In 1896, readers of the Christmas Eve edition of Cycling Life, a trade magazine for America’s exploding bicycle industry, might have noticed this clever ad. Probably drawn by an illustrator at an advertising house in Chicago, where the magazine was printed, the ad touted the ideal bike shop.
A fictional building to the left conjures up the horrors of the crowded trade emporiums that Americans knew well in the 1890s. Look at it. There’s the “sour kraut” department, wedged in just underneath the bicycle department, which probably suffered from the drip-drip-drop of the mixed drink department up above, and maybe the olfactory tortures or temptations wafting out of the cheese sandwich department even further up. Then there was the butcher department, situated where the eagles fly.
Though the comic ad was obviously exaggerated, satire usually has some truth in it. In the early days of skyscrapers, when even a building smaller than ten stories could cause vertigo, businesses did often get squished together like this. Pictures of American downtowns before the turn of the century show a fascinating web of signs, pedestrians, and goods for sale. Yet an innocent candy shop on the ground floor of a building might just be the gateway to an upper-story hell — the garment or cigar factory that employed under-age children. A speedy perusal of Gilded Age newspapers shows how often those old buildings became death traps, back in the days when fires and collapsing floors killed thousands every year.
Whether the ad was exaggerated or not, the proprietors of Hay & Willits, Indianapolis bicycle manufacturers, wanted an exclusive venue for marketing their cutting-edge models — and the best salesmen to bring them to the public. “Department stores and auction rooms are barred. Legitimate cycle dealers, write us.”
By the late 1890s, the young Hoosier company was turning out one of the top-selling bikes in America, the popular Outing model, probably named after Outing magazine. First established at the old Meridian Rink, a riding school on North Pennsylvania Street just north of Monument Circle, the factory of Thomas J. Hay and Van Burton Willits quickly relocated to 113 West Washington Street, almost opposite the Indiana State House.
“Tom” Hay and “Bert” Willits were in their early twenties when they went into the bike business. Hay was born in Illinois in 1868 but was probably raised in Franklin, Indiana. Willits, born in 1867, came from a Quaker family in the small town of Dublin in Henry County. Willits stands alongside at least one other Indiana Quaker, Arthur C. Newby, as a pioneering wheelman. In 1901, Hay was managing the Newby Oval, a large bicycle velodrome along Fall Creek at 30th Street and Central Avenue. Newby’s race course was an early forerunner to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he helped found. He also operated the Diamond Chain Company, which at one time produced about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.
At the turn of the century, Indianapolis was a bicycle-manufacturing mecca. Major producers included the Central Cycle Manufacturing Company — which cranked out a line of Ben-Hur bicycles, probably named in honor of Hoosier author Lew Wallace — and the Waverly and Indiana companies. Until the 1950’s, Indianapolis was a major rubber-producing town. The capitol city’s rubber plants were certainly a factor in the bike industry’s success here.
Indy’s Zig-Zag Cycling Club and other organizations, like the League of American Wheelmen, often got involved in local and national politics. Hoosier wheelmen pedaled their way into the McKinley presidential campaign in 1896 and helped him win the election. But cyclists expected a return on their camapign efforts. Riding clubs put major pressure on politicians to improve urban streets and rural roads, exclaiming “We are a factor in politics, and demand that the great cause of Good Roads be given consideration.”
Indianapolis Mayor Thomas Taggart, who later served as U.S. Senator, was called “The Good-Roads Mayor” and “The Bicycle Mayor” for his efforts to pave city streets. “Our competitors can not offer anything to speak of to attract wheelmen, while Indianapolis has everything,” Taggart bragged to reporters as he exhausted himself to bring the 1898 League of American Wheelmen Convention here, during a stiff competition with Omaha. “The wheel-riders of Philadelphia and other large cities will be delighted with the streets of Indianapolis. It will be worth the trip to enjoy a ride over the streets where a century run can be made without leaving asphalt and without covering the same territory twice.”
Hay & Willits Manufacturing Company earned national acclaim for its bike models, which were used by many racers. Tom Hay also unwittingly cast a famous Indianapolis son onto the American athletic stage.
