Experience Old-Fashioned Cycling Like It’s the 1890s

Image: Ellie Gahart

Ellie Gahart is seen through the spokes of a bicycle. Bob Johnston Photography

Bicyclists seem to be everywhere these days, but it is not the first time cycling fever has swept the country.

The sport caused a cycling craze in the late 1800s, and a new exhibit aims to help visitors capture the excitement of that bygone time.

Sign up for top Travel news direct to your inbox.

“Catch Wheel Fever!” — a permanent, interactive experience that celebrates the national cycling boom — opened this month at Old World Wisconsin, an outdoor living history museum located between Milwaukee and Madison.

“The decade of the 1890s was a period when biking just took off,” said Dan Freas, Old World Wisconsin’s director. Guests will be able to hop on adult- and child-sized replica tricycles and bicycles from the era and take a spin around the track, and can put on period apparel and climb aboard a replica high-wheel bike and have their photos taken, just as early riders once did.

Image: Cameron Lom
Cameron Lom rides an old-fashioned bicycle at Old World Wisconsin. Bob Johnston Photography

The museum designed a series of hands-on experiences and activities to engage visitors while they wait to take rides on the replica bikes, taking a cue from theme parks, zoos and other attractions, Freas said, “to create immersive experiences not normally associated with history museums, with exhibits that typically conjured up old things in glass cases.”

Guests can tinker at the workbench and try their hands using tools in a simulated 1890s-era bicycle repair shop to discover the similarities in century-old technology to today's bicycles, and they can visit an area built to look like a typical 19th century biking club, like one belonging to the Badger Wheelman, a Milwaukee club that no longer exists.

“When you wander into the space, you have opportunity to experience all that was left behind,” Freas said, like a table with half-consumed mugs of coffee and reproduction road maps that member cyclists might have used to plan and navigate their adventures. “We worked with local musicians, who recorded from sheet music from the period,” he said, so guests can listen to and learn the late-19th century songs that cyclists sang.

Wisconsin quickly came to the forefront of the global cycling movement in the late 1800s, Freas said. The state had established itself as a major manufacturing and industrial center, its rural roads improved to be better able to transport merchandise, milk and other dairy products. “Good roads mean good cycling,” he said.

On Saturday, July 19, visitors can ride on their own bicycles along with The Wheelman, an antique bicycle enthusiast group from Milwaukee, who will ride high wheelers, on a special 10-mile ride in and around Old World Wisconsin’s grounds.

Freas said he was not aware of any other cycling exhibit that combined interactive opportunities with scholarship, appealing to both families with young children and those with a deep interest in history.

“Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State,” published in September 2013 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, which owns Old World Wisconsin, serves as a companion guide to the exhibit.

“There are very few state or city histories” about cycling, said Nicholas J. Hoffman, who co-authored “Wheel Fever” with Jesse J. Gant. The book is important because it shows advocacy and other trends on a regional level that shed light on and impact the broader issues of the bicycle movement today, he said, noting that “a surge” of such local accounts are expected to be published nationally in coming years. “Boston's Cycling Craze, 1880-1900: A Story of Race, Sport, and Society,” is scheduled for publication in paperback later this month, for example.

“One thing that remains constant is the desire to pedal outdoors. The sheer joy of cycling they felt then is very similar to what we experience today.”

David V. Herlihy, who wrote the foreword to “Wheel Fever,” said the new exhibit helped highlight both the similarities and differences between the biking cultures of the late 19th century and today.

“The 1890s boom transformed cycling from an elite, male-dominated pastime to a popular pursuit that included women and other previously excluded groups,” said Herlihy, who is the author of “The Lost Cyclist” ( 2010) and “Bicycle: The History” (2004). "The phenomenon was triggered by a sea change in bike design that made riding safer, more appealing, and ultimately more affordable."

Today, we champion the bicycle as a "green" machine, an aspect not truly appreciated in the 1890s, he said.

“But cycling really hasn’t changed all that much,” Herlihy said, noting that parallels include its positive impact on health, its practicality as a means of transportation, and its appeal as a social outlet. “One thing that remains constant is the desire to pedal outdoors. The sheer joy of cycling they felt then is very similar to what we experience today.”