A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
During the last two decades of the 19th century, there were no cooler men on earth that the members of the Kings County Wheelmen’s Club of Brooklyn. They were like rock stars and the championship Yankees rolled into one; a collection of men’s men, gushed over by young ladies and reporters alike, the intrepid “Knights of the Silent Steed.” They were Brooklyn’s best and most famous amateur bicycle club.
While pictures of mustachioed men in striped shirts and caps on enormous high wheeler cycles are in the popular imagination for this period, the truth is that the bicycle of the day looked pretty much the same then as they do now. They were easy to ride for men, women and children, and their mobility made them as popular then as they are today. Mass production soon made them affordable to almost anyone, and they sold like hotcakes. The Victorians were a very social bunch, and loved getting together in organizations, so it didn’t take long for bicycle clubs of all kinds to spring up all over the country.
The Kings County Wheelmen were among the earliest clubs to organize in Brooklyn. They first came together as a group of 25 cyclists from the Eastern District, that part of town that included Bushwick, Williamsburg and parts of Eastern Bedford. They were established in 1881, and began having meetings in rented rooms in a hall at Clymer and Division Streets in Williamsburg in 1882.
They were affluent young men, many graduates of elite colleges and members of sports clubs. They had taken to biking the way a duck takes to water, and wanted to organize to plan biking trips and other social activities, and mostly, to get together a racing team. Some cycling clubs just planned short outings for health and recreation. These guys were not as interested in that. Like extreme sports enthusiasts today, they wanted to take bicycling as far as it could go at the time, and that meant marathon bike trips upstate or to Montauk and back, exhibition trick riding and racing.
They soon did all three. The club’s best members were soon household names as the KCW racing team became the best in the city, taking on all comers. They raced other Brooklyn bicycle clubs, Manhattan and Long Island clubs, and the clubs affiliated with Ivy League colleges and other schools. The Brooklyn papers were full of their exploits, writing about races won, records broken, and interviews with the stars of the team.
They participated in parades doing synchronized riding; weaving in and out amongst themselves, with colorful silk outfits, sometimes carrying torches or other impressive props. They also staged riding shows at local arenas and venues, impressing the audience with wheelies, summersaults and circus riding tricks like doing headstands on the seat. The Wheelmen were fearless and for most of Brooklyn, especially the young and social minded, they were simply gods. They were also quite impressive in those really tight pants and shirts.
When they weren’t being sports heroes, the Wheelmen were a great bunch of guys. They met at their rented quarters and played cards, probably drank like fish, and smoked cigars. Of course, everyone who was anyone wanted to join, and the ranks of the club grew to the point that the rented rooms were not large enough. Besides, they wanted a clubhouse that was solely theirs, where they could party and also work on their bikes and do other serious things. They began looking around for some land, and it didn’t look like Williamsburg would work out any more.
The most popular part of town was now Bedford, and Bedford Avenue. Brooklyn’s longest street was bicycle heaven, and was very popular with all kinds of bikers. An ideal excursion would be to start in Williamsburg and bike all the way out to Sheepshead Bay. The Wheelmen had done it hundreds of times. Bedford Avenue would be an ideal place for a clubhouse. Because the street was so popular with bikers, many of the best cycle shops were also along its route. They put some money down, and began building a clubhouse on Bedford, near Brevoort Place and Atlantic Avenue.
They started planning the building in 1887, and moved in the next year. The new club gave them room for billiard and card rooms, a dining area and kitchen, meeting rooms and a large space for a bike workshop, where members could make repairs and soup up their wheels. The clubhouse, a four story row house, also had facilities for those rare occasions when they allowed wives and other females to come over for social events and programs. This building still stands, although it’s unrecognizable, and will be the topic of another Past and Present or BOTD, one day.
In 1892, the large storefront building next door to the clubhouse burned down. The Wheelmen’s headquarters was only slightly damaged, but it got them thinking it may be time to move again. They were still growing, and had outgrown their space already. They began looking around for another location to buy or build. One location that intrigued them was a large mansion at 78 Herkimer Street, between Bedford and Nostrand. They bought it for $30K and began making plans.
