Wheel Fever: Historian co-authors book on Wisconsin's first bicycle boom

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Anna Marie Lux
Sunday, April 13, 2014

JANESVILLE--We take them for granted: two wheels attached to a frame and handlebars for steering.

But bicycles were not always so easy to ride or so easy to own, especially if you were a woman or a person of color.

Jesse Gant can tell you.

He teamed up with his good friend Nick Hoffman to write the book “Wheel Fever” about how Wisconsin became a great bicycling state, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Hoffman is chief curator at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, and Gant is a doctoral candidate in history at UW-Madison. The Council for Wisconsin Writers recently named them runners-up in an annual contest for their book.

A 1999 Parker High School graduate, Gant honed an interest in history while working as a docent at the Lincoln-Tallman Restorations in Janesville. From the experience, grew his desire to study and teach history for a living.

He has used a bike as his primary and preferred mode of transportation since 2004. The 32-year-old pedals almost daily to the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where he has a one-year fellowship.

Gant will share Wisconsin's biking story when he speaks at the Rock County Historical Society's annual dinner Wednesday, April 23. He will discuss the state's first biking boom from 1869 through the wheel fever of the 1890s.

He also will focus on Janesville's biking past, including the big influence of Frances Willard, who grew up in the city and became an international women's leader. Willard supported cycling for women when she wrote the 1895 “How I learned to Ride the Bicycle.”

“It was a capstone moment for early cyclists,” Gant said. “Up until that time, cycling was intentionally kept as a man's sport. The high wheelers were so impractical that they led to a daredevil culture.”

Until the late 19th century, white men controlled the sport for the upper classes and were interested in racing and riding in high-profile parades. They did not consider how bikes could be an everyday means of transportation. Nor did they welcome women or blacks.

“It was an elite crowd that drove the bicycle boom of the late 19th century,” Gant said. “You needed time and money.”

The cycling era in Wisconsin began quietly in January 1869, when a young man rode a machine that no one had ever seen before down a frozen Milwaukee street. The velocipede, a wood and iron forerunner of today's bicycles, became known as a “boneshaker” because of its rickety and uncomfortable construction.

Eventually, the poorly designed machines were followed by the era of high-wheelers, named for their massive front wheels.

The rise of cycling in Wisconsin is “a story of remarkable circumstances against all odds,” Gant said. “By 1900, Wisconsin was one of the leading national and international biking destinations.”

The state experienced a second boom in the 1970s and is experiencing another biking boom since 2000, he said.

“Today, Wisconsin is still a strong cycling destination,” Gant said. “In many ways, it is a legacy of that first boom. A lot of people are drawing parallels between the present moment and the past.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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