Chapter 42 — A Bicycle Trip

March 8, 2012

Jeff Beck wants to let people know that he’s nearly caught up with bicycle repairs, but he hopes that folks don’t wait until the last minute to bring their bikes in before the GWSBAS race on April 1, since he’ll be riding in it again this year and won’t be able to make adjustments to your wheels and gears on that day like he did last year.

Sally Oswald reminds everyone of the upcoming “Ides of Merch” sale in downtown Walnut Shade beginning on Monday. She suggests everyone “Caesar the opportunity” for great bargains. “Et tu” can find just what you want. Sally also apologizes for the bad puns.

Lorene Roberts reminds farmers in Miller County that the Ag Census will conducted later this year, but the ASCS office will begin information and training sessions in April to ensure that everyone knows the purpose of the Census and how to fill out the forms. Specific dates will be available later this month and she’ll keep you posted.

Dorothy Norman heard from her son, Larry Duncan, that he has secured a lease on a storefront in Hawthorne Plaza in Leawood, Kansas, where he will open his latest Cafe Bonheur. This will be number twelve, but the first in the midwest, the others being in Seattle, Portland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Carmel.

Andrea Evans at Prairie Possessions is getting ready for summer gardens and will be stocking lots of statuary this year. Ralph Thompson, who thinks of himself as a marketing guru, says she should rename her shop “A Prairie Gnome Companion.” No word from Andrea on a name change.

Billy Thornton called from New York to say that he and Dorothy are having a great time. So far, they’ve been to Central Park, the Empire State Building and Murray’s Cheese. Billy says it’s early yet; they still haven’t found Studio 54.

Curt and Amanda Jackson went to the Rio in Overland Park on Sunday to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Curt says it was a terrific film and Amanda didn’t make him have raw fish afterwards; they went to Winsteads.

Lee Rogers sold another story plot last week. He says to look for it on NCIS in about a year.

Nora Evans spent Sunday with her uncle Ray and aunt Andrea. Nora goes to school at K-State, completing her master’s degree in English.

Carl and Jessica Cunningham’s daughter, Rosemarie and her husband Ted, came to visit on Saturday on their way to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament. Ted is hoping to see his alma mater, Iowa State in the finals this year.

Jody Tyler’s blog, “Prairie Prayers,” now has over 1,250 subscribers in eighteen states and six countries. She is exploring ways to turn her essays and poems into a book. She’s gotten some suggestions from Miss Cecelia Davenport, whose book, Elements of MY Style, is ranked number 75 in the Amazon “memoirs” category.

Lorene Robertson’s niece, Ginger Davis, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, called to let her know that she’s going to be a great aunt in September. Congratulations, Lorene! We all know you will, indeed, be a great aunt!

Lucille Miller’s sister, Grace, who lives in Boise, Idaho, will be moving to Manhattan at the start of the fall semester to teach chemical engineering at K-State. Grace’s husband, Howard, will stay behind until their oldest daughter graduates from high school in 2019. Howard owns an on-line dental supply company, so relocating to Manhattan will be easy for him.

Mahjong was derailed last week when Ruth Stanford says someone at Walnut Rest misplaced the tiles. Instead, she, Ilene Wick, Lori Mendenhall, and Anna Brady played Parcheesi. Ruth says it felt a bit strange to play a different game, but they all agreed that it was a nice change of pace.

Every now and then, a change of pace is good. I’m waiting for mine, but until then…

I remain…

Your Faithful Correspondent


Folks in Walnut Shade have been avid cyclists for quite some time. It all dates back to the day that Thomas Stevens rode his penny-farthing into town. I’ll get to that story in a bit, but first I need to take you to Beck’s Bikes. This is the time of the year when Jeff Beck is hoping to finish getting bikes ready for the spring and summer activities.

As soon as the snow melts, the kids around here, like kids everywhere are ready to hit the streets (sometimes literally) on their two- and four-wheelers, the latter being the youngest cyclists still on training wheels. The two-wheelers include a very few of those new freestyle scooters that the kids ride. Skateboards have never caught on in Walnut Shade, given the unevenness of the sidewalks and the narrowness of the streets. There was a town meeting several years ago at which the question of allowing skateboards on the sidewalks and streets was addressed. Some people in town thought that the town should ban the “contraptions” (you can probably guess the age of those folks), but the majority said “let them ride.” There was a suggestion that perhaps we should try to improve the sidewalks to make them safer for the skateboarders and for the older residents who have been known to trip on the parts that are heaved by tree roots or broken from some other cause. Theoretically, the sidewalks are the responsibility of the property owners, but the town council has been good about allocating a bit of money each year to fixing the worst of the offending slabs of concrete. The sidewalks along the parkway are in excellent shape and throughout most of the town, but there still are spots that you know you have to be extra observant when you walk there.

