Bicycling to lunch and dinner

In the 1890s old wayside inns and roadhouses removed the horse troughs and replaced them with bicycle stands. A new day was dawning!

For years, ever since railroads had reduced horse-and-carriage traffic on the old colonial turnpikes, roadside eating and drinking places outside cities had been in serious decline. After the Civil War they were visited mostly by farmers and marketmen taking their produce to the city by horse and wagon. But, due to the popularity of bicycling beginning in the late-1880s, city people became the favored customers, both because they came in larger numbers and because they spent more.

Bicycling was fast becoming the favorite leisure-time activity of the American public. They couldn’t wait to take a spin in their free time, often on a route with wayside inns and roadhouses. The oldest inns were in the East, mostly found in states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The Red Lion inn at Torresdale PA, for example, was built in 1730.

For those preferring shorter rides, city parks were attractive, perhaps none so much as Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. It was well supplied with places to stop for a bite [such as The Dairy, shown here]. New Yorkers liked to tour the good roads on Staten Island or pedal out to Long Island and Coney Island, often making a stop at the beach. Bicyclists in Oregon were drawn to a rose farm outside Portland, site of the Ah Ben roadhouse where chicken dinners were served.

There were also eating places set up in homes along the wayside, and homemade refreshment stands in fields. Often these eating and drinking places were dubbed “Wheelman’s Rest.” One in Malden MA was offering light snacks in 1896, but apparently no beer or liquor, an activity that landed many proprietors who had no liquor licenses in jail.

Californians boasted that bicycling was possible year round in “the land of sunshine.” Country trips might be planned around visits to old missions. Pictured above are members of San Diego’s Crown City club, wearing white suits and sombreros on a tour in 1896.

Bicycling was popular across the country with men and women, both white and Black. Black cyclists, however, were banned from some local clubs and, after 1894, from membership in the national League of American Wheelmen. That did not stop them from cycling, but I can’t help but wonder whether they were welcome at most inns and roadhouses.

White women, however, were welcome, despite those who criticized them for showing their ankles or adopting non-ladylike postures. For years feminists had tried and failed to reform constricting women’s clothing. Almost overnight, opposition faded as bicycling women began wearing split skirts and bloomers. Beyond clothing, it seemed as though the new past time had a freeing effect. A journalist visiting a Bronx beer garden one evening wrote: “The bicycle has made ‘new women’ of them. They lean their elbows on the table and call for beer, or, leaning back, cross their legs man fashion and sip from the foaming mug.”

Bike paths were crowded from April through October, especially on Sundays, the most popular day of the week for cycling. Christian ministers were horrified, particularly if stopping at roadhouses was involved. As one wrote in 1897, this inevitably led to “blunting the moral sense, dulling the moral perceptions, and tainting the purity of the moral character . . .”

Ministers disliked Sunday bicycling no matter where riders stopped along the way. More conventional “wheelwomen” might prefer tea-roomy places serving nothing alcoholic where menus included milk, root beer, and lemonade, along with sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and cakes. Servers there were women who, according to one account, were ready to repair a sagging hem, brush dirt off a costume, or attend to a minor wound. The short-lived Greenwich Tea Room in Connecticut, operated by two young society women, offered dainty sandwiches of tongue, ham, chicken, or lettuce, plus home-made cake and ice cream. Drinks included café frappe and café mousse, both 10 cents.

Shore dinners also attracted bicyclists. In 1899 a cyclist traveling along the shore from New York City to Boston stopped at Hammonasset Point in Madison CT for a dinner that included clam chowder, bluefish, steamed clams, boiled lobster, potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, pudding, ice cream, coffee, and milk – all for 50 cents. And an abandoned church turned restaurant and bowling alley in Undercliff NJ [pictured] did a brisk summer business in clam chowder with cyclists traveling along the Hudson River cliffs.

In the early years of the 1900s, the fad began to slow somewhat. Bicycling on roads became more dangerous as the number of cars multiplied. Through the years bicycling organizations had lobbied ceaselessly for improvement of the nation’s roads, most of which were unpaved. But they did not reap full benefit. As roads were improved, cars soon took over and bicycling accidents, often fatal, increased. However, automobile drivers continued the Sunday habit of heading out to country inns, tea rooms, and roadhouses that bicyclists had begun.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

3 Comments

Filed under Offbeat places, patrons, roadside restaurants, tea shops

3 responses to “Bicycling to lunch and dinner

  1. I am mightily intrigued by your reference to a roadhouse called Ah Ben near Portland, Oregon, frequented by cyclists in the 1890s. Can you provide me with any citations to this place? I have been unable to track it through several newspaper indexes. I’d be grateful for any suggestions you might have.

    I greatly enjoy and appreciate your posts; I have been surprised—quite pleasantly—that you often make mention of Oregon and West Coast restaurants.

    You might find this map of interest: https://efiles.portlandoregon.gov/record/10222795

    All the best, Richard

    Richard H. Engeman Oregon Rediviva LLC info@oregonrediviva.com 503-235-9032 cell 955 Fifth Avenue SW Albany OR 97321 http://www.oregonrediviva.com

    >

    • Nice map — thanks! I found a reference to the Ah Ben in the 1914 obituary for the rose farm owner, Isaac H. Kiser, who was near Scappose. He ran Ah Ben in “the early bicycle days” according to the obit. Probably that would have been in the mid to late 1880s, maybe later. The obit was in the Oregon Journal, Aug 8, 1914. I searched but could find nothing more about the Ah Ben.

  2. Barton Byg

    Great post! And it seems the years around 1895 are really when what counts as “our contemporary era” begins. The scene you evoke seems very much like a visit we paid to the lovely old 18th-Century Harvard General Store a few years ago. On a weekend at lunchtime, it seemed a majority of patrons were bicyclists. We were told it was a popular stop because it’s just 35 miles from Boston Common. The varied food, beverage and shopping options were great, so I hope they pull through after the pandemic. Mostly pizza on the patio for now. https://www.harvardgeneralstore.com

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