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SCORCHERS AND THEIR WHEELS


It was spring in Battle Creek a century ago and a young man's fancy turned to -- his bicycle. During the 1890s, bicycling was all the rage in Michigan and all around the country. Riding 8 or 9 abreast, men, women and children traveled through the city and the countryside on their "ordinaries," high wheel cycles with solid rubber tires.

 

Daring young blades, known as "scorchers," could push their machines to a top speed of 15 to 20 miles per hour on good pavement. Novice riders posed another type of threat to the public. One woman remembered that when she was a novice cyclist, "Everything that I looked at I ran into. I saw a policeman coming and told myself I couldn't run into him. When he came near, I ran my bicycle right between his legs."

 

The fear of potentially serious accidents to pedestrians caused by reckless or inexperienced "wheelmen" soon brought a series of city ordinances regulating cycling in the city. A six-mile an hour speed limit was established on Michigan and Capital avenues. On other downtown "streets, lanes and alleys," riders could speed up to ten miles an hour.

 

According to the 1896 law, cyclists were also required to carry a lighted lantern in front of their machines at night. No coasting was allowed on public thoroughfares and riding on sidewalks was strictly forbidden.

 

Injuring unwary pedestrians was not the only hazard for cyclists. The following reminiscence of an impromptu bicycle outing in the 1890s was written by Ethan Adams, one of the pioneer cyclists in the city, and was published in a 1935 newspaper article.

 

It was about noon of a Sunday and several of the club members suddenly decided to take a ride in the country. Charles S. Jones, now an insurance agent but then a postal clerk and an ardent cyclist, had just finished a few hours of holiday work at the postoffice, which was across the street from the club headquarters.

 

Mr. Jones decided to go along, but begged time to change clothes. The others voted against waiting, Mr. Adams recalls, and set out for Upton Avenue and what is now Reese road. They completed their spin and returned without meeting their companion.

 

Back downtown, they found him with a woebegone expression, nursing what looked like an attempt at his life. His throat seemed to have been slashed from ear to ear.

 

Hurrying to catch up with the others, Mr. Jones had not noticed a clothesline which a housewife had stretched across the path. On his high bicycle, he had plunged into it at full tilt. One post to which it was connected gave way with the impact, and Mr. Jones was swung around in a circle. The rope cut through his high wing collar and, as the cyclist finally lost his balance, slipped up under his chin and burned the skin off in a line across his throat.

 

The housewife, who had seen the accident, rushed horrified to the spot. She seized the handkerchief with which Mr. Jones was swabbing his skinned neck. "Just a minute," she said. She hurried into the house and brought it back dripping.

 

 

As she applied the cloth to Mr. Jones' throat, he emitted a last-straw yell of pain. The woman had dipped it in a camphor solution."