LIMA — With a wife and two young children at home in Minnesota, Joseph Griebler desperately needed a pay day.
Griebler was a promising professional bicycle racer. But, in 1896, bicycle racing, a sport long on derring-do and short on safety, didn’t pay for promise, and Griebler had just missed several weeks’ racing while recuperating from an illness in a Chicago hospital.
Now, on the afternoon of July 29, 1896, Griebler was lined up in a row of 13 racers stretched across the track at Lima’s fairgrounds track waiting for the start of a half-mile race. According to Conrad and Terry Kerber in their book on Major Taylor, a supremely talented African-American cyclist of the era, Griebler had been shopping in a Lima shoe store that morning, picking “two of the nicest” pairs of shoes for his children.
“Because he had but a few cents to his name,” the Kerbers wrote, “he asked the salesclerk if she would hold on to them until that afternoon when he would return with the money.” Griebler told the clerk he was going to win one of the races at the fairgrounds track, according to the Kerbers. In those days the fairgrounds were located on the site now occupied by Lima Memorial Health System.
Eighteen ninety-six, the year Griebler came to Lima to race, was the peak year of a bicycle craze which arrived just as America was transitioning from horse-powered to horsepower. In 1895, more than 300 manufacturers were cranking out bicycles. Wilbur and Orville Wright were assembling bikes at their shop in Dayton.
As bicycles evolved from the high-wheeled “penny-farthing” models of the mid-19th century to a machine similar to today’s bicycles, more people, including women, took to the road. And many of the women took to wearing bloomers on their jaunts, a move which in the strait-laced Victorian era must have been akin to Lady Godiva’s ride through the streets of Coventry.
In the early spring of 1895 a bold, bloomer-clad bicyclist screwed up her courage and took a ride down Lima’s Main Street. “Pedestrians stopped and gazed in wonderment,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported April 6, 1895. “The word preceded her down the street and customers and clerks ran out onto the pavement to gaze upon the fair rider. Office windows were raised all along the street and nothing has happened recently that caused so much excitement and comment.”
The reporter added, perhaps a bit hopefully, that “now that the ice is broken her appearance on the streets in a bloomer costume will probably be more frequent.”
The appearance of bicycles on the streets of Lima had certainly become more frequent, although not always welcome. Newspaper stories on runaway buggies often blamed bicyclists for startling the horses and bicyclists riding on the sidewalks, which were much smoother than the roads, occasionally mowed down unwary pedestrians. On Aug. 10, 1891, the Lima Daily Times reported a woman was knocked down by a bicycle “that stole on her from behind,” leaving her “bruised about the face.” The rider claimed he had rung a warning bell, the Times noted, while the woman’s husband “inveighed loudly against the running of wheels on the sidewalk, and the ringing of a bell behind a person, who was just as apt to turn in front of the bicycle as not.”
Mostly, though, bicyclists rode — and, being human, raced. As early as the 1880s, half-mile and mile bicycle races had become a staple at community celebrations.
In May 1894, the Lima Cycling Club was organized and membership quickly increased. Two years later the club completed work on a track at Faurot Park. “Men and teams have been at work on the Lima Cycling Club track for more than a week and by the time the work is completed and the cycle path is worked down properly, Lima will have one of the fastest cycling tracks in Ohio,” the Times-Democrat claimed May 23, 1896.
The speed of the track was tested many times that summer at amateur meets. “The regular weekly race meet of the Lima Cycling Club at their track last evening was the best local race meet ever given at the track,” the Times-Democrat opined June 26, 1896, “and the visitors were repaid for any dissatisfaction they may have had stored against the club on account of one or two uninteresting events at the recent prize meet. All events last evening were interesting, but the main features were the tandem race and the exhibition riding of Geo. Wood and Clarence Reel and Ernest Waugh.”
At one race in June 1896 the “Great Fowler Sextette,” a group of athletic young men who rode a bicycle built for six, gave an exhibition. A month and a half later the men outpaced a New York Central steam engine over a half mile distance west of Syracuse, New York.
In late July 1896, the professional racers, including Joe Griebler, arrived in town for the National Circuit Races at the fairgrounds track. The event included track races for professionals and amateurs as well as a 20-mile road race for amateurs sponsored by local merchant and cycling enthusiast F.A. Harman.
After heavy rains washed out the races on July 25 they were rescheduled for Wednesday, July 29, 1896. “With the twenty-mile road race this morning and the great national circuit meet at the fair grounds this afternoon, this was a day of cycling such as was never witnessed in Lima before,” the Times-Democrat crowed in its morning edition.
“Toddy” Cowles, “a prominent young rider of this city,” won the road race, coming in “covered with mud but still riding at a terrible pace,” the newspaper noted, adding that the national circuit race also was destined to be a success.
That, however, is not how it would be remembered.
“The Great National Circuit bicycle race held here yesterday was marred by a sad and deplorable fatality, unprecedented in the history of bicycle track racing,” the Times-Democrat wrote the following day. “Joseph Griebler, of Minneapolis, Minn., one of the most promising professional racing men on the national circuit was fatally injured in the third event of the afternoon and died less than an hour later.”
Griebler started the race behind the pack but near the end began a sprint that “was one of the most terrific ever seen on the track” and at the last turn was “at least fifteen or twenty feet in advance” of the second-place rider, the Times-Democrat wrote. “He reached the homestretch and to the amazement of the spectators, did not straighten up and head for the tape, but kept on swinging wide as though he was still making the lower turn outside the bunch… With his head still dropped, Griebler worked on like a demon until his front wheel started up the high bank on the west side of the track… It was all over in an instant. From the grand stand the spectators lost sight of the rider for a moment as he neared the bank, and then both wheel and rider were seen bounding in the air above the heads of the people.”
Griebler was “thrown against the fence with terrible force. His head struck a post and he fell to the ground unconscious,” the Times-Democrat reported.
The Kerbers wrote: “With one of his ears ripped off, chin smashed in, and one eye loosed from his head he lay prostrate on the ground, blood running out of his nose, ear and mouth. Not knowing any better, a few people picked him up and carted him under the shade of a weeping willow tree, probably further injuring his neck and pressing a fractured bone farther into his brain.” He died twenty minutes later after being taken to his room in the Burnet House hotel.
There was talk of setting up a fund for his wife and two young children, but nothing ever came of it, the Kerbers noted. In the end, a successful young rider named Fred Longhead bought the shoes Griebler had set aside that morning and sent them along with Griebler’s body to his widow in Minnesota.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.