Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Story of Salem's First Bicycle: Ben Taylor talks with Fred Lockley

Over at the blog of the Historic Landmarks Commission, in a list of 5 "random" things, there's a snip of a note about a bike ride in 1894.

What about the first bike in Salem?

You've probably seen this old image.

This image of Ben Taylor has been identified as taken in 1880,
but it is more likely from 1888
Salem Library Historic Photos
It's Ben Taylor, the owner of Salem's first high wheel. He got it in 1880 when he was 18 and in 1887 started working for the Post Office.  There's several versions of the image floating around, and the dating on it is not certain, but we can date it with great confidence to after 1887. 

Taylor was a fixture in this town of only a few thousand, and it's not surprising we find another image of him on a bike.

Ben Taylor at the Breyman House on Court Street
Salem Library Historic Photos
Towards the end of his life, in 1934 Ben Taylor was interviewed by noted journalist and historian Fred Lockley.  The oral history is great reading.

The fabrication details on Taylor's primitive bike are especially fascinating.  The spokes on the photographed bikes shown here are not wood, so at least the wheels are different than the first set of wheels Taylor discusses in the interview.  (We should remember, too, that after 50 years, not every detail may be recollected precisely.)   Taylor was always attracted to speed and advanced transportation technology.  After the first bike, he had an early motorcycle, and was involved in Salem's first airplanes.

It's the bike and the post office he discusses here:

Benjamin Pierce Taylor is one of Salem's best known early-day residents. When he retired from the postal service in Salem he had worked for Uncle Sam in the Salem postoffice for more than 40 years.

"I was born at Columbia, Miss., on October 5, 1862," he said when I interviewed him recently at his home in Salem. "My father, James B. Taylor, was born at Oxford, England, in 1817. My mother, whose maiden name was Mary Estes, was born in Alabama. My father and mother were married on January 18, 1844. Of the 13 children in our family, I am the only one now living. My brother Oscar died two days before Easter in 1933.

"In 1868 we left Mississippi and went to New York city. From there we went by steamer up the Isthmus. We crossed the Isthmus by rail [before the Panama Canal!] and took a steamer for San Francisco. We stayed at San Francisco a year, where Father worked his trade as a brick mason. I was only 6 years old when we were in San Francisco but I remember very vividly the disastrous earthquake that took place there on October 21. We were sitting at breakfast that Wednesday morning when our house suddenly began rocking and swaying. The dishes were thrown off the table, and the plaster on the ceiling suddenly came down, falling on the table. I couldn't imagine what was happening. Five people were killed by falling walls and many were wounded. Where Market and Front streets came together the ground sank several feet. Many of the sidewalks were twisted and giant cracks were left in the streets. One building sank about four feet. The city hall, the post office, the custom house and other large buildings were badly wrecked. The first shock occurred while we were eating breakfast but there were numerous other shocks during the day. Fortunately there was no fire to follow the earthquake, as was the case during the last big earthquake in San Francisco [1906].

"We came to Salem in September, 1869, and I have lived here ever since. My father was given a contract to build the Sisters' school. After working on the Academy of the Sacred Heart, he also helped build the Reed opera house. I remember with what interest I went down to the depot to see the first train that came into Salem. I was about 8 years old at the time. The road was being built from Portland on south to Roseburg.

"I went to a private school kept by Mrs. Mulkey. Later, I went to school with Frankie Dunbar, who later married Frank Hodgkin. My next teacher was Mrs. Fiske, whose son Harold Fiske, is now a general in the army. After that I put two years at Willamette university. Thomas Gatch was president, and Thomas Crawford taught science. I went to the preparatory department of the university and later went to the public school and graduated from the eighth grade, after which I went to work. I got a job in the agricultural works owned by William Gray. I went to Sunday school to Mrs. S.C. Adams, whose son, Loring Adams, is a lawyer in Portland. One of the daughters of S.C. Adams married George Adams of the Williams & England Bank.

