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 NORTH MANCHESTER HISTORICAL SOCIETY
 North Manchester, Indiana

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Source: NMHS Newsletter, November 2009

Bicycles, by Robert A. Weimer

Bicycles were an important part of my growing up in North Manchester, Indiana, as was true for all youths in that small town of 3,500 souls. There was no public transportation, no school bus, no way of getting around town except by foot, bicycle or auto. And bicycles were of increasing importance to our parents as well during World War II days with limited use of autos due to rationing of gasoline and lack of new tires and tubes.

I must have been seven or eight years old when my grandparents bought a junior sized bicycle for all of us grandkids to practice on and ride around their home at the end of West Main Street. I can see in memory Mom and Dad or Uncle Al running along side of me with a helping hand as I attempted to stay upright, pedal and steer a reasonably straight path. And I seem to still feel the bruises resulting from the numerous falls that followed. But after many attempts, my skill increased until I could ride that little bike with confidence around my grandparents' home and down the street to Uncle Al's house and back.

Having mastered that small bike, I was eager to grow a bit taller and graduate to a full sized bicycle. It was probably the summer of 1939 when I was nine years old that my parents acquired a used one, blue in color with a wire basket attached to the handle bars. Before long, I was big enough to reach the pedals and learning began anew. I remember well Mom or Dad along side as I attempted to stay upright, so high off the ground on that big bike. But after many weeks of practice, I could ride that bike around our neighborhood with complete assurance.

And what a difference in my life! I could now ride that bicycle with my books in the basket to Tommy R as we all called Thomas R. Marshall Elementary School, and join my chums in riding around the neighborhood after school. I could run errands for Mom, usually riding three blocks to Ramsey's Grocery, one of our neighborhood groceries, to pick up some last minute item needed to complete our meal then in preparation. Gradually my horizon expanded; I was allowed to ride farther from home on my own, even all the way downtown, a long 12 blocks away. I could join classmates at the soda fountain in Marks Drugstore, owned by the parents of my schoolmate, Harold Marks, Jr. And best of all, just up Main Street in the next block from Marks Drugstore were the Ritz and Marshall Movie Theaters.

Every Saturday afternoon the Marshall Theater had a double bill, one film invariably a western. There was always a cartoon, before the first feature as I remember it. Both the Ritz and Marshall played ads for local stores and newsreels but I don't think they were a part of the Marshall's Saturday matinee for kids. However, sandwiched between the two features was this week's episode of The Serial! Last Saturday's episode had left the hero in dire straits with his survival in serious doubt. We could hardly wait to see if somehow our hero could survive and again cross up the bad guys. I believe that every kid in town must have been there each Saturday since the theater was always filled. And most of us rode our bikes. So many did so that finding a place to leave a bike was a major problem.

The Marshall Theater was only three buildings west from the corner of Walnut and Main Streets. Landis Drugs was on the corner with a long, blank brick wall along Walnut Street broken only by a wide, iron stair that extended from the sidewalk up to rooms above. There was a rear entrance to Landis Drugs off a short alley that extended on to the emergency exits at the rear of the two theaters. There was a bicycle rack in the alley at the rear entrance to Landis Drugs that must have held six or eight bikes. But the flood of bicycles on Saturday afternoons demanded many more parking spaces. Bikes were stacked three or four deep along the drug store wall under the iron stairs but could not extend into the sidewalk much past the stairs without causing a problem with the town marshal. Bikes were also parked two or three deep along both sides of the rear alley, but this was a bit trickier. The marshal insisted on keeping most of the alley open to those emergency exits and would occasionally remove bicycles that he felt were obstructing too much of the right-of-way. So if you came late to that Saturday afternoon matinee, it was always a tough call as to whether your bike could safely be added to the many already there. To be safe, you could use other bicycle racks around the downtown area, but most of these were a block or more away and would make you even later to the movie.

After the end of the second feature, there was a mass exodus through the two rear exits as well as the front doors to find our bicycles. Despite the mass of bikes, I rarely had a problem in finding my own. My bike was a cherished family member with its own characteristics, much like the faces of my brother and sister. With our bikes in hand, several of my chums and I moved down Main Street to the soda fountain at Marks Drug Store. After spending ten cents for admission to the movies and five cents for a bag of popcorn or a box of Milk Duds, I had ten cents left of my Saturday allowance for a milk shake. Sitting at the counter with my friends, I slowly sipped my tall, cold shake and perused a comic book from the rack next to the door. This was permitted by Mrs. Marks as long as the comic book could be returned to the rack in pristine condition. If Mrs. Marks was not at the counter, we made sure that Harold Marks Jr. was in our group. Otherwise, Mr. Marks would likely come up from the back of the store, frown at us and say, "buy them or put them back."