In 1894, those plans fell through, as the house wasn’t big enough, and they sold the building to the Irving Club. A new location was found; right next door to the Union League Club, on Rogers, between Dean and Bergen Street. The building committee decided what they wanted in the club, and the building commenced. The new facility was quite elegant, and looked more like a stodgy men’s club than the headquarters of a bike club. It had all of the same amenities as their old space, and something new – a bar. Apparently most of the bicycle clubs in Brooklyn were adhering to temperance standards, but as the century was coming to a close, they wanted, and got, a bar. It was called a café, but they served and sold liquor.
By this time, the KCW was still the racing kings of Brooklyn, but many of their growing membership were more interested in the social aspect of the organization. In addition to the racing team and the trick riding team, they had those who just wanted to ride with an established group. There were many women who were interested in those activities, as well. And they also had other teams. They had a poker team, billiard team and a very active bowling team. The club had several lanes in the basement. All of the teams made the papers quite frequently, especially the bowling team, as bowling was the team sport de jour at the end of the century.
By the early 1900s, the club was still growing strong. The Union League Club had erected a large statue of General Grant across from both clubs, and Grant Square was one of the most fashionable parts of town. There were elegant restaurants, fine apartment buildings and homes, and a theater was coming, as well as a hotel. This was the perfect spot to be in. It was also the perfect time for the automobile to begin to take over Bedford Avenue.
Automobiles began appearing on Brooklyn Streets in the mid-1890s. Only the rich could afford them, but there were a growing number of wealthy people in the area. In only six or seven years, the automobile took off in the popular imagination, with dozens of car companies selling all kinds of vehicles began opening shops on Fulton Street, Atlantic Avenue and Bedford.
Like a child with a new toy, many well-to-do Brooklynites dropped bicycles at their feet, and moved on to the car, beginning a love affair that hasn’t stopped since. Membership in the KCW began to drop off. They began embracing the automobile, and offered garage space, and auto events, but it wasn’t enough. By 1904 they couldn’t afford to keep their new clubhouse. It was less than ten years old. The club decided to officially disband.
They sold the building that same year to Professor MacLevy, a popular physical culturist, who planned on turning the elegant building into his center for physical culture, aka a gym, complete with a Turkish bath, all upstairs. The ground floor was going to be heavily renovated in order to turn it into an automobile showroom. What an indignity to the home that the bicycle built. But so it was. MacLevy didn’t last all that long. In 1906, the showroom belongs to William H.A. Bruns and Walter Hendricks, who sold automobiles made by the Wayne and the Thomas Automobile companies. The showroom was called the Bruns Automobile Company.
In 1909, the entire building got a complete makeover and plastic surgery. The façade was totally redone, incorporating a new showroom facility, with large display windows creating a new glass front for the building. The building now had the showroom on the ground floor, with offices above. The first tenant was a company selling three lines, the National, Empire 20 and Oakland. They were all separate car companies, each with its signature models. You could get any color, as long as it was black.
In 1911, the building was gutted by fire. It was rebuilt, and served as a showroom for the makers of the Columbia and Maxwell automobiles. And there the trail gets cold. I do not know when the building burned down for good, or even if there was a fire. By 1975, the plot belonged to the City of New York. In 1976, they sold it to the Washington Temple, which is headquartered in the old Loew’s Theater, across the street from this location. Today, the Temple uses it as a parking lot for church vehicles.
The Kings County Wheelmen are gone, but they weren’t forgotten. They had their first reunion in 1917, and got together from time to time until most of the members were dead. As the more prominent members died, the Brooklyn Eagle would bring up the club again, and marvel at their importance and accomplishments in the world of Brooklyn amateur sports. There would never be another club as famous as Brooklyn’s own Knights of the Silent Steed. Someone should start them up again. The bicycle has never been more popular.