An Event that Started in the 1890s is Renewed in Smethport, PA
For the duration of this story, allow yourself to be taken back in time. Go back before the age of automobiles and global warming, before the iPhone - and, for that matter, the actual telephone. Keep going all the way back to the 1890s, when the bicycle reigned supreme and $200 was big money.
The Wheel Around The Hub is a bicycle race held in Smethport, Pa. that traces its roots back to the yesteryear of the two-wheeled machines that today we ride for recreation. Originally started by Smethport dentist Dr. F. C. Pierce and his friend Martin Armstrong, the race challenged riders to 7 miles of terrain much less easily ridden than today’s paved roads.
After the race petered out in the late 1800s, it was all but forgotten by the people of Smethport. But local historian Ross Porter and friends, in an effort to keep history and tradition alive, rekindled the race in 2005. Now, it draws people from all over North America.
Today, there are two races: one highly-competitive 53-mile race that is done in a series of seven circuits, and a 15-mile ‘fun ride’ that is broken into two circuits. The races - and the pig roast that follows it - raise money for the Smethport Volunteer Fire Department. Porter says after stumbling across some photographs of the event, he knew that it was something the town could support again more than a century later.
“Back then, bicycles were a tremendous part of the culture in Smethport,” Porter said. “When we brought the idea up to start it again, it was received very positively. We consistently get over 100 riders every year. It’s a great event that draws people from all over Western and Central New York, southern Ontario and many other places. In 2006, our winner came from Japan.”
Cycling was such a big part of the culture in the late 1800s; if you bought a bike - a Columbia ‘Century’ sold for a cool $200 - it was announced in the paper. Announced in the paper! As if your kid made the honor roll! It was big-time news. Dr. Pierce was so into biking, he rode his bike from Smethport to Des Moines, Iowa in 10 days and brought the train back home. That’s dedication.
“Smethport’s population had quite a bit of money,” Porter said. “People were buying bikes non-stop. Women would ride to Olean to go shopping and take the train back. Or some people would ride to baseball games, stay in a hotel and ride back the next day. There is a rich history of cycling in this town.”
One of the coolest facets of the race is that in the 1890s, the winner brought home a gold pocket watch. And in an effort to keep the history alive, the winner of the current race will also bring home a gold pocket watch.
“It’s a fun piece of history,” Porter said. “There’s also a purse, which is based on the amount of fundraising we do. But the pocket watch is given in a presentation and it’s engraved. And I promise you, this award will stand out in the racer’s trophy room. It’s highly sought after.”
The race is done as close as possible to the original route. Last year, the route had to change because of a bridge that was torn down (the old bridge was a part of the original route) but the scenery is still the same - beautiful.
“It’s incredible how well the community has accepted this piece of history,” Porter said. “A large number of the town’s population helps out as markers and corner marshals. Everyone helps out. The county sheriff is the pace car for the 53-mile race and one of the fire vehicles is the pace car for the 15-mile race.”
After the race, there is a pig roast with live music provided by the MoJo Hand Band - a blues band with a rocking 70-year-old woman as the lead singer.
“I like the race because it’s tradition, and I like to keep tradition,” Porter said. “It’s our little piece of history that helps the community and helps them understand who they are. I’m very proud of it.”
This year’s A Wheel Around The Hub is set for Saturday, Sept. 15 with a noon start. For more information, head over to www.smethporthistory.org. You can download the registration form as well as educate yourself on the race’s history.