One Dayton man stopped making sewing machines to manufacture Huffy bicycles. The Wright brothers fell in love with bikes and turned that passion into the invention of manned flight.
Dayton has a rich history as a hub of bicycling innovation, and the region continues to be on the forefront of biking today, with the nation’s largest paved trail network that other cities are trying to mimic.
The ordinary bicycle was introduced in the United States in the late 1870s. The rider perched above a massive front wheel that dwarfed the rear wheel and created an awkward center of gravity. Rough roads caused numerous falls.
Americans went crazy for bicycles in the late 1880s when the safety bike first arrived from England. Designed with equal-sized wheels, the new bike made getting around easier and safer.
With ease came greater interest. More than 300 companies were manufacturing bicycles at the height of the bicycle boom in the 1890s, producing more than a million bicycles a year, according to a National Park Service historical narrative.
Dayton, like many American cities, saw great business opportunities on the horizon after the League of American Wheelman, a national organization of cyclists founded in 1880, advocated for road improvements that paved the way to a bicycling boon, according to Emmy Fabich, program manager for Bike Miami Valley.
George P. Huffman, the owner of the Davis Sewing Machine Co. in Dayton, recognized the growing trend and in 1892 began making bicycles. He transitioned his company from sewing machines to bicycles as the Huffman Manufacturing Company, the maker of Huffy bicycles, according to the Huffy website. One of the company’s first designs, the “Dayton Special Roadster,” was rolled out in 1899 on cylindrical ball hubs, 23-inch tires and wooden rims.
Wilbur and Orville Wright bought their first safety bicycles in 1892, according to the National Park Service. Orville spent $160 on a new Columbia safety bicycle and later Wilbur bought a used Eagle for $80. The two were avid cyclists, and Orville took up racing in local competitions.
The brothers ran a print shop on Dayton’s West side and were known to have a knack for fixing mechanical things. Their know-how led to fixing bicycles and then to opening their own shop, where they sold overhauled bikes.
The profits from the shop helped pay for aviation experiments. The brothers used their bicycles to experiment with motion, steering and balance that would later be applied to flight.
“The flying machine is known around the world,” Fabich said, “but what people don’t realize is that we can fly airplanes today because we had bicycle mechanics who used bicycle parts on the first models the Wright brothers built.”
Today the region continues to be a draw for biking enthusiasts.
The Miami Valley Bikeway is the nation’s largest paved trail network with over 330 miles of paved bicycle roadways and in 2015 the Link Dayton bike share program rolled out 24 bike rental stations around the city allowing peddlers to hop on a bike to commute around town.
“Leaders like the Huffman family and the Wright brothers set the stage for the nation’s largest paved trails network,” said Fabich, who added other cities including Louisville and Nashville are emulating the Dayton model. “That all started right here in downtown.