James Allen owns and operates Pedalers Bicycle Museum in Springfield, giving visitors the chance to see bicycles of many time periods and styles.
James Allen has spent much of his life going in circles — while perched atop an old-fashioned, big-front-wheel bicycle, that is.
For more than 30 years, his fascination with the two-wheeled contraptions has taken him on treks across the country — both pedaling his bike and in search of those who peddle them — and back to Springfield, where he’s lived since 1980.
Several years ago, that interest led him to buy a building on Commercial Street and open Pedalers Bicycle Museum. In the years since, he’s stuffed the space with tons of the pedal-powered vehicles — and allows visitors to see them completely for free.
It wasn’t Allen’s grand plan to end up with a building full of bikes. Like so many things in life, it all began with one.
“I went to the swap meet back in 1984 to buy my daughter a little used bike, and just bought one old one,” says Allen. “And it just (went from there).”
Today, his collection includes many types, including modern varieties — such as a ’60s three-seat, vibrantly blue-hued Schwinn triplet — and older styles. Some, Allen says, represent types of bikes that have nearly disappeared.
One example is his seemingly sky-scraping bicycle, propped up against a wall, that was built in 1894. In its heyday, the bike was used in New York City by lamplighters as they made their rounds.
“They would lean it up against a street light, climb up it like a ladder, get on the seat (and) light the street light with the lighter,” says Allen. “There’s three of these known left. One is in Dubai, in a shiekh’s museum, one’s in England in a museum … and then there’s this one.”
Allen walks through his museum, filled with history in addition to the bikes. The brick building was built in the 1880s on bustling Commercial Street, near North Springfield’s train depot, and was used as a hotel.
But its approximately 130 years of history don’t compare to some of the bikes it houses, which date back 150 and even 200 years.
Allen owns and shows bikes that are older than the building they’re housed in.
The two-century example is dubbed the Draisene, and was a “walking” bicycle used by surveyors in Germany, Allen says. He notes that it was helpful because the men were able to combine walking and biking, traveling 10 feet with each step.
Like many of his models, Allen can instantly share details about this bike’s story.
“It came out of Iowa,” says Allen. “(A man) rebuilt it, and he went to an old 1820 bridge that had been abandoned and took the bolts out so he’d have the right type of bolts.”
Big-wheeled bikes are a feature of Allen’s museum, and are accented by photos and history.
Just feet away are the “big bikes,” with one big wheel paired with a tiny one, which Allen is quick to note were popular between 1877 and 1892. Some of the examples he shows are traditional in that the big wheel is in the front and the small in the back. But he even has one model that is reversed — small wheel in front, and big in back — “so it wouldn’t go head first, and it wouldn’t wreck you so bad,” says Allen.
Why, one might ask, were those models popular? He says that was rooted in practicality — as was those bikes’ demise.
“You could go 12.5 feet per one turn of the pedals,” says Allen. “But it was harder for people to get on.”
One of Allen’s bikes — a nearly 24-foot-long model — was built to beat a world record.
Across the way is the ultimate example of teamwork: A 23.5-foot-long, 450-pound, 12-person bike that hangs on the wall. “It was made for a Guinness book record,” says Allen, who doesn’t know if it won — but he does know that it was so big that he had to go out to the East Coast and trailer it home himself. No one else wanted to tackle the job.
“I had to fix a boat trailer up with extended rails to go to Maryland and pick it up ‘cause nobody wanted to haul it,” says Allen. “Even truckers didn’t want to haul it.”
The extra-long 1950s bike is an attention-grabber in his museum, but likely garnered even more attention when he and some friends rode it down some of Springfield’s busiest streets. That occasion, and another trip in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, taught valuable life lessons.
“It’s not going to fall, because you’ve got too many people,” says Allen, noting that even four or five people can ride it, but that a lot of patience is required.
“You’ve just got to trust everybody to…” he pauses. “You’ve just got to trust.”
Allen owns a 1911 bike that the famed Wright Brothers built.
Down the row sits another of Allen’s prized bikes. With its rust, spring-exposed seat and nondescript nameplate shining between the handlebars, a casual observer likely wouldn’t peg it as the most unique. However, despite its few words, the 1911 bike’s nameplate says a lot: It tells that the Wright brothers built the bike after gaining high-flying fame.
“They touched this bike, they worked on it, they put it together,” says Allen. “So yeah, it’s a pretty neat bike.”
It’s especially noteworthy because while the bike was built in 1911, the nameplate was from 1895. Through research, Allen explains that the brothers had been in bicycle service before their plane-building days, and went back to the business after their last aviation contract in 1911.
“They had (the nameplate) since 1895, but they put it on this 1911 bike,” says Allen. “And that’s according to the historians out of Springfield and Dayton, Ohio.”
Just a few inches to its right is a Springfield relic: The bike rack that used to sit on today’s Park Central Square advertising Western Union, adorned with bikes ready to deliver so-important telegrams. And on its other side is an 1899 railroad bike, which rode up and down the rails to oil the signals.
Then there’s the bright red bike, hauling a small sidecar — but carrying an even greater story.
“There was a man who worked for the railroad, and he had two boys. The bigger boy was fine, but the little boy had a club foot. He couldn’t ride a bicycle,” says Allen. “So he made the sidecar so the bigger one could haul the little one around.”
The family decided the sidecar should be where people could see it, so they gave it to Allen.
Allen displays a 1922 bicycle with a 1920 sidecar, which was built to carry a boy with a disability.
He has created exhibit-like displays to share, featuring folks including English immigrant Thomas Stevens. A journalist, Stevens decided he wanted to travel across the country on a bike — but first, he had to learn how to ride one.
“So he rode across America in 1884, and then on around the world in 1886 and ’87,” says Allen. It’s a journey that others have made since then — including Allen. “So, since that time — he was the first — 26 of us have rode the big bike from San Fransisco to Boston,” he says.
Allen has ridden thousands of miles on big-wheeled bicycles.
Another famous name he features is Marshall “Major” Taylor, an African American cyclist who was known as “The Black Cyclone.” Born in 1878, Taylor reportedly won seven world championships in his career. Unfortunately, racism plagued his life.
The grandson of a slave, Taylor was treated so badly by American cyclists and crowds that he eventually made his way to compete in Europe. Later in life, he wrote an autobiography that he was forced to sell door to door because of his race, Allen says. In the museum, Taylor is recognized in a few different ways.
“This was the type of bike he rode, and here’s a picture of him riding back in the back,” says Allen, who also points to a copy of Taylor’s autobiography he’s procured.
“They sold it for $2.48 door to door,” he notes, a figure slightly lower than its value today. “This one cost me $550.”
Rows of bicycles line Allen’s museum.
Despite its plethora of bicycles and exhibits, Allen’s museum teaches about even more. Bike-themed knick-knacks and memorabilia tempt a look (or many), including beer steins decorated with bicycles.
He pulls one from the shelf, and tells that it was created by the League of American Wheelman (today known as the League of American Bicyclists), to help raise money for the nation’s early “good roads” movement. There’s a clock from New Zealand. A child’s tricycle waits for young riders.
He even has around 80 bottles of bike-themed wine available for visitors to see — and he’s in the process of expanding the museum to a second floor of the building.
“Yeah, it’s a sickness,” says Allen of his hobby with a laugh.
Want to visit?
Pedalers Bicycle Museum (328 E. Commercial St., Springfield) is open by appointment only. To visit, call 417-576-1464.