Anyway, as I said, skateboards haven’t caught on, nor have the scooters you see kids on in bigger towns. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation for the younger people and a recreational choice for lots of others. As hard as it is to imagine, there are actually two bicycle clubs in Walnut Shade, one devoted to mountain biking and one to over-the-road cycling, a la Tour de France. Jeff services them both and it keeps him busy most of the year. He prefers the Tour-type riding, himself, being a veteran of the RAGBRI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and BAK (Bike Across Kansas). He and the eighteen members of the touring club have ridden in many, many charity events and Jeff sponsors other riders. It not unusual to see his logo, “Beck’s Bikes,” on t-shirts and riding gear throughout northeast Kansas.

The mountain bike club has fifteen members who ride all over the midwest in events that can best be described as periods of self-inflicted torture. Now Kansas isn’t known for mountains, the highest “peak” in the state being a little hill in the western part of the state known as Mount Sunflower. Actually, “hill” doesn’t really describe the geographic feature; it’s just a slight rise in the surrounding elevation. There are, however, other parts of the state where the terrain makes mountain biking a real challenge. The Cottonwood 200, for example, is a three-day, 200 mile ride through the Flint Hills, some of which follows the same paths used by Native Americans, settlers, and cattle drives. Some of the club members enter the Psycowpath Racing Series in Nebraska that has events all summer over some of the worst places you’d ever want to race. But they love it! Good thing they have health insurance.

The bicycle clubs make sure that they are not scheduled for races the weekend immediately preceding or following April 1 each year. That time is set aside for the GWSBAS (Greater Walnut Shade Bike Around the Square), a fund-raiser for the Main Street/Pride Committee and an annual chosen local charity. Riders collect pledges for the number of times they can make the circuit from the Square to the Park and back over the period of twenty-four hours. Of course, in fine Walnut Shade tradition, there are multiple stops for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, drinks, bathroom breaks, rest stops, tire repairs, gear repairs, changes of jerseys, interviews with local media (me) and the TV crews that come out from Topeka and St. Joe. The “race” starts at midnight on Friday night and ends at midnight on Saturday night. After a shower and few hours of sleep, riders are treated to breakfast at St. Brendan’s, now sponsored by Jason Glenn and Harry Singleton and cooked by Jerry Hall. After breakfast, there is an ecumenical church service at St. Stephen’s and lunch at the 1st Baptist Church. It’s quite a weekend for the riders and for the town.

Now, what precipitated this enthusiasm, fanaticism, almost religious fervor for bicycles in Walnut Shade? Well, we have to go back to the early summer of 1884 and the appearance of one Thomas Stevens in town on a “high wheeler” bicycle. Stevens, it seems was in the midst of a cross-country bicycle trip and Walnut Shade just happened to be along his route which followed the old Oregon Trail through the Plains. Stevens was born in England in 1854, but emigrated to the U.S. 1871 and settled with his family in Denver. They moved to San Francisco and it was there that Tom became fascinated with the large-wheeled “Ordinary.” As many young men at that time, he held a variety of jobs in and around San Francisco and elsewhere. For a bit, he manage a railroad mill in Wyoming and later went to Colorado to work in a mine. While in Colorado, he came up with the idea of riding a bicycle across the country. One wonders how that could have possibly occurred to him, working in the mine, but on a visit to his family back in San Francisco, he purchased a Columbia 50-inch “penny-farthing” (so nick-named because they resembled an English penny and a farthing, the former being a large coin, the latter, a small one; the penny-farthing, interestingly, was the first device to be called a bicycle) and set off on April 8, 1884 to ride across the country. Four months later, on August 4th, he arrived in Boston, having walked nearly a third of the way since improved roads were mostly unheard of at the time.

Soon after he left San Francisco, his adventure began to be chronicled in papers along the way. Stevens was something of a self-promoter and he made sure that people at his next stop knew that he was coming. In many of the towns that he rode through, he was met by local bicycle clubs and other “sporting enthusiasts,” as one paper put it. Word reached Walnut Shade a few days before he arrived, in time to organize a greeting party made up of the mayor and town council and Miller County dignitaries. The high school band greeted him with a few English songs, befitting his heritage and he was given a key to the city, which he respectfully refused, saying that he had to travel light and he was getting weighed down by all the medals and trinkets he was collecting along the way. One thing he did not refuse: a repair of his bicycle by Henry Dane, who owned the local blacksmith shop. Just outside St. Mary’s, he hit a rock that bent one of the spokes on his front wheel. He, in fact, walked the ten miles into Walnut Shade, rather than ride. It was a bit of a disappointing sight seeing him pushing his high-wheeler into town, but the repair was successful and the next day, the town saw him circle the park and the square before riding off towards Leavenworth.

