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Feature Article on cycling. Topic: SPORTS & PEOPLE
Written by Rich Wallace in July, 1996


Members of the Valley City Cycling Club pose for the picture below. At the height of its activities, the club had several dozen members. Bicycling as a sport and social activity was popular in Shelby County, Ohio during the 1880s and 1890s.

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As important as the automobile has been to modern society since 1900, many historians point to the bicycle as the invention that truly got America moving for the first time. Jay Pridemore, in his book The American Bicycle, traces the rapid development of the "wheel," as the bicycle was called then, in changing the sporting and social life in the US. beginning in the early 1880's.  He noted that bicycles offered young men (and eventually ladies) their first opportunity to travel easily beyond the neighborhood and to socialize in a sporting activity. The cycling craze swept across the country and captivated the attention of people as the sports of football and basketball do today. At the center of it all were two young Sidney men. Both were destined to hold numerous world records before their careers were concluded. This is the story of those exciting times and the men who made Shelby County the hub of cycling in Ohio.

The big wheel cycle was the machine of the day when O.W. Nisewonger first took up the sport. He was just 17 years old. The year was 1882, and America had just crowned her first cycling champion. The Nisewonger family had moved from Illinois to Cynthian Township in 1870. After teaching school in Turtle Creek and Cynthian Townships for a few years, O.W. entered the jewelry and book business. A year later, Nisewonger was winning local wheel races. Early in the 1887 racing season, he defeated the champion of Indiana in a match race at Napolean, Ohio. Later that year, he won his first state championship by capturing the three mile title at Ottawa.

By the early 1890's the cycling craze had swept to every corner of America. Pridemore reported that by 1890, one-third of all the patents issued in the country involved bicycles. By 1891, the big wheel was out of style, and the 'wheel' had developed into the basic style we know today. Pneumatic tires were on the scene by 1895.

Cycling cut across social lines. The wheel was called "the most democratic of vehicles." In Charles Pratt's The American Bicycle, the author recalls that in the 1897 election for mayor of New York City, three of four candidates campaigned as "bicycle riders."

In Shelby County, the social activity centered around the Valley City Cycling Club. At the height of its activities, the club had several dozen members. When the weather permitted, Sundays would always find the wheelmen on the road. The Shelby County Democrat reported a typical outing in July of 1895: Web Sterline, B.D. Heck, G.R. Loudenbeck, Dr. Tenney, J.L. Dickensheets and several others rode to Anna for breakfast. The riders then continued through McCartyville to Minster, over through the Loramies to Oran, Dawson, and then back to Sidney, covering 43 miles overall. Another club run that year took the members from Sidney to Dayton, then to St. Paris and Springfield, and back through Troy and Piqua to Sidney.

Nisewonger ruled the roads until a young man from Lockington arrived on the scene. After graduating from Ohio Northern University, W.S. Furman began a thirteen year teaching career. During summer vacations, he took up the sport of cycling. Furman first competed at age 17.

Typical of the successes the two Shelby Countians achieved were the July 4th races in Cincinnati in 1894. Nisewonger won the hill climb race over a large field, establishing a world's record in the process. The Democrat reported that he came back the next day to take second in "the great Poorman's road race " in the same city. Furman chose a 15 mile race the same day elsewhere in Hamilton County. He finished first out of 115 riders, despite starting with a three minute handicap (a common device designed to even out the field.)

Following the lead of Nisewonger and Furman, other young county men took up the sport competitively. In October of that year, Charles Penrod of Oran won the Coldwater 16 mile race, with J.T. Reiber of Loramie also finishing in the money.

The 1895 racing season proved to be just as exciting for the fans of the sport. In a marketing move seen often today, the Cleveland Bicycle Company gave a free machine to W. S. Furman, most likely in exchange for his use and endorsement of its product. He did not disappoint his new sponsor. On June 1, Furman won a major 25 mile road race there, setting a world record of one hour and nine minutes. A week later, the Sidney Journal reported that the Valley City Cycling Club held a banquet for Furman. The "feast of reason and the flow of soul" lasted until midnight.

Furman and Nisewonger returned to Cincinnati on July 4th in an effort to duplicate their success from the previous year. Nisewonger again won the hill climbing contest, finishing ahead of his nearest rival by over a minute. Furman also repeated as champion. In the Poorman's race the next day, Furman lost, but received a $50 gold brick for having the fastest time on tires sold by the race sponsor.

