Cycling Life - December 24, 1896

Cycling Life, December 24, 1896.  (

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.”

Indianapolis Journal - August 5 1890

Froggie goes a high-wheelin’ in this ad from the Indianapolis Journal, August 5, 1890. (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

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.  Thomas J. Hay and Van Burton Willits first opened a shop at 113 West Washington Street, almost opposite the Indiana State House.

“Tom” Hay and “Burt” 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 near 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.  Newby also operated the Diamond Chain Company, which at one time produced about 60% of the bicycle chains in America.

Outing - IHS

Hay & Willits’ 1896 “Outing” bike. (Courtesy Indiana Historical Society)

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, named in honor of Hoosier author Lew Wallace’s successful tome — and the Waverley’s manufacturer, the Indiana Bicycle Company.  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.”

Thomas Taggart

Irish-born Tom Taggart, Indy’s progressive mayor from 1895 to 1901, was called “chief of the Indianapolis boomers” for his work at promoting the city’s appeal to cyclists.  He also laid the foundation for the urban park system. (Courtesy George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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’ bike factory sat “at the edge of the city, at Vorster Avenue and the Belt R.R. tracks.” This appears to be the intersection of Gent Avenue and 18th Street, next to the American Hominy Company. Though Max Hyman said it was west of the White River, he might have meant west of Fall Creek.  The company had 275 employees on its payroll in 1897. Hyman’s Handbook of Indianapolis, 1897. (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

Cycling Life - January 4 1897

Cycling Life, January 4, 1897. (

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.

In 1890, Hay engaged a talented young African American cyclist named Marshall Walter Taylor to perform bike stunts outside his store on Washington.  As a marketing ploy, Hay had the youngster 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 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 Rita 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.

Major Taylor in Paris France

Major Taylor, who began as a stunt rider outside Hay & Willits’ bike shop in Indy, went on to international fame. He is seen here at a race in France in 1908. Agence Rol press photo. (Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France.)

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.

Outing Bicycles - Indianapolis Journal May 3 1896

“See our line of sundries…” Indianapolis Journal, May 3, 1896.  (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

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 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.

Hvar 8 Dag, January 31 1909

From the Swedish magazine “Hvar 8 Dag,” January 31, 1909. Bruno Söderström was a track and field athlete and gymnast who represented Sweden in the 1906 Olympics in Athens and the 1908 Olympics in London.  (Courtesy Project Runeberg)

Roller Skates US 1905 -- Bain Collection Library of Congress

A unique style of roller skates in the U.S. around 1905. (Courtesy George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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 bicycle venue 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.”

Tom Hay - Indianapolis News May 12, 1915

Indianapolis News, May 12, 1915. (Courtesy Indiana State Library)

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.

Chicago Daily Tribune - Feb 2 1913

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 2, 1913.

Indianapolis Journal, October 30, 1892

Indianapolis Journal, October 30, 1892. (Courtesy Indiana State Library)


One response to “Keep Your Sauerkraut Away From My Bicycles”

  1. Tom Davis says:

    Great article. All of the writers for Historic Indianapolis have been coming up with some fascinating stories lately that show the efforts of much research!
    Major Taylor was originally buried in an unmarked grave, but in the late ’40s several men saw to it that he received a more fitting burial.
    There is a good possibility that Major Taylor’s mother is buried in an unmarked grave in Section C at Crown Hill with the name of Alice Taylor on one record and Sophronia Taylor on the burial permit. It’s all a little confusing and one can’t be 100% sure, but even Sharon Butsch Freeland came to the conclusion that she is most likely Major Taylor’s mother when she looked into it for me a couple of years ago.

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