Motorists should be thanking cyclists
It's mostly a myth that dairy farmers in need of reliable roads to get their milk to market are the reason we have such good roads in states like Wisconsin. That is partly true, but it was really bicyclists who organized and prodded recalcitrant farmers to join in a movement that eventually gave the state - and the rest of the nation, for that matter - its remarkable transportation system.
In the late 1800s, when inventors were still trying to figure out how to propel a carriage with a gasoline engine, there were already bicycles. First came the Ordinaries, those dangerous high wheelers. When the two-wheeled "safety" bike came on the scene, cycling literally exploded in popularity and in numbers of cyclists during the 1880s and 1890s.
Roads in that era were unpaved and horrible. They turned into mud holes when it rained, frequently becoming impassable. Only a small percentage were improved with gravel or other materials. There was no concrete or asphalt paving.
An effort was undertaken in the 1850s to construct plank roads by laying trunks of trees in parallel corduroy fashion. Watertown Plank Road, now Highway 16 between Milwaukee and Watertown, was one of those early projects. These early toll roads went by the boards (pun intended) when rail lines were constructed to haul goods to and from market.
As the "Gay '90s" came and thousands of people joined the bicycle craze, the cyclists began aligning themselves with other interests in an effort to improve rural roads. The so-called "Good Roads Movement" resulted in the formation in May 1880 of the League of American Wheelmen. The organization (now the League of American Bicyclists) published Good Roads Magazine Circulation soared to a million in only three years. Quite a feat considering the U.S. population was only 75 million at the time.
So contrary to the current urban legend that farmers created our good roads, they actually had to be dragged by bicyclists down the path to a better transportation system.
"Rather than view the good roads movement as a reform in their own interest, farmers frequently charged that proposals for road improvement were only a selfish ruse of the wheelmen," wrote historian Ballard Campbell in the summer 1966 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
"Many farmers consequently denounced bicyclists as 'city dudes' and 'lazy fellows,' and urged their legislators during the 1890s to curtail cycling on country roads," Campbell wrote, an attitude that hasn't changed much in some places.
How did these "city dude" and "lazy fellow" bicyclists change transportation in America? Campbell cites a comment by Roy Stone, first director of the federal office of Road Inquiry, who said, "Every wheelman is a preacher, a worker and a fighter for good roads."
Here's how it happened, according to Campbell.
"A year after the appearance of the first American-made bicycle in 1878, startled observers noted the first cyclists in Wisconsin spinning around Market Square in Racine. ... By the 1890s. a cycling craze engulfed both Wisconsin and the nation. In 1890, a thousand adults owned cycles in Milwaukee alone, and four years later one estimate calculated that 15,000 enthusiasts rode bicycles in Wisconsin."
Campbell found most cycling activities occurred primarily in the more urbanized eastern part of Wisconsin, especially around Milwaukee. He says by the end of the 1890s Milwaukee had 11 cycling clubs, the majority of the state's 20 bicycle manufacturing plants and dozens of repair shops.
"In an age increasingly confined to urban locations, the bicycle offered city dwellers a new kind of mobility. Drawn out of the towns and cities partly by a sense of rural nostalgia, the bicycle provided urban families with a unique social release that allowed outdoor recreation in the countryside as well as convenient transportation within the city."
Cambell continued. "As a result of their cycling activities, the bicyclists became interested in good roads, and most contemporary observers of the good roads movement in Wisconsin credit the bicyclists with organizing the first concerted agitation for highway improvement."
We may see a bit of irony in the fact that although bicyclists paved the way, quite literally, for the motor vehicle, which came upon the scene after the turn of the century, there is considerable conflict between motorists and cyclists. But without those early bicyclists fighting to improve their access to the countryside, we might not have state and federal highway programs and cars might still be stuck in the mud.
So the next time some driver suggests you ought not be sharing the road with them, or some ignorant politician calls for ending bicycle transportation funding, tell them to study a little history. If it were not for bicyclists we might not even have good roads. And we cyclists still support those roads by paying fuel taxes every time we drive to participate in a bicycle event.
The Campbell article can be found at wisconsinhistory.org. Also Google "law good roads history" for a wealth of info about this important era in American cycling.
Bill Hauda is a bicyclist, veteran of some 50 marathons, including 13 in Boston; a former competitive triathlete; founder and first president of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin; currently a BFW board member; and former director of Wisconsin's two major cross-state bicycle tours, GRABAAWR and SAGBRAW.