There are many obvious ways the large, 1890s tricycle replica I'm riding is different from my Trek mountain bike — it has three thin wheels made of just a wire inside a rubber tube, the handlebars are about half the size of mine, and the pedals are giant blocks of wood. But it isn't until I round a small corner on the gravel track I'm riding at Old World Wisconsin and pick up speed a bit that I realize the biggest difference: This thing doesn't have brakes.
"Um, how do you stop?" I nervously shout as I attempt to thwart gravity.
"Yeah, you're kind of your own brakes," lead interpreter Ryan Schwartz shouted back to me. "But you can pedal backwards!"
I stop pedaling and coast to a stop behind two other tricycles on the track as a bicycle-themed song tra-la-las from a nearby speaker, giving the whole experience a silly silent-movie-like feel. Despite my brief moment of perhaps unrealistic panic, it really was as easy as, well, riding a bike.
The ride is the centerpiece of Old World Wisconsin's "Catch Wheel Fever!" exhibit, which opened June 14.
"It's really not an exhibit in the traditional sense, as far as a museum where everything has a label and a lot of things are in glass cases," said Dan Freas, Old World Wisconsin's site director. "It's really more of an immersion experience. We're trying to create a sense of what it was like in Wisconsin in the 1890s when wheel fever was sweeping the state."
The roots of that fever can be traced to Jan. 7, 1869, when Joshua G. Towne rode his velocipede — a wood-and-iron precursor to today's bicycle — down an icy street in Milwaukee. It was believed to be the first ride in the state's history. The velocipede fad came and went quickly, but by the 1870s people were riding "high-wheels," which featured an enormous front wheel and a small back wheel and for the first time were referred to as bicycles. Soon the bicycles were everywhere in Wisconsin, with clubs forming around them. The wheels were literally in motion for cycling to thrive in Wisconsin.
It was these cycling clubs that riders — and drivers — today can thank for Wisconsin's plethora of paved country roads, said Schwartz, who has been working at the living history museum for four years and recently graduated with a history degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
"If you look at the tires of those bikes, they're very skinny. You hit a rock, that tire's going to twitch and it's going to throw you off. There were only a few roads in the state at the very beginning where you could ride safely," he said. "As time went on, and as bicycling became more and more popular, there was something called the good roads movement, and that was essentially what led to Wisconsin having such a large percentage of paved roads."
Visitors enter through a shed that's been "commandeered" by the Badger Wheelmen cycling club, complete with re-created magazines and brochures that members from that era would have read, a club banner, maps outlining roads safe for riding and two high-wheel bicycles.
These replicas are for photographs only, but visitors can don period attire from a selection nearby and hop on for a nice memento. Actual 1890s portraits adorn the wall and serve as inspiration.
"People were so thrilled with their new bicycles, they would go to a photography studio and have their portrait taken with their bicycles," Freas said. It may seem funny, but I've seen enough photos of guys with their hot rods and motorcycles on Facebook to know that people of all eras like posing with their toys.
The clubhouse includes a workbench re-created from a photo of an 1890s Oshkosh bicycle repair shop. Visitors can tinker with a wooden pedal, a wheel truing stand and get a look at a lantern that served as a headlight.
The music is a nice additional detail.
"We were able to find bicycle songs that were written in the 1890s, because again, it was the hot thing so it permeated all aspects of life, including music. So we worked with some local musicians to record those songs," Freas said.
And that's all in just the "waiting area." The highlight of the experience is the small outdoor gravel track where tricycles stand ready for riding.
"From the very beginning, we really thought of the main experience as being the actual ride," Freas said, emphasizing that they also wanted to make sure the experience would be something that people of all ages would enjoy.
At a preview event, Freas said that the adults had just as much fun pedaling around as the kids. This adult certainly did.
The experience is part of Old World Wisconsin's newest master plan, developed two years ago with a focus on diversifying the experiences at the 600-acre living history museum, including adding more interactive experiences.
"We began thinking about what could we do that was physical in nature as well as connected to Wisconsin history, and we came up with the idea of riding bicycles," Freas said.
It was a happy coincidence that authors Jesse J. Gant and Nicholas J. Hoffman were already in the process of writing a book on the history of cycling in Wisconsin. Freas said Hoffman helped with some of the brainstorming that went into the experience, and Schwartz added that "Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State" helped provide information and context for his role as an interpreter.
"Catch Wheel Fever!" is the second new experience launched as part of the master plan. The first, "Life on the Farm," opened last year and allows visitors to take part in various farm chores including collecting eggs, chopping wood and grinding wheat into flour.
Freas said the staff hopes to enhance the experience in the Crossroads Village area of Old World Wisconsin in the future, as well as add theater performances related to cycling in conjunction with the exhibit next year.
But for now, the childlike thrill of pedaling a giant tricycle around a short gravel track is more than enough to keep visitors entertained and learning. Just remember: You're your own brakes.
Details: Old World Wisconsin is open daily in the summer from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 1; closed Monday through Wednesday from Sept. 4 through Oct. 31. "Catch Wheel Fever!" will be a permanent addition to the museum, open during all regular hours at no additional fee.
Admission is $16 for adults, $14 for students and seniors 65 and older, $9 for children ages 5 to 17 (free for kids under 5) and $43 for a family of up to two adults and two or more dependent children.
Getting there: Old World Wisconsin is at W372-S9727 Highway 67 in Eagle, about 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
More information: For more on Old World Wisconsin and "Catch Wheel Fever!," call (262) 594-6301 or see oldworldwisconsin.org.
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