This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.  For more photos, click here for our gallery of photos from the magazine (plus more!). To see how the bikes look in the museum’s basement, click here.    * by Michael Horne     Photo by Jourdan Lauik. It was while shopping for ice skates […]

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine
For more photos, click here for our gallery of photos from the magazine (plus more!).
To see how the bikes look in the museum’s basement, click here

 

*

by Michael Horne

 

 
Photo by Jourdan Lauik.

It was while shopping for ice skates in San Francisco in August 1942 that Carl Dietz found an 1890 Warwick bicycle at a Goodwill store. It would become the first of many vintage bicycles he’d collect. Dietz, a Milwaukee alderman and Milwaukee Public Museum board president, was an inveterate collector who had for years been amassing a collection of vintage skates and typewriters.

The Warwick reminded him of a bike his parents gave him when he was a child. “I was the second person in Milwaukee to own a safety bike,” he once recalled. “I got it when I was 12. The year was 1888. I loved those bikes.”

In less than three years, Dietz had added 28 more bikes to his collection. When his 29-piece collection first went on display at the public museum on Jan. 21, 1945, it set an attendance record, doubling the usual number of Sunday visitors.

Dietz continued to collect until his death at age 82 in 1957, when the stash was reported to number 53 bicycles.

Yet when the museum’s new facility on West Wells Street was completed in 1962, not a single period bike made its way into the popular turn-of-the-century Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit, though bicycle use was at its peak in the Gay Nineties. Just 17 years after that popular exhibition of Dietz’s bicycles, the museum he’d long served had completely forgotten about the collection.

For nearly a half-century, these bicycles have hung from the ceiling and crowded the floor of the museum’s basement storage area, gathering dust and rust, forgotten by the public and ignored by their custodians. And yet experts contacted by Milwaukee Magazine believe this collection, which includes some of this country’s oldest and rarest bicycles, is among the finest to be found, second only to that of the Smithsonian Institution in our nation’s capital.

The story of how this remarkable collection was created and then forgotten is a curious one. Equally curious is the attitude of senior museum staff, who seem completely uninterested in rescuing or displaying the collection, citing the costs and other difficulties. Never was such a rare collection so neglected.

*

Carl P. Dietz was born Sept. 19, 1875, in Newark, N.J., where his father was a Yale-schooled German Baptist minister. His missionary work took the family to various cities, as they moved to Milwaukee, then San Francisco, Rochester, N.Y., then back to San Francisco, and Milwaukee again.

As a young man, Dietz practiced law, then worked in a wholesale grocery business while finding time to take to the stage, travelling with the Wilbur-Kirwin Opera Company and the Murray-Hart repertory company. As the “Jolly Juggler,” he delighted crowds juggling a cavalryman’s boot, a ball and a bushel basket.

A 1902 speech by Eugene Debs persuaded Dietz to join the Socialist Party. He won the first of three two-year terms as a justice of the peace in 1904. He was “the first Socialist to occupy the bench in a court of record in the United States,” notes a biography of Dietz.

When the Socialists captured Milwaukee’s City Hall in 1910, Dietz was elected comptroller and is credited with creating Milwaukee’s first scientific budget. He served in office for one term until 1912, when he entered the insurance business, and he stayed in it even after being elected 10th Ward alderman in 1918 – a position he held for 30 years.

While an alderman, Dietz suggested the city could be beautified by planting flowering trees and shrubs in its boulevards and then planted 34 crab apple and plum trees in 1937. He later and unsuccessfully proposed that the city be absorbed by the county to create a consolidated government.

The ever-busy Dietz also served on the boards of the old Auditorium-Arena and of the Milwaukee Art Institute (now Milwaukee Art Museum). And in 1938, Dietz was appointed president of the public museum board, where he was to serve for 15 years.

The position seemed a natural, as he had by then become a collector of rare items that would help build the museum’s inventory. Dietz was “bitten by the collecting bug in 1934,” one news story noted, when he found a typewriter for sale in San Diego of the same kind he had used as a youth.

