May is Bike Month

blog bikes

Bikers lined up before a race at Oakview, 1891

If you’ve been to our new exhibit, Pairings: Photographs from the Collections of the Historical Society of Montgomery County, you’ve probably seen the above photograph.  It’s one of my favorites, and since our Executive Director, Barry, keeps reminding me that May is National Bike Month, I thought it was time to dedicate a blog to bicycling in Montgomery County.

As in much of the United States, the bicycle craze hit Montgomery County in 1890’s, and bicycle racing, both amateur and professional was a popular pastime.   Willow Grove Park, the county’s top amusement park, hosted the national meet of the League of American Wheelmen in 1897.


This souvenir album was donated by T. W. Peirie in 2015.

Founded in 1880, the League counted among its members  the Wright Brothers and John D. Rockefeller.  Besides organizing meets, the League worked to increase the number of paved roads to make cycling easier.


As you can see the meet drew a large crowd to the park’s race track or velodrome.


In the picture above you can see the steeped curve that was already a standard part of track design, and in the image below, you can see officials holding the tape that marks the finish line.


The following year, Willow Grove Park featured the track in its souvenir brochure.  The small note on the bottom left says that the track holds the world record for the one mile, 1.85 minutes.  Perhaps the record was set at the Wheelmen’s meet?


Now the pictures from the meet and the name “Wheelmen” might suggest that bicycling was an exclusively male sport.  In fact, the new transport was very popular among women, who now had an inexpensive way of getting around.  In 1895, a group of ladies in Bridgeport founded the “Alpha Bicycle Club.”


The minutes of the Alpha Bicycle Club are part of the Coats Family Papers.


We only have the minutes of a few meetings, so either they started keeping the minutes in a different book, or the club petered out.

The League of American Wheelmen still exists, though it changed its name in 1994 to the League of American Bicyclists (because who uses the word “Wheelmen” anymore?), and it is this organization that sponsors National Bike Month.  So, if the weather ever improves, maybe go for a ride.