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May 7: The Reckless Wheelmen

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The bicycle, so common today, is a relatively cheap method of transportation. It is an efficient means of converting human energy into mobility. The first bicycle was made of wood and the rider propelled it by paddling his feet against the ground.

Pedals were added in the 1860s and it became known as the bicycle. The hard ride of wheels with wooden spokes and iron rims led to the nickname of the “boneshaker.” Wire spokes and rubber tires softened the ride and increased the machine’s popularity.

The bicycle craze caught on in the United States, primarily in cities, which were more likely to have paved streets. Some bicycles were designed with a small rear wheel and a front wheel as large as sixty inches. These were nicknamed the penny-farthing, comparing the large front wheel to the large British penny and the small rear wheel to the tiny British farthing. These were notoriously difficult to ride and were eventually replaced by the so-called “safety bicycle,” which had two wheels of the same diameter.

On this date in 1904, the city of Fargo began a crackdown on bicycle riders who were zipping around on the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to dodge out of the way. The riders used the sidewalks rather than taking their chances on the rough and often muddy roads.

The chief of police announced that bicycles were banned from Seventh Street South between First and Eighth Avenues. The chief had received numerous complaints about the “reckless wheelmen.” On one occasion, a child was playing on the sidewalk in front of his house when he was struck by the wheel of a bike and knocked unconscious. Chief Gowland assured the public that his patrolmen would rigidly enforce the new ordinance. The wheelmen objected, but the citizens of Fargo were largely in favor of it. Many of them suggested that the policy should be extended to other streets as well.

The bicycle has been refined over the years. Improvements were made in materials, gears were added, and most importantly, the inclusion of brakes!

The oil embargo of 1974 spurred the sale of bikes. The development of new models, including mountain, touring, and racing bikes, added to the popularity. Today, the bicycle continues as a popular form of transportation, recreation, and exercise.

 Dakota Datebook by Dr. Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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