The Bicycle that Won the West

It was a chilly November 3rd 1938 on the ranch when I awoke to the sounds of my dad making a fire in the wood-burning cannon heater in the living room; the smell of winter was in the air as I savored the warmth of the several quilts on my bed until he would call for me to get up. There were chores to be done before breakfast; he would milk the cow and even though it was my tenth birthday, I still had to feed the pigs, scatter corn for the chickens and open the door of the coop to let them out.

As soon as I knew the heater was warm, I gathered my clothes in a wad and sprinted past my mother who was rolling out biscuits in the kitchen, “Good morning and happy birthday,” she said in her always cheerful voice. I didn’t say anything because I knew that with the grinding depression when everything, especially money, was short, I’d be lucky to get a dime and a pie for my birthday. My mother wasn’t much for baking cakes but she could make the greatest pies.
I could feel the heat radiating from the heater as I stepped through the door into the living room and there it sat, the most beautiful bicycle I’d ever seen. Some of the rich kids who lived in town had bicycles but none as great as this one. Fire engine red fenders, fat balloon tires and a bookrack over the rear fender. But the most impressive part was the polished brass head badge just like the engraving on my dad’s Winchester lever action 30-30 rifle that hung ready for use above the front door. Winchester, like many other companies during the depression, added bicycles to their product line to help keep their doors open.

My clothes lay in a tumble on the floor as I ran my hand over the fenders, along the top tube and my fingers caressed the supple brown leather saddle, there was even a matching leather tool bag hanging under it.

“Don’t forget your chores before you eat and go to school,” my dad broke the reverie of the moment. The pigs and chickens were fed then I gulped down my biscuits and gravy with sausage and fried eggs, grabbed my books and lunch pail and rolled the bike out the door. No waiting for the school bus to come today, I was going to ride my bike the three miles to school. The rear rack was made like a huge mouse trap with a spring-loaded hoop that snapped down over the books to secure them in place. My lunch pail swung under the handlebars where it clanked against the forks.

Even with the saddle lowered as far as it would go, I was still too short to ride the bike sitting on it. But by sliding forward off the saddle and sitting astride the top tube, my toes would barely touch the pedals and off to school I went. I waved as I met the school bus a mile up the road and Mr. Yont, the driver, knowing I was his last pickup on that route, turned around and followed me to school.

I learned later that my dad sold a yearling calf to raise the money to buy the bicycle that was the most expensive one at the hardware store. He said if Winchester could make the gun that won the west, they must surely make a good bicycle.
My sturdy steed gave me wings so I could fly, it was my pirate ship sailing the oceans and my key to great adventures for the next six years then I got my drivers license and it became an unloved scrap leaning against the fence. Finally one day I rolled it into the barn, hoisted it into attic, hung it under a rafter by its handlebars and sentenced it to a life of ignominy, gathering dust and pigeon droppings. It hung suspended in time and space while life went on for everyone else. Both my parents died before I was thirty and the home that once sheltered a loving family became an empty hulk except for the termites, mice and an occasional scavenger scratching around for something of value. Fifty years passed and finally the city notified me that the house was falling down and they had condemned the eyesore to be razed.

I returned for one last nostalgic visit and as I wandered around the home where I was raised, I came to the old barn, leaning askew and needing only one more gust of wind to send it tumbling into a pile of sticks. I climbed the rickety ladder, poked my head into the attic and there in the muted light I could make out my old bicycle hanging as I had left it all those many years ago.

I lowered it to the ground and rolled it outside on bare rims as the rubber tires had long since turned to dust. The once beautiful leather saddle was rock hard and wrinkled like bacon frying in a pan. I lovingly placed it in the trunk of my car and took it home to find a more suitable place for it.

It now sits in an honored position beside brothers and sisters in the J M Davis Winchester Gun Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma.

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Copyright 2001 by Jim Foreman