30 January 2018

Bicycles And Sundown: History In An Ohio Town

Some cities are, or were, synonymous with certain industries.  The best-known examples in the US are automobile manufacturing in Detroit and steel-making in Pittsburgh. 

Some smaller cities and towns are linked to a particular company or another.  The Hartford insurance company comes to mind:  It's been a part of the Connecticut state capital that shares its name for over 200 years. 

Believe it or not, even during the "Dark Ages" of US cycling, a town in Ohio was best known for the bicycle company that bore its name.

I am talking about Shelby, a community about 150 kilometers southwest of Cleveland.  From 1925 to 1953, the Shelby Bicycle company fabricated its wares in the heart of town.  

Like most American bikes of that period, most Shelbys  were baloon-tired "cruisers".  Although the majority of  Shelby bikes  bore the names of retailers such as Montgomery-Ward, Spiegel, Firestone and Goodyear, and some were sold by AMF, a number of Shelbys were sold under their own name.  And, while Shelby made "theme" bikes--such as a "Lindy" bike honoring Charles Lindbergh and Donald Duck bikes--some were very stylish, even elegant.  Those bikes are prized by collectors.  

Now some folks in the town have formed a society dedicated to Shelby bicycles.  The Shelby Bicycle Historical Society, recently approved as an IRS 501(3)c tax-exempt organization, is looking for members. You don't have to own a Shelby in order to join; you need only to be interested in the bikes or the town's history. It's not there only to celebrate the company's "Whippet" bike Clarence Wagner rode to a cross-country record in 1927; it also exists to commemorate what was once a significant part of the town's economy and history.

There is another part of the town's history that nobody is trying to commemorate.  It was said to be a "sundown" town; according to some former residents, it even had a sign at its border telling black people they had better be out of town when the sun set.  Even after the sign was taken down, some people ran black folks out of town; others wondered aloud whether an African exchange student should be allowed to swim in the local pool.

(Levittown, on Long Island, is only 55 kilometers from my apartment. It, too, was a "sundown" town.  So was nearby Roosevelt--which, ironically, is now almost entirely nonwhite as a result of "blockbusting".)

While I hope that the good folks of Shelby (and America) will face up to their (and our) racist history, I am happy that they are commemorating something that, while it doesn't make up for that history (what can?), is at least an interesting and sometimes even delightful part of the cycling landscape.


  1. It's so disturbing to think that hundreds of cities and towns across America enforced similar policies.

  2. In a world where people can travel anywhere they want and marry anyone they like race is becoming increasingly irrelevant. There is no more race, only species. I personally can't wait!

  3. MT--True. Sadly, some places still find ways to segregate by other means.

    Phillip--Some have argued that race is an artificial construct. I would agree: Where, exactly, is the line between white and black, or between either of them and red, yellow or brown.

    We all began in Africa. To paraphrase RuPaul, everything after that is drag!

  4. As an Ohio native, I'm both surprised and not so surprised about the fact that the town was a "sundown town" -- there used to be a pretty strong kkk presence in rural Ohio. On a more positive historic note, the bicycle industry, at least up through the 1970s, was a huge presence around Ohio. Shelby was one, but so was Murray (originally made in Murray, Ohio), and Huffy (originally Huffman MFG from Dayton, OH), AMF (Cleveland - though they may have had other locations as well), and Ashtabula cranks, the one-piece forged steel cranks found on most American bikes from the period, were made in the NE Ohio town of the same name. And there were the Wright bros, from Dayton. BF Goodrich, Firestone, and Goodyear, all located in Akron, were all mainly in tire business (obviously) and made bicycle tires - and all also sold bicycles with their names, but manufactured by other companies (such as Schwinn, Shelby, Murray, and others).

  5. Brooks--I think the KKK was a presence in the rural areas of many other states. I know they were in southern New Jersey, and if they weren't in upstate New York, they could just as well have been: the racial (and other) attitudes weren't (and, in some cases, still aren't) much different.

    Ashtabula cranks. I love the name, actually. And isn't it interesting that a town has been immortalized, if you will, by a bike part.

    I have seen bikes that were sold under the names of the tire companies you mentioned. I guess it makes sense that those companies would have put their names on bikes, as their tires were sold in stores like Sears, where people also bought bikes (usually for kids).