Velocipede Spotlight: A Look Back at Cycling in Sonoma County

January 18, 2021

Jenny Bath, Education and Volunteer Coordinator
Eric Stanley, Associate Director and Curator of History

Jon Lacaillade
Model of c. 1870 Velocipede
Currently featured in the 2020 Artistry in Wood exhibition

"Justifiably referred to as 'boneshakers,' the earliest versions were made entirely of wood. Many variations of boneshakers were manufactured in the late 1860s and early 1870s. This model in oak sourced from a locally grown tree incorporates some of the earliest improvements in one piece." – Jon Lacaillade

In 2011, the Museum held an exhibition which explored the history and culture surrounding bicycles from the earliest Draisienne or “running machine,” to today’s high tech mountain bikes and everything in between, with a focus on Sonoma County, of course. Inspired by Jon Lacaillade’s velocipede in the 2020 Artistry in Wood exhibition, let’s take a look back at Sonoma County’s biking history with stories and images from the exhibition Customized: The Art and History of the Bicycle.

The velocipede (Latin for “fast foot”) was first created by Pierre Lallement in the 1860s. This was the first bicycle of its kind to include the pedals, which allowed bikes to operate in a much quicker and more efficient manner than the earlier models, which were propelled by the rider's feet striking the ground. Though these particular models were said to be incredibly uncomfortable (the combination of their wooden or iron wheels and cobblestone streets gave them the nickname “boneshakers”), they quickly launched a worldwide obsession.

Geroge Schelling Bicycle Shop, Santa Rosa, 1895 (MSC Collection). Schelling and his brother, Alex, also built the first automobile in Santa Rosa.

Quickly after their introduction, people began racing with bicycles. The very first women’s bike race took place in France in 1868 with the women riding velocipedes. By the 1890s most Northern Californian races were organized by local cycling clubs. Santa Rosa and Healdsburg formed Wheelmen clubs in the 1880s, during the era of the high wheel, and Petaluma added a club in the 1890s. Competition was an important part of the Wheelmen’s activities. The Santa Rosa club built a dirt track at the end of McDonald Avenue, while the Healdsburg Wheelmen hosted races at Matheson Field. An 1896 race in Healdsburg drew an estimated 1,000 spectators.

Santa Rosa Wheelmen at their Cherry Street Clubhouse, ca. 1900 (MSC Collection).

Many of these clubs were also instrumental in advocating for road reform and improvement. For instance, in 1895, Petaluma cyclists joined with the Santa Rosa Wheelmen to call for repair of the road between the two cities, complaining that the way between Petaluma and Penn’s Grove was almost impassable.

Jenkins Cyclery, 122 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa, ca. 1900-1910 (MSC Collection).

Some of these Wheelmen made headlines, such as Fred J. Wiseman, who went on to build (and pilot) the plane which carried the first piece of airmail sanctioned by a US Postal Authority in May of 1911. Perhaps the most famous of the Santa Rosa Wheelmen was Ben Noonan, who in 1899 raced a train up the San Francisco and North Pacific Rail Line from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa. Using an iron frame 1899 Cleveland Bicycle, Noonan won the race in a mere 16 minutes, about the same time it now takes by car.

Luther Burbank, 1908 (Sonoma County Library Collection).

The route Noonan followed was just to the north of what would become the Joe Rodota Trail and closely mirrored the route legendary horticulturalist Luther Burbank would take down Sebastopol Avenue on his twice weekly commute from his Santa Rosa home to his farm in Sebastopol. According to oral tradition, Burbank was a notoriously terrible driver (stories tell of him crashing into the side of the Exchange Bank downtown) and preferred instead to bike.

Woman on bicycle (Healdsburg Museum).

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” – Susan B. Anthony, 1896

By the 1890s, women were riding bicycles in huge numbers, and bikes continued to be customized to accommodate female riders. The safety bicycle in particular gave women extreme mobility, allowing them unprecedented freedom and independence. Suffragists touted the bicycle as a "freedom machine" for women, and cycling came to symbolize the ideal of an independent New Woman. The bicycle craze in the 1890s also led to a movement for so-called rational dress, which helped liberate women from corsets, full-length skirts, and other restrictive garments, substituting the then-shocking bloomers. By the turn of the century, the liberation associated with bicycle riding was having profound impacts in the everyday lives of women, and leading to increased social emancipation.

Jon Lacaillade, Model of 19th century Penny-Farthing Bicycle, on view in 2020 Artistry in Wood exhibition.

Though these are just a few short glimpses into bike history, it is clear that the humble “boneshaker” was instrumental in creating a phenomenon. You can view John Lacaillade’s beautiful recreation of the original velocipede, as well as many other creations, online in our 2020 Artistry in Wood exhibition.


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The mission of the Museum of Sonoma County is to engage and inspire our diverse community with art and history exhibitions, collections, and public programs that are inclusive, educational, and relevant.