Patrick McGuire is the Elkhart County Historical Museum’s curator of education. He writes for the museum’s community blog for The Elkhart Truth, Elkhart County History.
Now that the weather has warmed up, you may see many people on two wheels around town. Many people bike for fun, for exercise and to get to work. The Elkhart County Historical Museum is part of the county parks system, which features the frequently biked Pumpkinvine Nature Trail (the annual Pumpkinvine bike ride is being held on the 21st, for those who are interested).
So, biking has become a popular hobby for many people of all ages.
Over 100 years ago, Elkhart County was able to put its mark on the bicycle industry with a company that has been mostly forgotten. Before cars became popularized, bicycles were a major mode of transportation. Many companies were producing bicycles across the county, and one Elkhart County business was no different.
In Goshen, the Ariel Cycle Manufacturing Company opened in April of 1891 at the corner of Ninth and Douglas streets. The first bicycle came out of the factory on May 9, and the company was fairly successful in the beginning. By 1892 the factory was turning out anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 bikes per year and employed 25 workers. Demand for the company’s bicycles was more than it could produce.
More success followed in the mid and late 1890s. With the motto “Good Stock Counts,” the company prided itself on using high quality materials when producing its bicycles. To accommodate its customer base, there were a variety of models a person could choose from.
The “Titania” model, according to the company, was the perfect bike for women and came with a gracefully curved and formed aluminum mud guard. For the everyday rider, there were three models of roadster. For those who liked to go fast, the Ariel “racer” was lightweight, and according to the company’s 1895 catalogue, was “the embodiment of the highest attained point in bicycle construction.” The company also produced tandem bikes during its heyday.
At an average cost of $100, these bikes became fairly popular. They were used across the U.S., as well as in Japan, England, Sweden, Holland, Brussels, Belgium, South Africa, Germany and Australia.
Not only was the company selling many bikes, but Ariel was gaining a lot of exposure. In 1893, the company gained notoriety by displaying an entirely nickel-plated bike at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and appeared at a cycle show in Madison Square Garden in 1894. One of the heads of the Madison Square Garden show commented that the Ariel company, “Unquestionably display a great deal of ingenuity.”
The company kept expanding by adding onto its factory and hiring more employees. By the end of 1895, the company employed 225 workers and never closed; the factory stayed open 24 hours per day by having two 12-hour shifts so it could keep up with demand.
Seeing the success this Goshen company was having, members of the Bicycle Trust – a large group of bicycle manufacturers headed by famous sporting goods manufacturer A.G. Spalding – came to Goshen to look over the company’s operations. The trust met in New York City in 1899 and decided to band together, but had left Ariel out of the group.
With the major names all in one group, the trust was able to control the market and put many smaller companies like Ariel out of business. The company folded and closed its doors on August 1, 1901.
This story does have a happy ending, though.
The stockholders of Ariel came together in 1902, about a year after its closure, and formed the Western Rubber Company, which went on to be in business in Goshen until the 1980s, when it was bought by a larger company. The factory that was first used to build Ariel bicycles was used until 2002.
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