My brother Charles was two years younger than me but almost as big. So he learned to ride soon after I did and then there was fierce competition as to which of us would get to use the family bike. At first Charles was often willing to sit on the frame as I pedaled. Those times became less frequent and we began to agitate for bikes of our own. As Christmas of 1941 approached, we both suggested more than once that a new bicycle would be a perfect gift. But Christmas came and went with no bikes. A few months later, however, in early spring of 1942 Ralph Bagott, a family friend and manager of the Western Auto Store, called my father. He told Dad that war time restrictions would prevent his receiving any more shipments of bicycles and his existing stock would soon be gone. He urged quick action if Dad was interested in getting bikes for Charles and me. And so we visited the Western Auto Store the next day.

Ralph had four or five bicycles in stock as I remember. A red Columbia Flyer took my fancy and a dark blue bike was claimed by my brother. After Dad agreed that these would do, the real work began—how to accessorize these new bikes. Kick-stands were a must as were baskets. Charles chose the traditional, large wire basket mounted above the front fender and attached to the handlebars. But I chose something different, wire saddlebags. These were two large rectangular wire baskets that fit on each side of the rear wheel. At the bottom they were attached by brackets to the rear axle and the tops were secured to the rack over the rear fender. After Dad had agreed to include these essentials, it was time for Charles and me to dip into our savings to continue adding to our bikes.

I'm not sure what all Charles added but for me a larger rear reflector replaced the tiny one that came with the bike as well as double-sided reflectors attached to the spokes of the wheels to make my bike and me more visible from the sides. A bell was attached to the right handlebar to give warning when overtaking someone from the rear and a rear view mirror was clamped onto the left handlebar. Finally, a headlamp was needed to allow riding at night. The normal choice would have been a battery-powered lamp on the front of the bike or even a flashlight in a bracket on a handlebar. But thanks to a cash gift from my grandparents, I splurged on a generator headlamp.

The generator was attached to the right front fork so that when released, it would drop down into contact with the front tire. The motion of the tire would generate electricity which powered the lamp that was attached to the front frame. When moving at a brisk pace, a powerful beam of light was produced, brighter than any battery-powered lamp and no replacement batteries were necessary. The downside, of course, was that at slow speeds the light was rather fitful and ceased when I stopped.

One thing we didn't consider was some kind of lock. I'm not sure that bicycle locks even existed then and certainly not in North Manchester. We left our bikes all over town in racks, standing upright on the kick stand, propped against a wall or even flat on the grass, certain that it would be there when we returned. Oh yes, occasionally a bike would disappear but it would usually soon be found not too far away, borrowed for a short spin. In a small town like North Manchester, everyone knew nearly everyone else, and a stolen bicycle was hard to keep and use unnoticed.

As 1942 continued and turned into 1943, our whole family largely converted to bicycle travel. The family auto was driven regularly to church on Sunday and then on to visit my grandparents at the west end of town. There was also a weekly trip downtown for groceries and other items. But Dad and Mom attempted to save as much of the weekly gas ration as possible to use for special trips. Charles and I now had our own bikes, Dad used that old blue bike that had been in the family for several years, and Mom somewhere found a used woman's bike that she now rode and carried my baby sister along. Manchester College where Dad taught was only six blocks away and Dad usually walked to class. But when his briefcase was especially heavy, he would put it in the basket of that old bike and pedal off to his 7:30 a.m. freshmen chemistry lecture.

Ours was not the only family to make increased use of bicycles during those war-time years. Among the many people then on bikes around town, I especially remember the Beauchamps who lived three blocks south of us. George Jr. was a classmate, and we often rode to his house to play. His father was also a professor at the college and often rode his bicycle to class. We kids were not overly concerned with the brand names of our bikes since they were essentially all the same with heavy frames, big balloon tires and coaster brakes. But Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp rode imported English Raleigh bicycles. These were special—lighter in weight with three speeds and hand brakes. They were the only such bicycles in town. During visits to their home to play with George Jr., I was allowed to try them out and, indeed, they were special.

In the spring of 1943 I was thirteen years old and joined the Boy Scouts for which a bicycle was almost mandatory. Troop 22 was sponsored by the Kiwanis Club and the Rotary Club sponsored Troop 65, the other troop in town. Dad was a member of Kiwanis so naturally I joined Troop 22. Neither organization had facilities for troop meetings, so our meeting places often moved around the town. That first spring and summer we met out of doors in a clearing on the south side of the Eel River just west of the Wabash Road Bridge. Later, during the winter, and for several years thereafter, we met at the town waterworks building at the east end of Main Street where it stopped at the river. I also remember meeting during several summers in a clearing in Frantz's woods just west of Manchester College. We all rode our bikes to weekly troop meetings at these and other forgotten locations as well as to the many special meetings and events that Troop 22 was involved with during those years.