Around 1892, Hay engaged a talented young African American cyclist named Marshall Walter Taylor to perform bike stunts outside his sales room at 76 North Pennsylvania Street. As a marketing ploy, Hay had the 13-year-old wear a military uniform while earning six dollars a week riding a free “company” bike — not bad money for a kid in the 1890’s. The uniform earned him the nickname “Major” Taylor. Over the next decade, he went on to become one of the best-known sportsmen of his time, though as a black man he faced the same kind of opposition in America that athletes like Jesse Owens went up against in Nazi Germany.
Before he even turned 15, Taylor was knocking out the competition in Indianapolis bike races. Working with Hoosier cycling pioneers Harry T. Hearsey and Louis “Birdie” Munger, Taylor sped to fame, racing at New York’s Madison Square Garden by 1896. But at a time when the League of American Wheelmen voted itself a “whites only” organization, Taylor was more and more shut out from races, especially in Indy. In the early 1900s, Taylor went into a sort of exile, racing in Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, where his daughter Sydney was born in 1904. Retired from the sport, ruined by the 1929 stock market crash, and relegated to obscurity, “Major” Taylor died in Chicago in 1932 and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. His daughter Sydney Taylor Brown worked with the American Red Cross and landed in Normandy a few weeks after D-Day, in the wake of the Allied invasion of France. She died in Pittsburgh in 2005 at the age of 101.
Max Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis stated that even during the rough economic crisis of the mid-1890s, Hay & Willits “had no trouble whatsoever” placing their bikes with agents all over the U.S.
An 1896 ad from the Indianapolis Journal dates from this time. It shows a strange bike worn on your feet, almost like shoes, and is something of a mystery. Did Hay & Willits make a wacky early version of roller skates? Is this a precursor of inline skating, a hybrid bike/skate? The price was listed as $85.
Did the company actually work on an early version of the “pedaled roller skate”? There seems to be little evidence for it other than this one ad.
A couple of other inventors grappled with the general concept of putting wheels on feet. James Plimpton from Medfield, Massachusetts, made a major advance in roller skate design back in 1863, a version he patented in the U.S. A more futuristic-looking roller skate came out around 1909 in Sweden, where a philosophy professor at the University of Uppsala, Edvard Petrini (1856-1922), made a type of bike/roller-skate hybrid that looks similar to the model pictured in Hay & Willits’ ad from 1896. Petrini’s skates were known to Swedish roller skaters as the “Takypod.” A Scandinavian magazine carried an image of this fascinating contraption in January 1909.
By the time “Doc Petrini” was helping Swedes roll around Uppsala on his version of skates, the firm of Hay & Willits was no more. Van Burton Willits had moved out West by 1899, when he shows up in a Denver city directory as a bicycle agent at 3423 West 29th Avenue. The Indianapolis Monthly Meeting of the Quakers recorded that Burt and Martha Willits lost a one-year-old daughter in 1899. Aged just 32, Willits himself died the following year, on April 19, 1900, and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery. In 1901, his widow was living at 3630 Central Avenue.
Tom Hay went on rolling, though. Just after his former business partner’s death, Hay was managing the Newby Oval. He even tried to arrange a wrestling match at the bike rink in 1901. Sometime around 1905, Hay moved to Chicago, but was back in Indianapolis for visits in 1914 and 1915, when he served as official starter at the Indy 500 race in Speedway. The Indianapolis News mentioned that, like 500 co-founder and president Carl G. Fisher, Hay left the bicycle business to go into automobiles. A 1914 news article from the Huntington Herald recalled that Hay and Fisher “were bosom friends when the pneumatic game was yet in its infancy.”
Beginning around 1908, the former Hoosier wheelman was managing the Ford Motor Company’s Chicago branch. In 1913, the Chicago Daily Tribune hailed him as “the most successful auto salesman in the West.” Hay was still in business in the Windy City in the Twenties, serving as a president of the Chicago Automobile Trade Association. For years, Tom Hay — and later, Tom Hay & Son — were located on Michigan Avenue downtown.