“As I examined the machine, I recollected that Milwaukee is the birthplace of the modern typewriter, and it occurred to me that someone ought to make a collection for the museum,” Dietz told the reporter. “Then I decided to do it myself … in the belief that 10 or 15 machines would cover the field. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

In four years, the machines multiplied to 400. Today, the museum’s collection numbers more than 900 and is being restored.

From there, Dietz went on to create collections of vacuum cleaners and sleigh bells. At a League of Municipalities convention in Wausau in 1939, Dietz found a pair of ice skates that reminded him of ones his parents had given him as a 14-year-old in 1889, and yet another collection was begun. It would soon number in excess of 750 pairs spanning two centuries and “representing every country in the world that is cold enough to have ice,” a report noted.

Milwaukee newspaper readers were regularly treated to feel-good stories whenever Dietz returned after a buying spree. “The vacation or business trip that passes without at least a half-dozen visits to strange attics, secondhand stores, salvage shops and junkyards is a failure, as far as Ald. Dietz is concerned,” The Milwaukee Journal wrote. Dietz’s latest interests, the paper said, were collecting hand-operated vacuums and foot-powered bikes.

Today, the Dietz typewriter and skate collections are considered the largest and most complete of their type in the world. It’s entirely possible the bicycle collection also merits this distinction.

*

The first bicycles were made in the early to mid-1800s, but they were unwieldy creations with wheels of wood or metal. All that changed in the Gay Nineties. As Dietz wrote in a story lovingly recalling the era, “The modern low-frame bicycle and the pneumatic [air-filled] tire appeared about 1890, with the result that the bicycle craze struck with a bang. Everybody wanted to ride.

“For the first time in history,” Dietz continued, “man was able by his own power to skim over the ground on cushions of air. Freedom, the open country, those were the watchwords. … Columbia, Victor, Warwick, Lovell Diamond, Rambler, Racycle,” Dietz wrote, ticking off the popular brand names, “what names to conjure up memories of new vistas, tours to Cedarburg, Pewaukee, Waukesha and even the ‘Century Run’ to Watertown and return.”

Milwaukee was an important bicycle manufacturing center. In 1889, Charles Jeremiah Smith devised a method of forming bicycle front-wheel forks from sheet metal, eventually using the process to make bike frames. C.J. Smith & Sons soon became the largest bicycle parts manufacturer in the U.S., and eventually in the world.

Other local companies included farm implement manufacturers Lindsay Brothers, which caught the bike fever and manufactured almost 100 different models, ranging from the Albert Lea Special to the Zephyr. Julius Andrae and his sons also made bicycles, and the Dietz collection has early examples of both men’s and women’s models; the firm continues today as Terminal-Andrae Inc., which bills itself as the nation’s first electrical contractor.

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By 1896, the A. D. Meiselbach Manufacturing Co. had a five-story factory at 19th Street and St. Paul Avenue to manufacture bicycles, with another plant in what was then the town of North Milwaukee. Also active in this city were Columbia Carriage and Cycle Co., Bolte Manufacturing Co., League Cycle Co., Benzemaker Brothers, Fred Weil Co. and the Huseby Cycle Manufacturing Co., whose building at what is now 204 S. Second St. boasted a sign that read “Mfgrs of Wood & Aluminum Bicycles & Parts.”

But by the early 1900s, Milwaukee was on the road to becoming a manufacturer of new forms of transportation. In 1901, William S. Harley drew a blueprint for a bicycle engine, and the first production model of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle appeared two years later. C.J. Smith & Sons saw their production of automobile frames jump from 10 per day to thousands per month by 1903; for nearly 90 years thereafter, every frame of every Cadillac was made by what by then had become A.O. Smith Corp. The company still exists (though it’s now much smaller) in Milwaukee.

As the internal combustion engine reached its ascendancy, Milwaukee’s first bicycles soon found their way into the scrap heaps and the steel drives of two world wars. The few remaining bikes were scattered throughout the country – in barns, basements and attics, awaiting their discovery by a determined Milwaukee alderman.

