The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer

The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer

by Kevin J. Hayes


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Cyclotourism has recently risen to prominence with growing national media coverage and thousands of participants taking to America’s roadways on two wheels and under their own pedal power.

But the concept is not new. More than a century ago, George B. Thayer took his own first “century,” or one-hundred-mile bicycle ride. The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer brings to life the experience of late nineteenth-century cycling through the heartfelt story of this important cycling pioneer.

In 1886, just two years after his first century, Thayer rode his high wheeler across the United States, traveling from his home in Connecticut to California and back. Thayer took an indirect route without any intent to set speed records, but his trip was full of adventure nonetheless. Thayer loved going downhill, his legs over the handlebars, risking life and limb atop the large wheel on often rough and muddy roads. With aplomb and humor, he dealt with the countless other hazards he encountered, including dogs, mule teams, and wild hogs. Even bad weather and poor sleeping conditions could not keep Thayer down.

After his epic tour across the United States, Thayer had the urge to cycle abroad and eventually toured England, Germany, Belgium, and Canada on his bike. His later travels were in part aided by his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, which was the epicenter of American bicycle manufacturing in the late 1890s. In addition to telling Thayer’s cycling story, Kevin J. Hayes brings to life the culture of cycling and its rise at the end of the nineteenth century, when bikes became more affordable and the nation’s riding craze took off.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803255258
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kevin J. Hayes is the author of several books concerning American literature, history, and culture, including An American Cycling Odyssey, 1887 (Nebraska, 2002).

Read an Excerpt

The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer

By Kevin J. Hayes


Copyright © 2015 Kevin J. Hayes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8521-7


The Century

Perched atop his high-wheeled, nickel-plated Columbia Expert, George B. Thayer pedaled into New Haven late one Sunday morning in August 1884. He found the place a welcome sight. Known as the City of Elms, New Haven presented a handsome appearance to nineteenth-century visitors. A contemporary observer called it "unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and one which the stranger always remembers with pleasure." Thayer's experience bears out this observation. Having left his home in Vernon Depot, Connecticut — nearly fifty miles away — at five o'clock that morning, he found himself sorely in need of food and rest. What he really wanted was to treat himself to a fine meal.

Thayer did not want to be too extravagant: he never did. Consequently, he bypassed the New Haven House, the city's finest hotel, choosing instead the Tremont House. Located at the corner of Orange and Court Streets, the Tremont House was neither the second- nor the third- but the fourth-best hotel in New Haven. Seated in its dining room, Thayer had time to consider how far he had come that day. Few physical activities stimulate the appetite or provoke personal reflection more than bicycling. As he sat in this hotel dining room and indulged an appetite whetted by hours of hard cycling, Thayer may have also contemplated the distance he had traveled since his birth thirty-one years earlier.

George B. Thayer — the B stood for Burton, after his mother's maiden name — came from old Puritan stock, really old. He was a direct descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. George's father, John W. Thayer, who had been born in Sterling, Connecticut, on Christmas Day 1819, grew up with the century. After a common school education, he entered the textile trade as a wool sorter. The work was hard: he used to tell George that when he first entered the business, he would work sixteen hours a day sorting wool.

John Thayer's occupation brought him to Waterford, Massachusetts, where he and Adaline Burton met. She had been born at Chepachet, Rhode Island, January 29, 1823. In her childhood, her family had moved to Waterford, where she attended the Bank Village Academy, later continuing her education at the Smithville Seminary, North Scituate, in 1841. On Sunday, April 2, 1843, the Reverend Maxy W. Burlingame married John and Adaline at the Free Will Baptist Church in Waterford, Massachusetts. The following day the newlyweds moved to Rockville, Connecticut.

