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Merrill brought bikes to Portland, and prostitutes took ’em away

“World's Greatest Trick Rider” sold more than 50,000 bicycles in an age when bikes were the cutting edge of transportation technology; Oregon women loved them — until they started getting mistaken for hookers on the prowl ...

An engraving titled “The American Velocipede” by Theodore R. Davis, published in Harper’s Weekly in December 1868. This is the type of machine on which Fred Merrill learned his trick-riding skills. (Image: Harper’s Monthly)

Many people today still think of bicycles as toys for children or for highly specialized hobbyists and exercise buffs — like fencing foils. Others think of them as indispensable but unexciting tools for modern life. But for most of us, it’s hard to imagine the bicycle as a cutting-edge modern wonder.

But in the early 1870s, that’s just what bicycles were: fast, exciting, dangerous things that could make an ordinary human fly like the wind. And what the dashing auto racer or aeroplane flier was to a small boy in 1910, champion trick rider Carrie Moor was to 11-year-old Fred T. Merrill in 1870.

Little Fred’s father had opened a riding rink in the town of Lynn, Mass., where the Merrill family then lived, and stocked it with a few of the two-wheeled “velocipedes” that were then the state of the art in bicycles.

A velocipede in 1870 was a brutally crude thing, just a step removed from the notorious all-wood “boneshakers” of the 1850s. It featured a smaller wheel in the back and a bigger one in front, driven directly by pedals, like the front wheel of a modern toddler’s tricycle. But Carrie Moor could make one dance like a ballerina, and young Fred — possibly a little smitten with the dashing “scorcher” — found her fascinating.

A drawing by Ralph Lee of the Portland Morning Oregonian showing Fred Merrill about to ride an old wagon wheel down a ladder from the top of his building as a publicity stunt. Merrill made it safely to the bottom, much to the spectators’ delight. (Image: Oregonian)

“I took to watching her at every opportunity, and soon I was trying some of her fancy stunts,” Merrill told Portland Morning Oregonian writer Stewart Holbrook many years later. “Long before we left for the Pacific coast, I was an expert rider, doing all the tricks Carrie knew and inventing some of my own.”

The Merrill family moved across the country to San Francisco in 1873, and Fred continued his stunt riding. (Carrie seems to have moved there as well a year or two earlier; in 1871, she was the headline act at the Occidental Skating Academy, and later was named female roller-skating champion of the world.)

Fred apprenticed as an engraver, but soon found he could make far more money as a trick rider. On one memorable evening, he built a plank bridge a foot wide across the arena and pedaled his brand-new British-built high-wheel “penny-farthing” bicycle — the first one ever imported to America — across the bridge while his two baby brothers sat each on one of his shoulders. Had he slipped, there would have been a triple funeral; but he didn’t fall, and the crowd loved it.

Soon, though, Fred started hearing about an Australian chap up north in Portland who was claiming to be the “finest trick rider in the world.” This didn’t sit well with Fred, who considered that title rightfully his. So off to Portland he went to settle the matter.

An advertisement for Fred Merrill’s bicycle shop, which ran in the Portland Morning Oregonian on Feb. 26, 1899. (Image: Oregonian)

In Portland, the Aussie accepted Fred’s challenge, but left town that very evening in the dark of night, never to be seen again. Meanwhile, Fred had discovered that he really liked Portland.

“I found the city a lively place,” he said, “even when compared with San Francisco.”

So he stayed, and in 1885 — now convinced that bicycles were destined to become a real mainstream thing — he opened the Northwest’s first bicycle dealership, in a big tent built for him by legendary Portland neophile Henry Wemme (original founder of White Stag and owner of Oregon’s first automobile).

Fred was selling Columbia brand bicycles, of the type known as “Ordinary” or “Penny-Farthing” — with a huge front wheel and a tiny trailing wheel. They were speedy and fun, but a little hard to get used to and rather dangerous to boot, especially going downhill; “taking a header” while perched atop a six-foot-high wheel was relatively common, and sometimes fatal. So sales were slow, and Fred mostly was paying the bills with his trick riding.

But when, in the early 1890s, the “safety bicycle” was invented, Fred knew his time had come. The safety was, essentially, the modern bicycle — two equal-size wheels of moderate size, the rearmost driven by a chain. It was easy to learn to use, fast and fun. It was going to explode. Fred knew it, and he was ready when it did.