Stevens recognized that his trip across the U.S. was something special and decided to keep it going by riding around the world. He secured a job as a correspondent for a magazine which sponsored his trip and bought him passage to Liverpool in April, 1885. From there he set off on a bicycle ride that would not end until he reached Yokohama, Japan on December 17, 1886. He later wrote a book about his experiences called, fittingly, Around the World on a Bicycle. The Pope Manufacturing Company of Boston, which built his cycle, preserved it until the Second World War when it was turned into scrap for the war effort, a rather ignominious end for a machine that saw more of the world than any other of any kind.

As if riding around the globe on a bicycle weren’t enough, Stevens also travels extensively after that, writing for magazines and publishing other books. He returned to England where he died at the age of 80 in 1934.

There is small stone marker in the park commemorating his visit, erected by one of the bicycle clubs that sprang up after he stopped in Walnut Shade. Every year, during the GWSBAS, someone tries to ride a penny-farthing but manages to only make it a few times around the course, a testament to what a monumental feat Thomas Stevens accomplished in his ride across the country and around the globe.


For a town this size, Walnut Shade seems to have a lot of authors to its name. I’m sure every kid who went to school in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s in Kansas remembers Wallace Williams, the historian who wrote Kansas, Now and Then, the textbook every one of us studied in the eight grade. Well, lots of us opened it, but I’m not sure study is the precise word for what we did with it. Wallace was a fixture in town for sixty years, dying on his 92 birthday in 1973. Almost every day until then, he could be found at the Shady Cafe, the predecessor of Shirley’s, working on one of his historical novels or a sketch of some little-known aspect of Kansas lore.

Sydney Street lived in Walnut Shade for a decade, from 1952 to 1963, while she wrote her murder mystery series set on golf courses around the world. The hero of the book, Sylvester Atkins was the caddy for Missy Foster, a wealthy amateur golfer and a presumed sleuth, while it was really Sylvester who did the sleuthing. Missy hobnobbed with the members of the country clubs she visited, playing golf, drinking and picking up clues that Sylvester followed to expose the perpetrators of the crimes. After completing eighteen books, each one named after a famous golf hole, Sydney moved to New Orleans and invested her money in a restaurant that went bankrupt after Hurricane Betsy hit the city in 1965. She was several times rumored to be moving back to Walnut Shade, but stayed in New Orleans and could often be seen at a table in Cafe Du Monde, drinking chicory coffee and eating beignets.

Perhaps the most famous author to emerge from Walnut Shade was Hiram Carothers, contributor to the National Geographic from 1888 to 1932. Hi, as he was known around town, was an explorer, photographer, scientist, and well-known playboy. His contributions to the magazine were often censored and always heavily edited. He had a knack for making the most mundane assignment scandalous. While the Governors of the Geographic tried to fire him several times for what they considered incidents that brought embarrassment to the Society, Hi’s stories were beloved by the readers and drew some of the most abundant praise. Members threatened to not renew their memberships if he were fired and the Governors always relented. Hi planned to return to Walnut Shade after he retired from the magazine, but he was killed when his plane went down in Borneo while he was on his way to the south Pacific to investigate the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

Current authors are abundant in Walnut Shade. Miss Cecelia Davenport just published her memoir, Elements of MY Style, which is climbing up the Amazon charts. Jody Tyler’s blog is gaining readers every day and she is in the process of compiling her blog posts for a book. Glenda Singleton has published three books of poetry and is represented in six anthology collections. Her latest book will be hitting the shelves in April. Dorothy Westover is the author of six books on food and cooking and the editor of the last three Erin Go Bragh cookbooks, published by the Alter Society of St. Brendan’s Catholic Church. Dorothy’s most popular book is Cooking Prairie Chickens the Pioneer Way. Mark Sappington and his cousin, Stephen Sappington, are the co-authors of two books on the life and art of George Caleb Bingham and are currently doing research for a book about Alfred Jacob Miller, an artist who accompanied an expedition to the Rockies in 1837 and who made sketches in this area which were later turned into painting in his Baltimore studio. Miller County is named after him. Jason Glenn and Harry Singleton have published a book on home and garden design that was named one of the twenty-five most influential books of 2010 by Architectural Digest. Jerry Hall wrote a textbook while at K-State on the management of student food service. Tom and Michelle Clemons contributed a chapter to Staying in a B&B: Your Home Away from Home. Hal Dane will have a book based on his dissertation on the Oregon Trail published this fall by Yale University Press. Jeff Beck is the author of Bicycle Touring in the Midwest and contributes to a number of cycling magazines. And finally, Inez Harris has just finished her history of Walnut Shade and hopes to publish it this fall, just in time for Christmas presents for everyone on your list!

I hope I haven’t missed any current authors. If I have, I apologize and I’m sure I’ll hear from them. No one is bashful in this town and as Mark Twain said, they “…buy ink by the barrel.”


About stclairc

Abstract artist, photographer, writer
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