Best city for biking in the 1880s? Minneapolis!


Well, hot banana seat: The bicycle is turning 150! (Well, depending on how you count the years. But it’s a good time to celebrate, regardless.) On April 4, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War, Pierre Lallement took his first bicycle ride in New Haven. He filed for a patent less than a month later.

Hennepin History Museum

In honor of this historic moment, Hennepin History Museum is partnering with the Cycling Museum of Minnesota for a show that features high-wheel bicycles, which were all the rage in the 1880s. And guess where the hub was for high wheel racing in the United States at the time? Minneapolis, of course. Some things never change, clearly.

The exhibit tells the story of cycling in Minneapolis in the 1880s, presenting half a dozen high-wheel bicycles from the time period, as well as other smaller artifacts like membership cards, race trophies, a bicycle repair kit, and photographs.

The six-day race, where competitors biked 8 to 12 hours a day for six days to see who could cover the most distance, was all the rage in the 1880s. “Minneapolis was pretty much a hotbed for that particular type of racing,” curator Kate Cravens says.  During her research, Cravens was surprised to discover that Minneapolis had more six-day races than any other city in the country during the 1880s, including Madison Square Garden, which a decade later would make up for lost time. “Some argue that Minneapolis popularized six-day racing,” she says.

Most of the races took place at the Washington Rink, located on Washington Avenue and 10th Avenue North, an indoor roller skating rink that had a track around it. The venue was also used for skating lessons, boxing matches, and musical entertainment before it burned down in a fire in 1896. 

Besides races at the Washington Rink, there were also a number of bicycle clubs in operation, starting in about 1882, that would take rides around the city. “They would announce their rides in the newspaper,” she says. The clubs would take different routes, with destinations including Lake Calhoun, Minnehaha Falls, or St. Paul — just like the various formal and informal rides that happen these days.

Ed Savage, well-known amateur rider in Minnesota

Ed Savage, well-known amateur rider in Minnesota

Much like today, bicycles were considered vehicles, and could legally be on the streets, which caused some controversy. “People riding horses and carriages did not want high wheels on the road because it scared the horses,” Cravens says. Bikes were not allowed on the sidewalks, however, as they were considered dangerous.

The one thing the exhibit doesn’t include a lot about is the bikes that women rode. The high wheels, unfortunately, made it impossible for a woman to ride in the 1880s because it conflicted with the accepted clothing they had to wear at the time. Women did ride tricycles, which had two great big wheels on either side and a smaller wheel in the front. The model they were going to include in the exhibit didn’t fit into any of the doorways, so it didn't make show show, Cravens says. 

There was one famous female high-wheel racer named Louise Armaindo, whose photo is included in the exhibition. “She created her own uniform, so to speak,” Cravens says. She wore a tunic and tight breaches, but decorated her jacket with lace. “What you get is a lovely juxtaposition of a male associated outfit but feminized by the woman who is wearing it,” says Cravens.

In addition to the bikes and objects, the exhibit also offers a chance to experience what it felt like to ride a high-wheel bicycle. There is an interactive piece in the show that includes a frame built to hold reproduction high wheels. Visitors can climb into the contraption and pedal, giving an idea of what a different body position the bikes entail from today's typical bike. “It’s a much more upright position,” Cravens says.


High Wheels

March 29- June 26

The opening party takes place from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 31

Hennepin History Museum