Dietz’s first find, the 1890 Warwick discovered in San Francisco, was among the earliest “safety bicycles,” and has the double-triangle frame, equal-sized pneumatic tires and chain-drive mechanism that characterizes nearly every bicycle made since then. At the time a radical innovation, it soon made obsolete all previous bicycles. “They were called safety because the high wheel had been done away with,” Dietz once recalled. “They were among the first built.”

By January 1943, Dietz had already collected four bicycles, including what was called a “Fishing Pole Bike,” because it was made of bamboo. He traveled to Ripon, Wis., to purchase an 1885 model “Star” bicycle, which he’d sought for two years, and it was the ninth addition to his collection.

Dietz kept up his travels, expanding the collection to 45 in 1946, adding such exceptional rarities as an 1875 Otto Transitional Ordinary and an 1885 Adult Tricycle. Dietz sought out bikes of the very earliest days, those with wooden spokes, unusual mechanisms (or none at all), and any number of versions of the “boneshakers” (whose iron wheels made for an uncomfortable ride) and “penny farthings” (with the yardlong spokes and huge front wheel that looked like a coin to some), which led to the development of the modern bicycle. But the full list of bikes he collected remains a mystery.

 *

The most likely place to learn more about the Dietz bicycle collection would seem to be the Milwaukee Public Museum itself. But the staff seems to know – or volunteer – little information about it.

“Yes, Carl Dietz did donate several bikes,” Al Muchka of the museum staff notes in a reply to an inquiry from Milwaukee Magazine, understating the collection by about 50 bicycles, “but for the museum, his real contribution was the typewriter collection.”

The magazine’s request for a list of the bicycles in the collection and images of them to accompany this story also provided a disappointing answer from Ellen Censky, the senior vice president and academic dean of the museum: “The only information that we have on each bike is the catalog registration and entry. We have no documents of provenance, advertising or trade literature. Dietz and other donors did not provide documentary evidence or histories for the bikes. … Unfortunately, the Dietz bikes came in over a 20-year period [1936-1957], and they were cataloged as they came in and therefore are in several different catalogs.”

Milwaukee Magazine was given a brief half-hour of access to the collection. The bicycles are in a secure storage area in the bowels of the museum, accessible only through elaborate security procedures. There, in the dimly lit, cinder block room, dozens of bicycles dangle from water pipes hung along the perimeter. Others are in a jumble on the floor. Each bicycle has a single tag attached to it with very little information – just a name (if known) and a number.

Still, it was clear there are very many very old bikes. There were boneshakers, penny farthings and tandem bikes of all descriptions, including a 7-foot model where the riders were positioned one above another. One even had seats for eight!

There were bikes made by blacksmiths, tinkerers, wheelwrights and apparently even plumbers. There were bikes with treadles rather than pedals, bikes propelled by shafts or belts instead of chains. There were bicycles that resembled today’s, but were made out of steel pipe, or aluminum, or…

There it was! The 1897 Huseby bamboo bicycle, with its wooden rims and, of all things, cast aluminum fittings, made on South Second Street in Milwaukee.

What can be done to get these bikes on display? “Well, that’s really not one of our priorities,” Muchka explains. “My personal interest is in the Nunnemacher Arms Collection, and we are working on the typewriters as we speak.”

How much effort would it take to exhibit the bikes?

“Oh, quite a bit. Each one would have to be restored before display,” Muchka explains. “It would take thousands of hours. We don’t have the money, the staff or, frankly, the interest.”

What if outside money were raised?

“We have other priorities.”

Could we have somebody at least write down what is on all of these tags so the bikes could be properly researched?

“This is a high-security area.”

How about museum interns?

“The unions wouldn’t like it,” Muchka replies, ending the interview.

A later interview with Censky was nearly as discouraging. “Whether these bicycles go on display is a matter for the conservator, whose charge is to protect these items for future generations,” she says. “I’m not saying we’ll never do an exhibit on bikes, but it is not now on our priority list.”

