Bicycle Museum

History, Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People
on July 14, 2002

It all began when David Burgwardt rented out his mom’s bicycle.

The family was summering at Chautauqua Institution, a lakeside retreat of Victorian homes in western New York where automobiles and other trappings of modern life are left behind. David’s parents, Carl and Clarice “Clary” Burgwardt, took their four children on vacation there every summer and brought their bicycles along.

One summer morning in the late 1970s when Clary couldn’t find her bike, she discovered that son David had gone into business; a pedestrian had spotted it propped against the Burgwardt’s garage and inquired. Seeing an opportunity, David had rented mom’s bicycle to the passerby.

David made pocket money that summer renting family bicycles to Chautauqua guests—with his parents’ permission this time. The following year, his sister, Melinda, who was 20 at the time and three years older than her brother, took over, learning to repair bicycles. She and her father began shopping for inexpensive bikes at garage sales, fixed them up, and rented them to fellow vacationers.

When Melinda wanted to advertise, she looked for an old-fashioned, high-wheel bicycle to hang on the door of their garage in Chautauqua—which she’d converted to a rental facility. She and her dad found a reproduction that Melinda learned to ride, and the seed was planted. Later they discovered an original high-wheeler at an auction, and when they took it to an auto show, Carl—who had taken time off from the family’s steel fabrication business—received much attention as he rode it through the grounds.

And the seed took root. He learned that authentic vintage bikes ride better than replicas, so Carl and Clary—who also had caught the bicycle bug—began attending swap meets and auctions, seeking the masterpieces of what Carl calls “the first independent personal mode of transportation.”

The collection expanded, outgrowing the space the Burgwardts had at their home 60 miles away in Orchard Park (pop. 27,637). They bought a house and barn, rented out the house and stored bikes in the barn. That also filled up, so when Carl and Clary found that a former hardware store was available, Carl grabbed it and made alterations. Pedaling History Bicycle Museum, the first museum in America completely dedicated to the history of the bicycle, opened in 1991.

Bicycles of every description fill the museum—more than 350 of them. One of the first was invented in France in 1817. It was made of wood and had two wheels the same size, but no pedals; a rider propelled it by pushing his feet against the ground in a sort of walking glide. The first real bi-“cycle”—the first to have pedals—is there, the so-called boneshaker, invented in 1865 in France. It was quickly followed by softer-tired bikes, but much of the pedaling history focuses on American bicycles, many made in nearby Buffalo.

The museum offers self-tours with recordings made by Carl telling the bicycle story. “The bike took man from the horse to independent, personal transportation,” Carl says, and though few know it, bicyclists lobbied for improved roads long before motorcar drivers did.

The Burgwardts’ enthusiasm for cycling doesn’t stop with their museum. A year ago, Carl and Clary dressed in period costumes and rode old bicycles in a parade in Buffalo to celebrate the anniversary of the 1901 Pan American Exposition. Also, as part of that celebration, more than 300 enthusiasts rode vintage bicycles on the Wheelmen’s High-Wheel Tour from Erie, Pa., to Buffalo along historic Route 20. The Burgwardts were there.

“Today we all enjoy and depend on our modern transportation, giving little credit to where it all started,” Carl says. “Henry Ford’s first automobile was nothing more than four bicycle wheels with a little gasoline motor. Also,” he says, “don’t forget that America’s first airplanes were built in the back yards of the Wright brothers (who were bicycle mechanics) and the bicycle shops of Glenn Curtiss.”