By Jane Marlowe
Four generations of the Walthour family have been involved in sporting success. We have a fifth generation Walthour on Marco Island. Matt Walthour carries on the family bicycling tradition as the owner of The Island Bike Shop on Bald Eagle Drive. His great grandfather was Bobby Walthour, Sr., a two time national and international cycling champion who rose to fame during the early days of cycling competition at the end of the 1800’s and the early 1900’s.
Matt first learned about his great grandfather in college from a roommate who recognized his last name. Both were on the cycling team at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. Family information had been sketchy about Bobby, Sr. but a glance at the counter in Matt’s shop reveals that Matt has done his research. News articles and pictures abound and one can follow the amazing exploits of the young Bobby just from reading those articles.
Another fascinating reference is the book by Andrew M. Homan, Life in the Slipstream from which this story derives. It is filled with references to the greatest names in the early days of cycling, Major Taylor, Frank Waller, Charles Miller, Jay Eaton but this story concentrates on Bobby Walthour, Sr. because of his unique connection to our own Matt Walthour.
Matt met Andrew Homan at a Walthour family reunion 4 years ago in South Carolina where he learned much more about his famous ancestor. He learned how his career began and flourished in this country taking him to Germany where he lived for several years. He was considered a great athlete and star among cyclist enthusiasts in his day.
Bobby Walthour, Sr. and his twin brother, James, were born in Walthourville, Georgia on January 1, 1878, the 5th and 6th sons of William Lowndes Walthour and his second wife, Sarah Aurelia. His first wife, with whom he had 4 sons, had died in 1868. William Walthour had been a successful lawyer who fought in the “War Against Northern Aggression” and was seriously wounded. He survived the war but the family home and fortunes did not.
The family had a plantation in a small town near Savannah. They farmed their property with the help of slaves and were prominent members of their community which bore the family name. The first member of the Walthours, John Casper Waldhauer arrived in Georgia in 1746 from Austria.
According to author Andrew Homan, “the Walthour home was apparently one of the last destroyed by General Sherman’s troops in their notorious march to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah.”
William Walthour died in 1890 when the twins were only twelve. They went to live with their older brother, Palmer, in Atlanta along with other family members. Palmer started Walthour & Selkirk Company, a message delivery service which employed boys on bicycles delivering messages all about the bustling, growing city.
Thus began “Bobby Walthour’s lifelong love affair with the bicycle…at Palmer’s shop at 62 North Pryor Street. He became immersed in his brother’s fledgling business, delivering messages and repairing bicycles with his four siblings.”
Bobby was befriended by a wealthy tobacco store owner and gambler, Harry Silverman, who trusted him to deliver messages and large bets to various gaming sites around Atlanta. Bobby learned to race through the city, weaving through traffic and developing speed and dexterity on his bike which had no brakes.
Eventually, the industrious young man earned enough money to purchase a Sterling racing bicycle. It had wooden rims and low positioned handlebars and Bobby began to race as an amateur in 1895. He was only seventeen with no training save for his experiences as a messenger boy on the streets of Atlanta.
Bobby entered several races in and around Atlanta in 1895. His first prize was a gold medal worth $25 for taking second in the one-mile state championship at the Atlanta Fair. He also won a diamond pin for taking second in the half-mile at the same event.
Bobby continued to compete in races in Atlanta and other southern cities but he did not neglect his delivery work for Harry Silverman. On one particular delivery a pretty thirteen year old girl answered the door and took the package. Bobby delivered many packages to her address and managed to visit a little longer each time. Her name was Blanche Cooledge.
For the next two years Blanche rarely missed any of Bobby’s local races although she was frightened that he would crash and hurt himself. She often hid her eyes when the racers came close.
In June, 1896, Bobby started his first professional race in Montgomery, Alabama. He was not well received by one of the experienced racers who warned him to “get back home quick.” Bobby won the mile heat and two other races that day.