"When I was working in Gray's ironworks, John Knight was the head blacksmith. We made plows and cultivators. John Knight was later sheriff of Marion County and a few years ago he was one of the bailiffs in the federal court at Portland. I worked for two years under him, learning the blacksmith trade. Jake Hanson had read about bicycles, so he came to John Knight and had him make the ironwork for a bicycle. The woodwork was done in the wagon shop, and Hanson did the painting. The front wheel was 48 inches high and the rear wheel 18 inches. The bicycle weighed 65 pounds. It had heavy wooden spokes, like a buggy wheel, and thick iron tires. Jake lost his interest in it, so I bought it from him. This was in 1880. This was the first bicycle in Salem. I rode it, by main strength, over the dusty, rutty roads out to the Waldo Hills. I was 18 years old at the time and it looked as if I was going to lose every friend I had, for every time I appeared on the streets or country roads on the bicycle, teams [of horses] would take one look, and away they would go. I caused more runaways the first year I had that bicycle than had occurred in the previous 10 years.

"Clint Cook had an iron bicycle built at the Grey machine shop. Instead of having wooden spokes his bicycle had iron spokes. This, of course, was long before the days of pneumatic tires or even solid rubber tires.

"I later worked in Drake's foundry and machine shop until 1887, when I was appointed a letter carrier. George Hatch and I were appointed on July 1, 1887. I retired on December 31, 1927. Read the inscription on this gold watch, given to me by the employes of the Salem postoffice when I retired. When I went to work in the postoffice General W.H. O'Dell was postmaster, Sam Church was assistant postmaster, Herbert Wilson was general delivery clerk, Clarence Crane was mailing clerk, and George Hatch and I were letter carriers. Today they have about 70 employes in the Salem postoffice."
Here's the Breyman house after it was moved but before it was demolished for the State Lands building.

Breyman House: Salem Library Historic Photos
And back to more random bits, you may recognize the name because of the "Breyman Fountain." 

Breyman Fountain and old Capitol
Salem Library Historic Photos
Here it is today.  It's lost most of the upper ornament!

Breyman Fountain and new Capitol

A Postscript on the Nesmith Building and the Taylor-Lockley Relation

Ben Taylor at the Nesmith building, circa 1888
Salem Library Historic Photos
That photo at the top is in so tight that you can't really see where it is, see what building is sortof arcaded there.

I should have included a slightly later photo that shows the location better - and the fact that Lockley and Taylor were coworkers and had adventures together!  (And tie it all in a bow with the Capitol building.)

Zoomed out a little:  Ben Taylor AND Fred Lockley!
Postal Employees at the Nesmith Building, 1894
Oregon State Library
Taylor and his cohort were photographed in front of the Nesmith block Smith's Brick. Here's the building and same corner in 1955.

Zoomed out more:  Nesmith Building, 1955
Salem Library Historic Photos

The corner arcade has been filled in with windows and a more modern storefront system.  You can see a straight-on shot here.  

The building has been gone for some time, but it stood at the southwest corner of Ferry and Commercial, where the Umpqua Bank building is today.  In the stairwell of the Conference Center across the street there's a plaque discussing both the Nesmith and Holman buildings at this corner and their role in Territorial and then early State government in between the first and second Capitol buildings. (We're on the third Capitol!   Historic Capitols of Oregon:  An Illustrated Chronology has the most detail on the times the Nesmith building was in use.)

In 1900 Lockley and Taylor also had interesting roles in the Alaskan gold rush: They traveled to Nome for appointments as postal clerks.  The National Postal Museum has more.  So even if they were not necessarily close friends (though they could have been), they did go back a ways. 

Further Update, September 30th, 2020

This is not in fact the Nesmith Building. It should instead be known as Smith's Brick. See here for more discussion.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with baggy postscript. Images of the Nesmith block, by the way, are probably taken from the front entry (or near it) of the old Marion Hotel.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Appended a brief correction to the Nesmith Building, which should instead be known as Smith's Brick.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

On a FB post the Mill posted names for the 1888 photo on the porch of Smith's Brick!

"left to right : George Hatch, Ben Taylor (on bicycle), Captain Lyman S. Scott (Postmaster), Zodie Palmer, Dick and Ella Dearborn, Glen Turner and Scott Bozarth."