Huddle bicycle

Eugene Francis Huddle rode this penny-farthing bicycle from Ohio to Nebraska, then to St. Louis for the World's Fair the summer of 1904, then rode it all the way back to Ohio. High-wheeled bicycles were dangerous machines that had a tendency to fling riders over the front if ruts or potholes were hit.

There's nothing better than poking around in small town museums.

While many of them share the same sort of items on display — local school artifacts, pictures of once-important people, log-cabin furniture — the best museums always have touches of unexpected local color.

When I was recently giving a talk to the historical society in the southern Richland County town of Butler, society president Lonnie Beveridge invited me to take a stroll through their surprisingly large museum. Among numerous interesting displays, I found a lovely antique carriage and a photograph that provoked a smile. Noticing that the central figure had connections that ran over the county line into Knox County, I decided to share a little of his story.

Huddle carriage

The huddle family bought this horse-drawn carriage when they lived in Nebraska and either drove it home or shipped it by rail when they returned to Ohio, where it was still in use up to 1923. It has since been handsomely restored, and now sits in the Butler Historical Society Museum.

Eugene Francis Huddle was born in 1868 east of Grove City in Franklin County to farmer Webster Huddle and his wife Mary. But the family moved northeast to the Knox County countryside in College Township near Gambier. There Eugene grew up, and married Millie Pipes in 1892. After starting a family there, they relocated in the late 1890s to Eldorado, Nebraska, but evidently kept well-connected to friends and family in Ohio.

The big adventure of Huddle's life is documented in the photograph that sits on the carriage seat in the museum today. The picture shows a distinctively late-Victorian high-wheeled bicycle. Early bicycles were known as velocipedes, and they couldn't go very fast.

Frenchman Eugène Meyer in 1869 invented a bicycle with a larger front wheel, and Englishman James Starley perfected and expanded upon the design. The large wheel allowed this bicycle to go faster, though it came at a risk: the high-wheeler was a dangerous machine, with riders prone to “headers,” going head-first over the handlebars if the bike hit a rut or the driver braked too fast.

Bicycle comparison

Penny-farthings, or high-wheeled bicycles, were popular in the late 1800s, because their large wheels allowed them to go much faster than earlier bicycles. Modern “safety bicycles” made use of a chain-driven gear system to accelerate smaller air-filled tires.

The high-wheeled machines became known as penny farthings because of the comparative size of the wheels, which was similar to the difference between an English penny and a farthing (¼ of a penny) coin. The invention of the safety bicycle with chains to operate gears that allowed for speed with smaller, pneumatic tires made the penny farthing obsolete by the 1890s.

But there were those who remained faithful to the old-style machine, which required more skill than the safety bicycle. Eugene Huddle was obviously one of those people, for according to family legend, he made an extraordinary journey in 1904, riding his high-wheeled bicycle from Ohio to Nebraska, then down to the St. Louis World's Fair in Missouri, and finally back to Ohio.

The Huddles moved back to Ohio for good in the teens, for youngest son Paul was born in 1917 in Knox County, where they had settled in Brown Township.

In 1924, Eugene purchased a 124-acre farm on Wheatcraft Road just south of Butler. The carriage in the museum today was bought in Nebraska, and remained in use until 1923, when it went into storage. Eugene passed away at age 75 in 1945.

Eugene's son Paul restored the one-horse carriage in the 1960s, and the family touched it up in 2009, before installing it in the museum along with numerous implements from the farm.

The carriage, the farm implements, and many other interesting displays can be seen at the Butler Historical Society Museum at 43 Elm Street in Butler.

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