A few weeks later, Bobby won all three races in Columbus, Georgia, the open mile, the two-mile handicap and the five mile handicap. He received a silver medal, a new bicycle suit and a new set of tailor made clothes. He established a southern record of 4 minutes, 27 seconds in the two-mile race.
Bobby and Blanche eloped on August 11, 1897 with the help of Bobby’s good friend, Zenus Fields. Their mode of transportation? A bicycle built for two! Bobby was nineteen, Blanche was fifteen. The bride and groom were quickly forgiven and moved in with Blanche’s parents.
The year before Bobby and Blanche were married, Bobby and a racing friend, John Chapman rode two hundred miles from Atlanta to Nashville, Tennessee to meet Jack Prince. Prince was a promoter and track builder who had been a star cricket bowler in England until an injury sidelined him.
Prince observed both young men on the track and declared that Walthour would be a champion. He established a southern circuit to host professional racing with a $40,000 pledge from the League of American Wheelmen. The first southern circuit race was held in Memphis in April, 1897. Bobby finished in a dead heat with Earl Kiser who had won the championship of Europe in 1896. Bobby was on his way. He traveled the circuit winning $107 in 10 days. The median household income was less than $500 a year in 1897.
An ongoing dispute between the LAW and the riders led to suspensions for many “rebel riders” including Bobby Walthour. Bobby continued to race at “outlaw” tracks garnering many wins against big name professionals like Jay Eaton and George Kraemer.
Bicycle racing was very popular in the sporting world of the late 1890’s. One of the most important events each year was the six-day race at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was held during the first weeks of December and lasted for 142 consecutive hours. Bobby Walthour was invited to compete in the preliminary events in 1897 and 1898. His successes on the “outlaw” tracks had not gone unnoticed and he was receiving increasing national recognition. Although he only took second in different heats in 1897 and 1898 Bobby was learning his craft and meeting the best riders of his time.
In 1899, New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt signed the Collins Bill which limited the length of endurance contests. “No one individual was allowed to ride more than twelve hours in any given day.” Although the law applied to New York State, it soon was accepted as a principle throughout the world of bicycle racing. The legislation helped to curb the appalling injuries and deaths resulting from accidents brought on by fatigue.
In 1899 the Madison Square Garden six-day race was designed for two man teams. Bobby and Jay Eaton partnered and in October left for Jacksonville, Florida to train. “On the track they practiced ‘pick-ups’ in which a rider ready for rest would signal his partner. The fresh rider would hurry to the track with his cycle and match his teammate’s speed. Coming up behind, the new rider tucked in behind the exhausted rider; then came around on the inside and received a friendly shove in the back or pull on the arm from his partner.” This was called being ‘sling-shotted’ ahead.
Walthour and Eaton named themselves The Indoor Kings. They replaced each other every hour although the other 18 teams adopted a 2 hour schedule. They captured the lead after 24 hours and maintained it for 16 hours. On the third day Jay Eaton dropped out for medical reasons and Walthour was allowed to continue alone, but he could only ride 12 hours a day. The team of Charles Miller and Frank Waller won the race by riding 2,733 miles and split $1,000. Bobby Walthour received first prize for best individual effort of 1,402 miles. He won $500.
Bobby raced on the best tracks in the country which were primarily located in the northeast. Often his name was misspelled. However, he continued to win and by September, 1900 had earned more than $700. ($18,400 in today’s dollars.)
He was invited to compete in the inaugural race at Park Square Garden in Boston in December, 1900. The rules limited the 19 riders to race only 10 hours a day with a 1 hour break. The first day ended as the New Year began. “Fifteen minutes before the clock struck midnight, the biggest New Year’s Eve party in Boston celebrated wildly as the big pack of riders whirled on at high speed. The crowd counted down from 60 seconds and then 10, 9, 8 and Walthour summoned a power within him, electrified by the cheering, and went into the lead like a man possessed. The noise shook the building to its foundations and the atmosphere escalated into an implausible frenzy.”
To be continued…