Rockville suited the young couple. Nelson Sizer — Edgar Allan Poe's phrenologist — visited Rockville in the early 1840s. As a phrenologist, Sizer prided himself on his ability to size up a person's character. His ability to recognize the character of a town was not dissimilar. He called Rockville "a new manufacturing place on the Hockanum river," with "a great fall of water and a number of woolen mills and other works. The people here are young and enterprising, few of them having reached the meridian of life, and most of them range in age from eighteen to thirty years." In other words, the Thayers fit right in. They chose Rockville because John had accepted a position with one of the town's woolen mills — namely, the New England Company. John Thayer rose quickly from wool sorter to superintendent of the plant. Their family grew apace. Adaline gave birth to two sons and a daughter. Adelbert was the oldest, followed by Florine. Two years after Florine's birth, George, their youngest child, was born on Friday, May 13, 1853.

One of George Thayer's earliest memories seems weirdly appropriate for a boy born on Friday the thirteenth, especially one who would earn a reputation as a world traveler. It concerns the first road trip he ever took. When he was four years old, George took the stage coach from Rockville to East Hartford accompanied by a woman whom he described as "an estimable old maid noted for her truthfulness." Thrilled with the passing scenery, young George kept sticking his head out the window. Just before they entered the covered bridge on the road to East Hartford, the old woman warned him to keep his head inside the coach.

"Now, Georgie," she cautioned, "you must keep your head in, for along the inside of this bridge have been placed a lot of hooks to hook off the heads of bad boys who don't mind. The last time I came to Hartford I saw lots of bad boys' heads hanging on these hooks, both sides of the bridge."

Georgie remembered this old woman's gruesome tall tale all his life and retold it several times. Since this experience occurred as part of the earliest travel experience he could remember, it is tempting to consider how the woman's words conditioned the boy's attitude. Travel involves risk. By venturing from the safety of home into the larger world, travelers consciously put themselves in danger. Rigorous, faraway travel becomes a way for them to prove their bravery to themselves and others. George Thayer's attitude cannot be attributed solely to what this old woman said, of course, but he did come to see travel as a way of risking danger to prove himself.

As his family grew, John Thayer became active in politics. A Republican from the very start of the Republican Party, he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1855. His newfound political activism scarcely dulled his business acumen. In 1860 he purchased Ellington Mills, a manufacturing plant located on the Hockanum River about two miles west of Rockville. He also purchased fifty acres of adjoining land onto which he built a number of cottages for his employees and a big yellow-brick home for his family. He named both the company and the village Windermere, after the largest lake in England. Like its namesake, Thayer's Windermere was situated in a scenic area filled with streams and trees, fish and wildlife: a perfect setting for an adolescent boy.

George spent much of his boyhood outdoors, but his parents encouraged him to develop an intellectual life as well. His father's literary tastes were conservative when they came to poetry, progressive when they came to scientific literature. John's favorite poet was Alexander Pope, but he also read The Origin of Species after the first American edition came out. John Thayer found Charles Darwin's conclusions absolutely convincing. George remembered his father discussing Darwin's ideas with others. These discussions deeply impressed young George. To him Darwin's thought became closely associated with the place of Darwin's birth. On a British bicycle tour in 1888, he called England "the birthplace of Darwinian theory."

Mrs. Thayer, better educated than her husband, exerted a greater influence on their children when it came to literature. After George's sister, Florine, embarked on a successful literary career, she made sure to thank their "well-read mother" in an interview with the Ladies' Home Journal. George called their mother "a woman of rare integrity of character, systematic methods, and of intellectual tastes. Her love of reading was her greatest pleasure through life." Mrs. Thayer obviously made an impact on her children, all of whom became involved in the world of literature in one way or another. Adelbert, the most shadowy member of the family, left home at eighteen to become a newspaperman out West. George himself would write several books, and Florine's foray into literature progressed from newspaper contributions to novels and biography.

