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From Indianapolis to Canton: The Bellis Bicycle Company's McKinley Relay

Recently local cycling enthusiast and bicycle collector Stan Curts sent me an image of a group of cyclists posing on a partially completed Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis. Aside from being an interesting photo, Stan also provided a bit of additional background about the photo, including that the riders were associated with the Bellis Bicycle Company, which was based in Indianapolis in the mid- to late- 1890’s. The image, which appears below, is something of a celebratory shot, following the completion of a bicycle relay during the presidential election of 1896.

Indianapolis monument circle bicycle history cycling
Credit: The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review (1897)

The relay had involved fifteen riders, using Bellis bicycles, riding from Indianapolis to Canton, Ohio, the hometown and headquarters of Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, to inform him of what was expected to be his victory in neighboring Indiana. The image above shows the relay riders, along with members of the Bellis Co. management.


The relay was first suggested by Fremont Harris, a local bicycle rider, or 'wheelman' and they were often called at the time, who approached a city paper about the idea for a ride. The proposed adventure gained momentum when a few Indianapolis bicycle companies and dealers expressed interest in supporting the scheme. Harris, who is in the photo above, discussed the plan with W.K. Bellis, one of the officers of the Bellis Cycle Company, whose factory was located in the first block of south Pennsylvania. The firm's headquarters were in the Ingalls Block office building, where Bellis, whose involvement in the biking industry seemed to be a side project, had offices for an insurance company he also operated.


Mr. Bellis liked the idea, and pledged to use only his company’s bikes, and at their expense. A group of fifteen riders was rounded up so the relay could start on November 4, the day after the election. The riders were sent by rail to locations in eastern Indiana and in Ohio on the afternoon of Tuesday, November 3, Election Day, so that they could be in position to connect the relay sections. According to The Referee & Cycle Trade Journal, the riders joining the relay were confident that Indiana had gone for McKinley, and the president, who owned a bike and had promised to learn to ride it while campaigning, would also support the cause for improved roads (for their bike riding, of course).


The participants in the relay carried a message from W.K. Bellis to the presumed president elect, congratulating him on his victory in Indiana. The relay route ran northeast from Indianapolis for about 200 miles, before reaching Bellefontaine, Ohio. The relay riders during this section made good time, with no problems. However, in Bellefontaine rain began to fall, and continued to do so for the next 125+ miles to Canton. The roads between the two cities were not improved with gravel or other material, and the last few legs of the relay had to pedal through thick mud for 100 miles, with the last 38 miles being a muddy hike-a-bike. Throughout the entire relay the riders were met with celebration from onlookers along the route, and from other wheelmen from local cycling clubs. In some sections local riders paced the relay riders, although in a few sections where the weather and roads were particularly bad, the pacers decided to abandon their duties and stay indoors.


28 hours after leaving Indianapolis, on the morning of November 5, the final four riders arrived in Canton. It was estimated that had the weather and poor roads not intervened, they would have arrived 10-12 hours sooner. The four riders in the last group were escorted to McKinley’s home, all four still covered in mud and road grime, and were greeted by the future president. He invited them to breakfast, although they declined, and then chatted with them about their adventure for almost an hour, before presenting each with a signed portrait of himself. He also commented that the tales of their difficulties, and the filthy appearance of themselves and their bikes, seemed one of the best arguments for better roads he had seen. The riders also presented McKinley with their message:

Indianapolis cycling history bicycle Bellis Bicycles McKinley

McKinley immediately drafted a response letter to Mr. Bellis for the riders to take back to Indianapolis:

Indianapolis cycling history bicycle Bellis Bicycles McKinley

Surprisingly, the relay riders encountered no mechanical issues with the bikes, nor did they suffer any flat tires. The worst thing to happen were when two riders were robbed at gunpoint in between Mansfield and Wooster, while in the dark and fighting their way through thick mud. Both riders were robbed of their personal belongings, although they were allowed to keep the message to McKinley, and they somehow avoided having their bicycles taken. This section was also one where the local pacers declined to assist the relay riders due to the poor weather. Several riders also suffered crashes, or “terrific falls” as the Indianapolis News called them, although it does not appear the injuries were serious. The riders returned to Indianapolis by train, with the members of the final relay returning to a celebratory band and a "delegation of wheelman" greeting them on Thursday night.


The relay became a public relations and marketing coup for Bellis and was a prominent component in their advertising following the election. Numerous ads mentioned the relay and the 1896 model bicycle which was used by the riders. Some of the ads also claimed the 1896 bike was the same bike that President McKinley rode, although this was likely an embellishment.

Indianapolis cycling history bicycling Bellis
Indianapolis News, June 15, 1897

Some of the ads also included a reprint of the letter written by McKinley back to the company after he met with the relay riders at this home, in addition to the head badge for the company's bicycles. The letter was also reproduced in the company's catalogs.


Despite the advertising, and the publicity from the relay, it appears Bellis ceased operations in 1898, just a few years after McKinley’s election.




Sources


*Thanks again to Stan Curts for tipping me off to this topic!*


The Referee & Cycle Trade Journal, v. 18 Nov. 1896-Apr. 1897, https://archive.org/details/refereecycl1818961897chic/page/n85/mode/2up?q=Bellis (copies of letters)


The Wheel and Cycling Trade Review, v. 18 Aug. 21 1896-Feb. 12 1897, https://archive.org/details/wheelcy18211896121897newy/mode/2up (cover photo and ads)


Indianapolis News: November 7, 1896, June 15, 1897,


Dunn, Jacob Piatt (1910) Greater Indianapolis: the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes, Volume II, https://www.digitalindy.org/digital/collection/IH/id/3701/rec/2







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