The 2015 Road World Championships are in Richmond this week. Very exciting…and also appropriate. Richmond’s love affair with two-wheeled travel goes back a long way. My great-grandfather, Harris Stilson, was a Richmond streetcar driver and amateur photographer back in the early 1900s and he understood the romance of the road. His collection of photographs is massive,around 5,000 images, and many of them include bicycles. In my books based on his photographs, I include oral histories shared by the “kids” who played on Richmond’s streets, rode its streetcars, and sometimes careened down Richmond’s hills on their bikes.
01 3bikesBob Griggs, known to a generation of Richmond’s kids as Sailor Bob, was raised in Church Hill. He shared memories in my book, Up & Down Church Hill, and recalled this memorable bicycle story. Bob Griggs: “I was all over within range, didn’t go very far except for one time. I took several of the boys with me, I don’t know what possessed me to do it. My grandmother lived down in Hanover where the Chickahominy Swamp is. So we got on our bicycles early in the morning and I said “Let’s go out, we can ride out Oakwood over to Creighton Road and down through the battlegrounds and down to the swamp.
I knew where I was going but they were getting weary. I said, “No, it’s just a little further, we can make it.” We left about 8:00 in the morning and about 1:30 in the afternoon we were just getting back on to Church Hill. By that time, my father was coming down the street in his car.” Bob’s other grandmother lived with his family and had been worried. She called his father at work and said “Robert’s gone off, I don’t know where he is. He should be back.” (His father) said “Where you been?” I told him and he didn’t get mad. He just said “Don’t do that again.”

"Vest child on Vine Street"

“Vest child on Vine Street”

Aleck Mollen  grew up living above the family store. Those shops were in Shockoe Bottom on Main Street and later 17th Street. I asked Aleck if he rode a bicycle. Here is his answer: “Always (rode) streetcars. 17th street was the cobblestone street and it would take a better bike rider than myself.” He wasn’t alone in his decision not to risk a tumble. Several of my oral history sources said they walked or rode the streetcar because they didn’t have bikes and couldn’t ride them on the steep hills and cobblestoned streets of Richmond anyhow.
During and after the Great Depression, times were tough. Most of my oral history sources were poor but so was everyone else. Bootsie Madison described transportation in his youth: “None of us had money for buses or anything like that.  It was quite an experience to be there on Church Hill, places to go, no money, only way to get there was thumb, ride a bike or walk. I’d get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to carry my newspapers, get some money.” Bootsie owned a bicycle and that gave him freedom to go farther afield than many of my friends who related stories of their childhoods. Most of them walked or rode the streetcar. Some even rode Harris Stilson’s streetcar.

Bikes, newspaper boys & parade, downtown RIchmond

Bikes, newspaper boys & parade, downtown RIchmond

When Harry Stilson wasn’t operating a streetcar, he was with his family on Grayland Avenue in Carytown. Harry spent a lot of time with his grandson, my father, Howard Lynch. Harry’s photographs of Howard on wheels began with toddler’s vehicles and advanced as Howard grew.

Harry's granddaughter, Norma, on tricycle

Harry’s granddaughter, Norma, on tricycle

One Christmas Day was documented with a procession of tricycles and three-wheelers on Grayland Avenue. Evelyn Sheppard, Howard & Norma Lynch rode along the sidewalk while Minnie Arnold watched and Mrs. Sheppard and her mother supervised the parade from the porch.

Grayland Avenue kids on Christmas Day

Grayland Avenue kids on Christmas Day

As he grew up, Howard longed for a “new” bike. In those days, the term “new” meant new to you.  In later years, my father wrote this on the back of a photograph of John Marshall cadets: “Ball park! Between Sheppard Street & the Boulevard, facing Idlewood Avenue. Howard Lynch with his 26” Fox Bicycle bought from Stuart Guthrow of 3033 Grayland Avenue.” Stuart was a neighbor of the Stilson and Lynch families who lived on Grayland Avenue and I assume Stuart got a new bike. For Howard, though, his “new” bike was a wonderful thing. Even in his old age, he became animated when describing his bike and the places he went on it.

Howard Lynch & new bike, John Marshall cadets at Idlewood Park

Howard Lynch & new bike, John Marshall cadets at Idlewood Park

Several pictures taken by my grandmother and others show Harry Stilson on a bike. Not his bike but Howard’s. I suspect when your grandfather asked to borrow your bike, you didn’t refuse.

Harry Stilson riding on Grayland Avenue

Harry Stilson riding on Grayland Avenue

Paul Nolde, of the Nolde’s Bakery family, wrote vignettes about growing up in Church Hill at the request of his son, Richard. I’ve been friends with Richard and his brother Wayne since elementary school and was thrilled when Richard shared his father’s glimpses into Richmond life in the early 1900s. Mr. Nolde never said if he rode bikes himself but his sons have always been avid riders so it might have been in the genes. I remember being impressed in high school and later when I heard of bike rides to Williamsburg and elsewhere. Perhaps that bicycling stamina originated in pumping up and down the hills of Church Hill. Paul Nolde did, however, describe an event that Harry Stilson recorded in his ‘moving pictures.’ You can watch a clip of that Stilson film on our Facebook page. That event was a bike marathon at Shields Lake in Byrd Park. Mr. Nolde: “There was some kind of a marathon with bicycles around Byrd Park Lake in the 1920s.”

Bicycle Marathon Byrd Park 1929, also in Stilson movies

Bicycle Marathon Byrd Park 1929, also in Stilson movies

Richmond’s history of bicycling is rich. The Lakeside Wheel Club is a notable example but not all bikers were in clubs.  Harris Stilson’s photographs often caught a biker on the sidelines. When troops returned from France at the end of World War I, Harry photographed them at Broad Street Station (now Science Museum) on the grounds. One image shows two men with bikes observing the soldiers.

Troops returning from France at end of WWI, Broad Street Station

Troops returning from France at end of WWI, Broad Street Station

Bicycles were ridden by messengers and delivery boys and letters in the Stilson collection mention deliveries of that sort. When Harry Stilson received the Western Union telegram informing him of his son’s death in World War I, it probably came by bicycle.

Boy on bike, probably Jackson Ward

Boy on bike, probably Jackson Ward

All facets of life in Richmond in the early 1900s were affected by two-wheel traffic. One of my oral history sources built a wagon to deliver groceries because he couldn’t afford a bike. “A bike would have been nice,” he declared. Bicycles were coveted possessions. Howard Lynch would have testified to that. He could describe his 26” Fox bicycle’s features nearly 70 years after he first rode it. Bob Griggs explored the world on his bike. Bootsie Madison rescued himself from truancy and poverty on his bike, with daring dashes down hills to school and paper routes. Paul Nolde remembered exciting marathons at Shields Lake over 60 years after the races were won. All these years later, we in Richmond reminisce. The glory of that freedom. The terror of those hills.  Lots of stories, lots of pictures. Bicycles. There’s magic in them.

Grayland Avenue kids

Grayland Avenue kids

Visit us again later this week for more bicycle images and stories.

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