Fred T. Merrill as he looked in 1936, when interviewed by Stewart Holbrook. (Image: Oregonian)

Fred quickly developed a reputation as the Tom Peterson of his time — an advertiser and promoter of legendary wizardliness. He talked to the telephone company, gave them some money and got permission to paint the words “RIDE A RAMBLER” (Rambler was his top-selling brand) in screaming red on all the telephone poles in town. And he staged events — daredevil riding exhibitions, races against thoroughbred horses, even a trick dog (the “Rambler Dog”) that jumped off the roof of his building into a net.

And the craze continued. In the late 1890s, the state governor, Theodore Geer, was a passionate bicyclist, and in 1900 rode his bicycle from Salem to Champoeg to mark the location of the formation of Oregon’s first territorial government in 1843.

Bicycles famously liberated the women of the “Belle Epoque” from the drawing room, giving them a means of getting around quickly that wasn’t dependent on a brother or husband hitching up horses. Of course, many Oregon women of the time were perfectly capable of handling stock, but lots of others weren’t, and a bicycle made it possible for them to go places and do things that had never been open to them previously.

“Pastors preached powerful sermons against any and all women who took to the deviltry of riding a wheel,” Merrill recounted. “And if you know anything about the women, you will know that all of them who could get a wheel had one. … There were letters to the paper and editorials about the great menace to life, health and morals of the bicycle, and ‘scorchers’ (bike riders who rode with excessive speed and carelessness) were arrested and taken to jail just as reckless drivers are today.”

And then — after a solid ten years of wild popularity, during which Fred sold more than 50,000 bicycles — the fad went “out like a light.”

Drawing of various designs of velocipedes, including a couple very early versions of the modern “safety bicycle,” from an 1887 German encyclopedia. (Image: Brockhaus’ Conversations-Lexikon)

“From 1900 on, the demand for wheels dropped month by month,” Fred recounted.

Well, sure, you might think. That’s about when the automobile was invented, right? So the car displaced the bicycle, yes?

Wrong, says Fred. Remember, cars were expensive, temperamental, delicate things in the nineteen-oughts, suitable only for wealthy young men; the first Ford Model T was still years in the future. No, the bicycle fad was killed not by the automobile, but by a group of enterprising prostitutes in the old North End.

Legendary North End madam “Liverpool Liz” Smith probably started it; in any case, she took it the farthest. She invested in a bicycle riding track and equipped her girls with brightly colored outfits and skirts with slits high enough to deploy as much leg as any situation might seem to require. They staged races around the track for the “gentlemen” to bet on, and when business was slow, they sallied forth around town on their wheels to troll for customers, ringing their bells and flashing their winning smiles.

“When Blanche Hamilton’s girls and Liverpool Liz’s girls and all the rest of them took to the wheel, the society girls got off their wheels and went afoot, or went back to the buggy,” Fred recalled.

By 1903, for the most part, the only women pedaling around town were also, if you will, peddling around town — a fact that it’s interesting to reflect upon when looking at historic photos of women on bicycles from that time. And it would be 30 years before bicycle riding would start coming back into favor.

A satirical illustration from the magazine Puck, published in 1895, showing all the ways the "New Woman" might be expected to use her bicycle. (Image: Library of Congress)

(As a side note, it’s my opinion that the severe scowl known as “bicycle face” was cultivated by society bicyclistes in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their less “respectable” sisters, who of course smiled coquettishly at all the prospective customers they encountered as they rode. It also seems a pretty good guess that a woman would feel like scowling after four or five random “gentlemen” have mistaken her for a prostitute.)

As for Fred, he went on to a wild and colorful career as a city politician (on the “Keep Portland Wide Open” ticket), auto dealer, roadhouse owner and sports promoter. He liked to say he’d made a million and a half dollars in Portland, and spent every cent of it. There are wonderful stories relating to all these activities, but they will have to wait for a future article.

Fred finally retired to a home on Stark Street across from Laurelhurst Park and died at the age of 84 in 1944.

(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. “The Life and Times of Fred T. Merrill,” Portland Morning Oregonian, March 8, 15 and 22, 1936; Chandler, J.D. “The Bicycle King,” http://weirdportland.blogspot.com, Jan. 16, 2013)