*

On a hunch, we stopped by the Milwaukee Public Library in search of more information on this mysterious collection. The library, besides housing all kinds of arcane local historical information, also happened to share its quarters with the museum for almost 70 years before the new museum opened in 1962.

Asked if there was any info on Milwaukee bicycles, a librarian said, apologetically, “Yes, but they are old bikes, I’m afraid.”

Old bikes, did you say?

And there, in the “Transportation-Bicycle” file, were undated black and white photographs of 19 of the bicycles in the museum’s basement. Each was marked “Milwaukee Public Museum Photo” on the back, yet they weren’t donations from the museum, but a 1965 gift of George F. Kruell, who somehow got his hands on them. Kruell inscribed the back of each photograph with the name of the bicycle and information about it, often including how it had come into the possession of Dietz.

Here were names for many of the bikes forgotten in the museum’s basement. The Phoenix, the Monarch Chainless, the Facile Dwarf Highwheel Safety, the Milwaukee-made Andrae, the Ladies Andrae, the Lallement…

The Lallement? The first commercially manufactured bicycle in the country?

“First American Made Bicycle. 1865. Made by Pierre Lallement, at Ansonia, Connecticut, and patented by him November 20, 1866,” the back of the photo reads. “This model was brought to Albuquerque, New Mexico over the Santa Fe Trail in an ox-cart, where Mr. Dietz secured it for his collection.”

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Why, not even the Smithsonian has a Lallement!

Milwaukee Magazine sent copies of these newfound photographs to Jacques Graber, a bicycle expert who appraised the Pierce Miller bicycle collection at the University of California-Davis, which, along with the Smithsonian, appears to have the only considerable holding of 19th-century bicycles in academic hands.

Graber notes some weaknesses in attribution for some photos, but is quite impressed, offering an assessment of the value of some of the bicycles: “The Lallement – very rare, $8,000-$10,000. … Stearns Tandem men’s/ladies – Complete, though both seats have been replaced with 20th-century versions. Rare, $18,000-$24,000. … The 1886 Star – Complete, very rare, $20,000-$25,000. …

“Facile-type Dwarf Highwheel Safety – Dwarf safeties are extremely rare as they, like Stars and Eagles, were in a quick transition to the chain-driven safeties which came quickly after the highwheel turned obsolete. VERY very rare, $28,000-$34,000. … Eagle Highwheel Safety – Very complete. Extremely rare. This one has a circa-1930s saddle replacing the original hammock saddle. $17,000-$20,000.”

Overall, says Graber, “quite an impressive assemblage of bicycles to have been ‘misplaced’ for a while.”

The Pierce Miller collection – which, like Milwaukee’s, was collected by a single individual in the mid-20th century, numbers 65 bikes. The university used federal funds to buy the bicycles for $375,000 in 2000. But the collection is no match for Milwaukee’s.

“From what I have seen, this collection surpasses the Pierce Miller collection,” says Graber. “The Milwaukee collection is a significant collection. The bicycles are in very complete original condition, aside from a few replaced seats; the critical items such as wheels, pedals and other smaller parts are very critical to a bicycle’s value both monetarily and informationally.”

Graber’s opinion is echoed by Pryor Dodge, a New Yorker who purchased a collection of restored antique bicycles that he has displayed as a touring museum exhibition. Dodge feels there is an interest in old bicycles, but says he struggled getting museum officials to share his enthusiasm. Even so, his collection outdrew a dinosaur exhibition taking place at the same time when both were on display in Tennessee. And dinosaurs are big sellers in the world of natural history museums.

“You have a bonanza in your backyard,” Dodge says of the Milwaukee Public Museum collection. And it should be noted that both Dodge and Graber were making their judgments based on photos of only about half of the entire collection. Dietz’s focus on bikes built prior to 1890 might just give Milwaukee the edge on the Smithsonian for that era.

