Despite the rain, a troupe of bicyclists and mustached men costumed as knights, clowns, pages, and a prince paraded through the streets of Pawtucket. Thousands of people from Rhode Island and the adjoining states thronged the streets. For a week, all of Pawtucket celebrated one hundred years of cotton production with lavish decorations, elaborate parades, and both horseback and bicycle races. One might wonder why bicycles featured so prominently at a festival of cotton, but in Pawtucket, the two have had a long and interconnected history.
Slater Mill, which gained early fame as the first cotton spinning mill in the United States, changed hands many times over the course of the nineteenth century. By 1865, it was owned by the Spencer family of Pawtucket.
Around this time, velocipedes, commonly called “boneshakers” for their rough effect on riders’ bodies, were gaining popularity. These early bicycles, made entirely of wood, were eventually enhanced by the introduction of lightweight metal frames and air-filled tires. These improvements in safety and comfort brought about the American bicycling craze of the 1890s.
Anticipating this fad, Henry L. Spencer opened a bicycle shop on his father’s property in downtown Pawtucket – in a structure adjoining the old Slater Mill building. Spencer did a booming trade, becoming the second proprietor of bicycles within the state. As profits expanded and interest in bicycling increased, he transformed the third floor of Slater Mill into a riding rink and bicycling school where customers could practice the art of riding bicycles in a supervised setting.
Residents of Pawtucket were proud of their unique and varied industrial heritage. Henry L. Spencer, alongside cotton magnates and textile industrialists, was numbered one of Pawtucket’s prominent citizens worthy of mention in an illustrated history of the city published in the 1890s. The varieties of industry undertaken at the old Slater Mill building in less than a century – from cotton spinning to bicycling – were described as the “epitome of the progress of the century.”
When Pawtucket hosted its weeklong celebration to mark its “Cotton Centenary” in 1890, it was no surprise that bicycles featured prominently in the festivities. The centenary featured many contests, including horseracing and a regatta, but the bicycle races, held on the final day of the celebration, were the most popular. Three races took place: an intensive three-mile race that drew participants from around New England, a one-mile race limited to local riders, and a half-mile boys’ race. It is likely that William F. Almy, the triumphant winner of the boys’ race that day, as well as many of the other local contestants, had learned to ride at H.L. Spencer’s Bicycle Rink, a prominent sponsor of the day’s festivities.
Outside of Pawtucket, the bicycling craze had far-reaching effects. By 1896, noted suffragist Susan B. Anthony believed that “the bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world” and a group of cyclists called the League of American Wheelmen quite literally paved the road for the automobile by lobbying for safer streets.