These men also took time to help develop the sport locally. When the Wynant fire company sponsored a race at Newport in connection with its summer picnic, Nisewonger was the race director and Furman served as handicapper. The Journal reported that the winner was J. G. Staley, "who has only been riding a wheel four months." In the summer of 1897, a five mile race beginning and ending in downtown Sidney was held for boys 18 and under. Some of the top riders were Frank Thedieck, F. McClure, Wilbur Blue and W. O. Lane.

he fad of cycling of course had its detractors - namely, the horse and buggy operators. The Journal took the wheelmen to task in an April, 1896 editorial. "While the bicycle has come to stay, it must be sensible and wise," the paper wrote. "It must recognize certain has rights which must be protected, but it also has responsibilities and duties...Horses and carriages have undisputed rights in the streets..." At about the same time, women were getting into the act as well. In the Spring of 1896, the Journal quoted with approval a young English lady: "Nothing short of being in love can so utterly change and electrify a woman as the bicycle craze." She reported that one of her friends "was actually saved from melancholia, and instead of becoming a poor, crazed now a sensible, healthy human being" by taking up cycling.

Later that same year, the Journal related that Della Conover of Clinton Township was a "record breaker." She rode from Sidney to Muncie, Indiana - "The longest ride yet made by any girl in Shelby County." She was of course properly accompanied by a male escort, her cousin Charles. Up the road a ways in Toledo, Miss Julia Bartley served as a trailblazer for Della Conover and others. The Democrat reported that she completed a 404 mile ride and had plans for more. "My ambition this year is to make a quintuple, or 500 mile ride, as well as a ride from Toledo to Boston," she said.

Meanwhile, Nisewonger developed a novel hobby to keep busy and amuse his neighbors in Oran. George Chrisman, an elderly resident of the village, told an anonymous biographer in the early 1900's that Nisewonger would race the county hack (or taxi) from Oran to Hardin, usually arriving three to five minutes ahead of the hack.

As the sport grew in popularity, so did the concern over the risks the wheelmen encountered. Periodicals of the day issued dire warnings of "bicycle hump," or posterior dorsal curvature. Mothers worried that the nervous systems of their children would be damaged.

Accidents on the roads were fairly common. Nisewonger and H.C. Jones of Sidney entered the October, 1897 Cleveland to Pittsburgh race billing themselves as the "Oran Team." Nisewonger fell twice - once hitting a dog, and the second time striking a fallen rider in front of him. Twenty miles from the finish, when he was third in large field, Jones fell when he could not avoid a rider who crashed just in front of him. Injuries prevented both Shelby County men from continuing.

Jones must have felt jinxed. The Journal reported that earlier in the season on August 18 while nearing the finish of a road race in Newark, he collided with another rider "...and was thrown, bruising him considerably." On the same day, in a race at Bellefontaine, John Bush of Orange Township and McVey Lindsay of Washington Township met with similar fates. After being thrown off his wheel, Bush recovered to still place in the money. Lindsay's front tire came off the rim, causing his fall.

Cycling was rough on the spectators as well. Eleven year old Walter Kendall climbed a tree on the Anton Brandewie farm near the Loramies to get a better view of the wheelmen as they streamed by on a sunny day in June of 1895. The limb on which he was sitting broke, and he fell, crushing his left shoulder badly. Both Nisewonger and Furman converted their fame into business opportunities. The former operated a bike shop from 1890 to 1900, and the latter was in the business for two years beginning in 1897, setting up stores in Sidney and Quincy.

At the close of the 19th century, cycling declined dramatically in popularity as the automobile took to the roads. Both Shelby County stars stayed competitive to the last, with Furman setting his last world record in 1899, and Nisewonger doing some of his best racing the same year.

O. W. Nisewonger remained a resident of Oran. His racing career covered almost twenty years, and during that time, he won in excess of two hundred races. Beginning just before the end of his racing career, he occupied a variety of public service positions for over three decades, including postmaster of Oran, clerk of the township, clerk of the school district and justice of the peace in Oran.

W.S. Furman raced competitively for only ten years, but won 157 races during that span. A periodical of the time credits him with "a score of world's records and many state records." Furman decided to study the law, and at the age of 30, he was admitted to the bar. He developed a successful practice and opened a partnership with former county prosecutor James Way. Furman later turned to politics. He organized campaigns for others, and wrote what were to become his trademark "common sense" articles about issues of the day. A biographer around 1910 paid him the highest compliment: "He enjoys to a high degree friendships of all the people, especially the laboring element, who, in the language of Buddie Shang find him "Every day alike."


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