Adaline Thayer took her children's education seriously. She could be really tough on them when they neglected their studies. One day she caught George skipping school. With switch in hand, she whipped him all the way to the schoolhouse. He remembered: "Blow upon blow rained down upon my back, arms and legs, and the shower did not blow over till I finally entered the school-room door, half a mile distant." Back home that evening, he bared his back to show the red welts in an effort to evoke some sympathy from her. Florine cried out at the sight of her little brother's injuries, but their mother expressed no regret for what she had done. George said, "Her apparent indifference afterwards hurt worse than the original whipping."

Abraham Lincoln was elected president the year George turned seven. News of Lincoln's victory reached Windermere on Wednesday, November 7, the day after the election. Despite his youth, George remembered precisely how his mother reacted.

"Now there will be a war," Mrs. Thayer starkly predicted when she heard the news. Sure enough, war soon broke out. Mr. Thayer kept the Windermere Woolen Company running day and night during the war to produce blankets for Union soldiers, disaster notwithstanding. When fire destroyed the two upper stories of his five-story mill, he quickly rebuilt the factory and kept it going throughout the conflict.

George was fascinated with the reports of war in the newspapers and magazines. He also enjoyed hearing stories about friends, neighbors, and family members who went to war. His father subscribed to the Hartford Courant and Harper's Weekly. George vividly remembered the articles he read in the Courant and the pictures he saw in Harper's Weekly. He used to pore over those pictures, branding its images of war into his brain.

As a boy, he recreated many battles in their home at Windermere, using pennies to stand for soldiers. No doubt his behavior resembled that of many other adolescent boys throughout the war-torn nation. As George later said about himself during the Civil War, "I was full of the military spirit that boys of my age usually are." Remembering the war games he played at their Windermere home, he recalled:

How many times, for hours and hours, have I gone around those rooms on my hands and knees, building forts out of dominoes, and gunboats and rebel rams out of clothes pins, and manning them with small copper pennies, the red ones for rebels and the light-colored ones representing the Union army. Every penny was a thousand men, and during some naval battle, such as the capture of Fort Jackson and Fort Phillip, below New Orleans, which I fought out over and over again, it was no uncommon thing to lose 1,000 men overboard at a clip. Then, during the Wilderness campaign, with one hand I often turned Lee's flank, and with two hands easily put 10,000 men to flight. Occasionally hostilities would be suspended for a time, owing to the fact that some member of the family who wore long dresses had just passed hurriedly through the room. The strongest fortress would then be laid low and the warships dismasted by the hurricane, and with great loss of life swept out to sea. I never could successfully explode the mine at Petersburg, but all the rest of that struggle, around to Five Forks and Appomattox, was fought out to perfection, time and again.

Some of the stories George heard were quite gruesome. His cousin John W. January, who fought at the First Battle of Bull Run, was one of many Union soldiers who afterward ran toward Washington DC for safety. Only five years older than George, January had enlisted in the Fourteenth Illinois Cavalry when he was sixteen. He was captured in Stoneman's Raid in July 1864 and sent to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia, where he suffered malnutrition, scurvy, and gangrene. As a prisoner, January went from his original weight of 165 down to an amazing 45 pounds. He was ultimately sent to the gangrene hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.

January became convinced that the only way to save his life would be to amputate his black, putrid, gangrenous, maggot-infested feet, but the Confederate surgeon refused to treat him. January obtained a sharp pocket knife and, with the help of a friend, severed his feet himself. After the war, another friend called January "one of the most notable human monuments now surviving of the horrors of our civil war." Not even this gruesome story dissuaded his cousin George Thayer from wanting to become a soldier and go to war. Though he dreamt of doing battle with the enemy in close combat, the biggest enemy George Thayer faced during the war years was the measles, which he caught when he was ten.

He did a lot of growing up between Fort Sumter and Appomattox. What had started as play became serious business. Civic-minded leaders stressed the importance of economy and conservation, and George took their advice to heart. He began searching the heaps of ashes beneath the boilers at Windermere Woolen Mills for usable chunks of coal. He regularly collected considerable amounts, which he sold to his mother at what he called "a fair profit." Of course, the coal he sold to his mother belonged to his father, but at least he kept the profit-and-loss account all in the family. The economic lessons he learned served him all his life: George Thayer economized wherever and whenever he could. His capacity for saving money would later help facilitate his long-distance bicycle touring.

