country and the growth of its consumer society. Not only did people buy bicycles, they bought lots of accessories to go with them and bicycle-themed paraphernalia was everywhere. The museum has a massive collection of beer steins with bicycle motifs, and advertising posters and cabinets full of head tube badges and bicycle license plates and promotional pins and lamps. Suspended from the ceiling is a marine bicycle, with long pontoons. The rider pedals a small propeller in the back while in the front a thoughtfully-position pitchfork prevents seawood from fouling it.

"The Maid of the Mist," with a photo of its owner on the right

There are many bicycles that originated in New York State, which was apparently a hot-bed of manufacturing. The Pierce company made fine bicycles from 1896 and its arrow trademark became even more famous on the Pierce-Arrow luxury cars that were built in Buffalo until the Depression killed the company in 1938. In the museum are many Pierce bicycle, as well as what was probably one of the first bicycles made in the Buffalo area (in Orchard Park, in fact) around 1870 and a very charming “Maid of the Mist” woman’s bicycle. The “Maid of the Mist” is the famous boat that cruises at the base of Niagara Falls.

There is a small section devoted to racing, with a focus on the famous Six Day Events, including a triple owned at one point by the celebrated African-American World Champion Major Taylor.

Columbia Model 41 with machine gun

By this point in the museum bicycles were starting to look pretty similar to each other but there were still plenty of surprises. One exhibit showcases three Columbia military bicycles, stock bikes modified by the company to carry small arms. My favourite has a machine gun on the handlebars and a wooden box on the back contained the ammunition belts. I was thinking that this would gain a cyclist respect in traffic but the bicycle was meant to be used as a tripod by the two-man crew and not for firing underway. Pity. Another interesting military bicycle was the folding one used by British and Canadian paratroopers in World War II, given them swift and silent transportation on the ground.

The final part of the museum celebrates the famous balloon tire bikes made popular by Ignaz Schwinn of Chicago and his competitors. Besides four or five of the fabled Schwinn Black Phantom models, the museum has a Donald Duck promotional bicycle, a Huffy Radio bike, and the glorious Hoppalong Cassidy bike, complete with saddle and holstered pistols for the little buckaroo.


One of the most recent bicycles was meant to be the Bicycle of the Future. With its dual headlamps, fiberglass monocoque construction and tailights, the Bowden Spacelander was designed originally in 1949 but not put into production until 1960. Its unique looks were not enough to make it a commercial proposition and after one year production ended. It is an exceptionally desirable collectible and the museum has not only one of the production bicycles but a prototype for the follow-on model.

Of course in the gift shop I could not help treating myself to a book by Mr. Burgwardt about the bicycle industry in Buffalo, along with some of the hardbound proceedings of the annual bicycle history conferences. He was kind enough to sign the book for me and I headed out into the snowy weather and the drive back up the Niagara Peninsula.

As you can judge by my enthusiasm and the few photos I have included here, I found the Pedaling History Museum well worth the travel. It is a serious educational project and remarkable as the work of only a dedicated pair of collectors, Mr. and Mrs. Burgwardt. If you can get to the area you will not regret visiting Orchard Park!

Check out the Museum's website here.

7 comments:

Will said...

Very fun

I would have paid extra to see you try the penny-farthing outside.

I am guessing the beer stein section would be my favourite

Sprocketboy said...

I am not sure that my health insurance coverage would have been sufficient for riding outside without support cables!

One of the cool beer steins was for the 1934 World Championships, held in Leipzig, Germany. There was even a ribbon with a swastika to go with it.

BikingBis said...

What a terrible loss if this collection is no longer available for public view in the US.
Thanks for all the pictures.

JG said...

Wow, surprisingly this museum is in my proverbial backyard and I've never realized it was there! I'm going to have to take the ten minute ride into Orchard Park (home of the Buffalo Bills) to take the tour.

Sprocketboy said...

JG: I'm not sure how much longer the museum will be open so you better hustle over there! The sale has apparently been delayed so it will be possible to see it a bit longer.

fly cheap to New York said...

Good collection of bicycles and a museum on bicycle is excellent. Is the bicycle museum still open? fly cheap to New York and stay cool.

Sprocketboy said...

The museum closed in November 2009.