Bicycles enabled us to earn our spending money. Charles and I rode our bikes the two miles to our grandparents' home nearly every day during the summer months when their canning factory behind the house was in operation. There were jobs that we could do, of increasing importance as we grew older, that kept us in spending money and allowed the purchase of saving stamps and war bonds. One job we did in the spring and fall as well as in the summer was to mow the lawns --the lawn around the house, the two lawns on either side of the house, and the two side yards of the canning factory. Grandpa had three push mowers for our use—no gas powered mowers at that time. The three front lawns were surrounded by privet hedges that needed trimming several times a year. And Grandma often required help with her flower beds.

I made a more direct use of my bike to earn money when classmate Tom Wetzel asked me to share his paper route in 1944. Tom had the delivery rights in North Manchester for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette and it took two of us to cover the town. Six afternoons each week, two or three bundles of papers were dropped off at the curb near Tom's house in the center of town. As soon as school was out, we would pedal to the drop point and fold the papers into thirds with the loose edge tucked in to make a compact bundle that could easily be tossed into a yard or onto a porch. We each had a canvas news-boy bag which was packed with folded papers and placed over the front fender of our bikes (no front basket on either bike) with the shoulder straps wrapped around the handlebars. The bags rarely held all of the papers and Tom would have to leave some of his behind for a second run as he covered the west side of town. But I had those saddlebag baskets! I could load all of the papers for the north side of town onto my bike and make a single, long run.

The Journal-Gazette was not published on Sunday and included special sections in Saturday's paper. The result was a paper so thick that it could be folded into thirds only with great difficulty. But with much pressing and pounding, we always managed. The size of the Saturday paper also challenged me to get all of my papers onto my bike. I always managed but on a few occasions I had to stack some papers on the rear rack and tie them fast. Saturday morning was also the time for collecting the subscription cost. Every fourth Saturday I would get from Tom the collection book for my share of the route, visit each customer, collect the amount due and turn the money over to Tom, who then paid me the agreed upon amount for each customer I served. Occasionally I would earn an extra sum by also doing Tom's route. This was usually on Saturday which was no big deal since I could start as soon as the papers were dropped off in mid afternoon. But on the rare weekday after school when Tom could not do his route, it made for a long evening, finishing in the dark during much of the year and running his entire route in the dark during winter time.

Summertime with school out provided new opportunities for bicycle use. There were ball games and picnics to ride to. The beach at Long Lake was open during the summer and nearly every sunny afternoon there was a line of bicycles headed west along State Route 114 to the lake three miles distant and a return stream later in the day. Auto traffic was light and slow during those wartime years and never caused problems for us bicyclists. A lazy Sunday afternoon was a great time to just enjoy being out on your bike. I remember agreeing with friends at church to meet after lunch for a ride. One favorite eight- mile circuit was to head north from town and then east to Liberty Mills where we crossed over the Eel River. We then continued south on a country road along the east side of the river until we were back to North Manchester and crossed over the Second Street bridge to the town.

World War II ended in 1945 and life began to change, ever so slowly at first. I was sixteen and got my drivers license in 1946 but had limited use for it. New autos did become available in 1946 but were in short supply. There were long waiting lists at all of the town's auto dealerships. Dad finally got a new 1948 Chevy in the spring of 1949 and kept our old 1938 Chevy for use as a second car. I had graduated from Central High School the previous spring and was now attending Manchester College. While I still rode my bicycle to classes, trips downtown or to my grandparents' home were now more likely by auto. The end of my active bicycling days came in 1951 when I acquired my first auto, a 1941 Nash. I no longer needed a bicycle and that trusty old, red Columbia Flyer was sold to one of the Brookins twins who lived around the corner from my parents.

The sale of my childhood bike ended my bicycle days for the time being. But before too many years had gone by, I had children of my own, each enjoying their own bicycle. Their love for riding rekindled my own enthusiasm, and I was soon borrowing or renting a bike to ride along with them. I well remember several vacations when the entire family rented bicycles to explore new areas at a leisurely pace. It wasn't long before I purchased a new lightweight bicycle of my own with skinny tires, hand brakes and twenty-one gears. I still enjoy riding that bike today and take special pleasure in riding along the Baltimore County Bicycle Trail on a sunny Saturday morning with my daughter and granddaughters. Pedaling along, memories of the many good times bicycles have brought me flash by and I remember again how it all started some seventy years ago in North Manchester, Indiana with a red Columbia Flyer with wire saddlebags.