Dodge cautions that Muchka’s idea that the bikes need to be restored before being shown may be a mistake. “Many of the bikes in the Pierce Miller collection are in similar condition to yours. They had two bikes restored, and stopped it there. The bikes lost their character.”

John Flynn, head of the Wisconsin chapter of The Wheelmen, an antique bicycle club, says he tried to get Milwaukee’s museum interested in the bikes, to no avail. “I was down there 20 years ago to look at the bikes, and they weren’t interested then. They used to be on display at the old museum. They’ve been in the basement ever since.”

Censky offers a more in-depth take on why the collection is not being displayed. “This is primarily a natural history museum,” she says. “We have 4 million objects and cannot possibly display all of them.”

She adds that the Milwaukee Public Museum is a very large institution compared to the community it serves. The only city with a comparable situation, she adds, is Pittsburgh. But its museums are well-endowed with money from the Carnegie steel fortune. Milwaukee’s museum was operated by the city, then the county, and was largely government funded. Now, as a private institution, it is hampered by a lack of a significant endowment.

If the bicycles were ever to be displayed, Censky says, the funds to do so would most likely come from a private company like American Exhibitions Inc., which produces traveling shows, including “Mummies of the World,” recently on display, and Gunther Von Hagens’ “Body Worlds” exhibition of plasticized corpses, both of which drew crowds to the museum.

The museum, however, has successfully applied for federal funds to restore the Dietz typewriter collection, which had fallen into disrepair. As with the bike collection, it is unlikely the typewriters will ever be displayed in their entirety, but the museum took an active interest in their preservation.

Typewriters, like bicycles, are mechanical creations of the 19th century. The former are remarkable for their many moving parts in a compact package, while the latter are remarkable for their relatively few moving parts and elegant simplicity. It’s worth noting, though, that bicycles are still in use – and have become increasingly popular worldwide, arguably making their early history of more importance.

But it may take a squeaky bicycle wheel to get the grease, as the experience with the typewriter collection shows. A prescient commenter at the online Yahoo Typewriter Group, where fans of the old machines offer their reflections, says this:

“Museums are far more likely to pay more attention to a collection if they know that there is a significant constituency that cares about a collection, supports its conservation, and would protest any failures … to conserve the collection. … The realization that there is a committed and interested supportive group often influences museums’ decisions.”

Perhaps it is time for the community to encourage the museum to promote its bicycle collection. Milwaukee, after all, has increasingly become a good town for bikes and is rated better than average in that regard by the League of American Bicyclists. The league, moreover, ranks Wisconsin as the third-most bike-friendly state after Washington and Maine.

Bicycling now brings in $1.5 billion annually to this state’s economy, according to a 2010 UW-Madison study. “World-renowned bicycle brands like Trek Bicycle Corp., Saris Cycling Group, Planet Bike, Pacific Cycles and Waterford Precision Cycles reside in Wisconsin. Hundreds of locally owned bike shops and bicycle-friendly businesses support the vitality of local economies,” notes the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

No one should know better the importance of bikes to Wisconsin than Jay Williams, the former banker who became president of the Milwaukee Public Museum in 2010. He’s a biker who plans to ride from Prague to Vienna on a European vacation. And his son, Chris Funk, was a division manager for Trek before his tragic death last year of brain cancer at age 36.

Williams says the bicycle collection “hasn’t been a top-of-mind focus for the museum. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be.”

He notes the top priority for the museum right now is to fill in a glaring gap in its natural history exhibits: “We don’t have an ancient Greek-Roman focus right now. That’s something we are working on, and it’s a significant investment.”

Is it possible the state’s bicycle manufacturers – say, a company like Trek – would support an exhibition of some of the first bicycles ever made? Perhaps the museum should explore that possibility. It’s a safe bet that if Carl Dietz were alive today, he would be looking for any possible public and private support to display what could be one of the finest bicycle collections in the world.

Michael Horne is a Milwaukee-based freelancer. Write to him at letters@milwaukeemag.com.

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