George also began keeping a diary during the Civil War. Some entries derive from his personal experience, others from details culled from the Courant. The result is a strange mix, as several entries from 1865 indicate. On Friday, January 27, for example, he recorded that gold was selling for $2.07 a pound. The next day he wrote, "I got three muskrat skins today. They are worth 50 cents apiece." One entry reflects the national economy; the other reflects the private, personal economy of rural boys.

On Monday, February 13, he wrote, "I did not go to school because it was so cold. I went skating and had a fire on the ice." If George, just three months shy of his twelfth birthday, saw any irony in the idea of the weather being too cold to attend school but not too cold to spend the day playing on the ice, he did not admit it to his diary. On Sunday, March 19, he noted that his pet duck laid its first eggs. And on Monday, March 27, he wrote, "I got this pencil over to the store and had it charged to me." Anticipating his life as a writer, he obviously took pride in the tools of the trade.

The next month national news and rumors dominated the pages of his diary:

April 3 — Capture of Richmond by our forces.

April 9 — Glorious news; surrender of General Lee and his whole army.

April 10 — I rung the bell this forenoon because of the surrender of General Lee.

April 11 — Father came home from Boston and brought me five oranges.

April 14 — Awful calamity. President Lincoln was shot by an assassin tonight. Secretary Seward was also stabbed.

April 15 — President Lincoln died this morning at 7:22 o'clock.

Though disturbing, the daily stories of violence in the newspapers did not prevent George from enjoying the pleasures of a rural New England childhood, which he remembered with great fondness and considerable detail. So did his sister, Florine. She retained delightful girlhood memories of walking in the woods and playing in the barnyard. As a child she had several pets, including a turkey, which would "sit on her lap as she read her story book day after day." George remembered two pet pigs — Patrick and Bridget Murphy — which he and Florine used to hold in their laps until they grew too heavy to lift. George also had a horse named Sleepy David, which he sometimes rode to school. Bruiser, a big, scruffy mutt, part Newfoundland and part St. Bernard, was George's favorite pet. In the wintertime, when the ice on the pond out back was thick enough, George used to grab hold of Bruiser's tail and let that gentle beast pull him across the lake on the seat of his pants.

Winter evenings at Windermere offered pleasures of a different sort. Most nights John Thayer would read to his family. Sometimes he read Shakespeare. Charles Dickens was another favorite. John Thayer read all or nearly all of Dickens to his family, often more than once. George later remembered episodes from several novels: Bleak House, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, [The Pickwick Papers, and A Tale of Two Cities. Though sometimes George would fall asleep as his father read, the promise of snacks usually woke him. He recalled:

Like the close of a sermon, the sudden stillness that came over the room as father ceased reading, followed soon after by the thin, small voice of the cider down in the cellar directly underneath, a voice that grew in tone deeper and deeper as the pitcher gradually filled up, this, without further warning, always served to arouse me to the occasion and to the pop-corn and cider. Along towards spring, when the cider had grown hard, a barrel of ale usually found its way into the cellar, and those evenings with Dickens, followed by pop-corn, walnuts or apples and the whole topped off with a glass of nose tingling cider or foaming ale, came to be a part of our very life at Windermere.


Excerpted from The Two-Wheeled World of George B. Thayer by Kevin J. Hayes. Copyright © 2015 Kevin J. Hayes. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    
1. The Century    
2. The White Mountains    
3. The Road to Omaha    
4. The Way to San Francisco    
5. Eastbound and Down    
6. From New England to Old    
7. The Grand Tour    
8. The Rise of the Dwarf    
9. The Swish of the Fat Pneumatics    
10. The Wheel and the Gun    
11. The End of an Era    

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