How Lebanon welcomed the motorcycle fad of the early 1900s and provided riders for World War I

5 min read441 views and 68 shares Posted March 19, 2020

In the years when the motorcycle was still a newly invented marvel, Lebanon residents welcomed the vehicle onto county roads enthusiastically, using the bikes for work, leisure, and racing. Some residents would even find that their cycling savvy was a great aid to the US military when America entered World War I in 1917, and several brave young riders were subsequently sent overseas to serve.

The first gas engine motorcycle was invented in Germany in 1885, and in the ensuing decades the motorcycle (as well as bicycles in general) would become a popular fad in the US. By 1904, Lebanon residents were in on the craze, with one of the first local motorcycle ads appearing in the paper.

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One of the first motorcycle ads in the Daily News, May 7, 1904. The Indian model was sold by Palmyra’s S. D. Bashore for the price of $210 (in today’s money, around $6,000).

Models like the Indian, the Excelsior, the Yale, the Thor, the Arrow, the Peerless, and, of course, the Harley-Davidson, were all stocked by various Lebanon dealers, often selling for several hundred dollars new and much less used. John F. Wolf (Willow Street), E. M. Hottenstein (Cumberland Street), Harry C. Wentz (9th Street), and C. W. Habecker (8th Street) were among the dealers hoping to meet Lebanon’s demand for motorcycles. At least one dealer, John H. Hull of Mt. Hope, was a hobbyist rider himself.

For those who could afford them, the motorcycles were exceedingly useful for working and commuting, as well as joyrides in the countryside. At this time the government’s attitude towards the vehicles alternated between favorable and prohibitive. Lebanon had at least three mail carriers on motorcycles when Postmaster General Albert Burleson forbade their use in rural postal routes in July of 1915, causing some annoyance. In 1919, Mayor George Spang and the City Council placed Raymond Anspach, a policeman, on a Harley-Davidson for patrol duty, the council having contemplated the purchase of such a vehicle years beforehand.

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Some businesses capitalized on the trend, with the Daily News employing a biker to deliver papers and bolster subscription in 1917. One enterprising cobbler named John B. Lee used a motorcycle to pick up and deliver customers’ shoes as part of a business he termed the “shoe hospital.” (Incidentally, this would not be the last time motorcycles were used as makeshift “ambulances.”)

An ad for the wildly popular Indian motorcycle. The Daily News, March 14, 1916.

Races and rundowns

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Motorcycle races were hosted locally as early as 1905 and became so popular that they were often held multiple times in a year, drawing thousands in attendance. Later races, at the old Lebanon Fairgrounds of 16th and Oak Streets, saw riders coming in from across the state and lodging in the American House the night before their races.

Races were typically held by the Keystone Motorcycle Club of Harrisburg, and Lebanon hosted a number of championships for the city, the surrounding counties, and even the entire state. These championships, like the one held in September of 1916, drew in around a dozen participants and thousands of spectators, and held hundreds of dollars as their prize money. Races were typically 10, 15, or 25 miles in length, requiring many laps on the Fairground’s half-mile dirt track. According to the Daily News, this track was the best of its kind in eastern Pennsylvania.

Read More: Taking a few laps back into Lebanon’s little-known racing history

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In 1912, local racer and repairman William Lineaweaver undertook a five-mile race against another then-novel vehicle: an airplane. The stunt race pitted an Indian-riding Lineaweaver against aviator James McCally in a Curtiss biplane as part of an flight show at the Fairgrounds. Both vehicles, according to a report, averaged speeds of around 50 miles an hour, but Lineaweaver managed to ride to victory thanks to his faster turnaround on corners.

The fad was not without its dangers. As advertisements for the newest models appeared in the papers, so too did reports of reports of pedestrians being “run down” by motorcycles on country or city roads. Injuries and damages resulted in a number of court cases and deaths. Even John Hull himself, the Mt. Hope dealer, was injured in a mishap at the Fairgrounds. Though he suffered facial lacerations and a concussion, he nevertheless rode the bike back home after being treated at the doctor’s office.

Local riders join the war effort

An American motorcycle hangar in Dijon, France, in 1919. (National Archives)
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A note in a December 1915 Daily News paper commented on the increased demand for motorcycles in the “European war.” By March of 1916, the Keystone Motorcycle Club was amassing the “Motorcycle Corps” for potential service in what was still a conflict that the US had not officially joined. The 200-strong club drew members from far beyond Harrisburg, and several county riders (Privates Robert Yingst and Lawrence Bernard, of Lebanon and Rexmont, as well as Soldier George Aurentz) became part of the corps.

America finally joined the “Great War” with a declaration of war on Germany in April of 1917. A month later, the Evening Report of Lebanon issued an appeal to local riders to join the national “Motorcycle Minutemen of America” organization and form a local branch. Whether this was accomplished or not is unclear, but some Lebanon riders did utilize their skills overseas.

Private Martin H. Spangler of Lebanon wrote a letter to his hometown in January of 1918, which was published in the Evening Report. He describes his position and schedule as such:

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I am at present in the motorcycle corps and this job keeps me quite busy. My hours are from 7:15 to 11:30 a.m. and from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. In the evening I must make a trip starting at 8 o’clock and returning at 9 or 9:30. You can readily see by these hours that I do not have much time to myself.

We had snow a few days ago and it has not disappeared as yet. This makes driving very difficult. Of course we must drive our machines, regardless of weather conditions.

Private Martin H. Spangler
25 Jan 1918
Evening Report

Motorcycles served a number of vital roles on and off the battlefield, at times acting as ambulances, scouting or messenger vehicles, and even artillery mounts. Manufacturers like the Indian Company dedicated their production of motorcycles to the war effort, and the US military used an estimated 80,000 bikes over the course of the conflict.

A motorcycle with a sidecar touting a Colt-Browning machine gun (nicknamed the “potato digger”). (National Archives)

Whether for leisure or service, Lebanon’s motorcycles were beloved by their owners. Some simply enjoyed the simple pleasure of a ride in the countryside. On brisk Saturdays in springtime, it was not uncommon to see hundreds of riders from Lebanon and Harrisburg take off for Mt. Gretna and Penryn Park near Cornwall, gathering bouquets of arbutus flowers as they went.

Special thanks to Chris Sholly for providing LebTown with personal research.

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