Department of Collections: history on wheels | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Department of Collections: history on wheels 

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"I don't have a normal job," says Jim Hurd, gleefully. He gestures at a cavernous loft filled with rows and rows of bicycles. "Everyone else here has to think of next year's model. I'm the only one that gets to think about last year or 100 years ago. And they actually pay me to do this. That's the most amazing thing."

Hurd is curator of the Schwinn History Center, located in the west Loop. Organizing the more than 700 bicycles and 50,000 or so other items related to bicycling is a task that makes him happy to come to work in the morning.

"This is the King Tut's tomb of the bicycling industry," he says. Schwinn has always been a family-run business, and Hurd says that the company had enough foresight to save all sorts of bicycles and memorabilia. After three years on the job, he estimates it will take another two before he even gets to see every item in the inventory. Among the things he's found so far are bicycle-safety films from the 1930s, medals awarded in the 1890s to cyclists who completed 100-mile bike rides ("along cow paths," Hurd explains), a flag given by the military to the company for its war-production efforts during World War II, and of course bicycles. Hurd has seen everything, from the Ordinaries of the late 1800s (the kind with the huge front wheel) and the tandems on which a courting couple could ride side by side to Sting-Rays from the 1960s.

At present the collection is not open to the public, but you may have seen some of its bicycles elsewhere. The best place to see them now is at the Museum of Science and Industry, where Hurd has set up an exhibit detailing the history of the bicycle, from an 1860s Boneshaker to a 1988 triathlon racer. Hurd calls it the "most complete bicycle time line on display in the U.S." Others of Hurd's pets--not really antiques, but nostalgia machines for baby boomers--have appeared in the movie Back to the Future and the TV show The Wonder Years.

Talking about the fat-tired models of the 1950s, Hurd says, "These bikes are childhood memories for baby boomers that remember cherry Cokes from before they came out of a can." He adds that collecting Pee-wee Herman-style bikes is an affordable hobby rapidly growing in popularity. A good deal of his time is spent fielding questions from callers who want to know, for example, whether the Schwinn Black Phantom they just picked up at a garage sale for 15 bucks is really worth anything.

Hurd's interest in classic bicycles was kindled by accident about 12 years ago. An antique-car collector at the time, he happened upon and bought an old balloon-tired Schwinn bicycle missing a headlamp. When Hurd went to a dealer looking for a replacement light, he ended up buying three more classic bikes from the dealer instead. Shortly afterward he bought 300 bikes from a store whose proprietor refused to divide his inventory. Hurd gave many of those bicycles away, but the rest formed the core of his own collection.

For several years he displayed his treasures at a small museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Three years ago, the Schwinn company hired him to curate its collection of historical items, accumulated since the company's founding in 1895. It was Hurd's dream job--not only because he relished the idea of going through all the stuff, but also because he thinks the bicycle is an exceptional teaching device.

"We can all relate to the bicycle," says Hurd. And he lists a few things he would like Chicagoans to know:

In the 1890s, he says, Lake Street was called "Bicycle Alley" because there were so many bicycle manufacturers there.

Also in the 1890s, the Magnificent Mile on weekends was chock-full of socialites riding for pleasure.

The first major U.S. sports hero, Hurd says, was a black bicycle racer, Marshall Taylor, who is buried in Chicago.

Bloomers first came into fashion when women wore them in order to ride comfortably.

Hurd loves to tell bike stories. By studying bicycles, he says, you can learn about the history of dress, gender relations, race relations, technology, and art. And there's another thing about bikes Hurd wants everyone to know: they're fun.

"Riding one is cheaper than psychiatry," he says. "It makes you feel like a kid again." And yes, on nice days, Hurd rides one to work.

For more information about the Schwinn History Center, call 454-7471.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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