mennonites and bicycles

From an article by Adolf Ens in the MMHS Heritage Posting newsletter, October 2009

Peter Elias, Hochfeld’s blacksmith and keen observer of the Mennonite church scene, wrote that around the beginning of the 1900s when bicycles were first introduced among the Reinlander on the West Reserve, the Church strongly prohibited their use by church members.  For a time any youth owning a bicycle who wanted to be baptized first had to get rid of it.  In the Kleine Gemeinde (now the Evangelical Mennonite Church or EMC) communities on the East Reserve (i.e. rocketmans church) there were similar concerns.  According to a report in the Nordwestern, some people took matters into their own hands by driving over bicycles and thereby bending the wheels out of shape (if you want a new ride r-man, maybe leave your bike in the Church parking lot!).  Both groups considered the desire to have a bicycle as “worldly,” similar to having bells on the harness of buggy horses (gasp-no! not the bells, not the BELLS…) or dressing too fashionably.

Church opposition to bicycles did not last very long.  Steinbach merchant John Esau sold second hand bicycles as early as 1900.  Blacksmith Johann F. Barkman included bicycle repair work in his shop.  Already in 1900 Martin K. Friesen made the trip from Steinbach to Winnipeg in 6 hours – no paved roads, no ten-speed bikes, just sheer persistence (not bad I’d say considering the ride and the road in those days).   The following summer, E. Giesbrecht’s son, Cornelius, of North Dakota biked to Steinbach for a visit.  He reported that the roads were very bad (so what’s really changed in a 100 years...).

Of course, once bicycles became the general mode of travel, accidents were bound to happen.  Among the more unusual was a collision of a cyclist with a horse-drawn vehicle in the dark.  The horses stampeded, dragging the bicycle the length of the village.  Its rider, Johann S. Koop, needed stitches to close a few head wounds (later made famously popular as head-wound Harry on SNL?).  Apparently none of the reported accidents happened to riders of “stunt bicycles” like the one Erdman Penner III owned.  G.G. Kornelson recalled that Old Klass Reimers’ Gerhard of Steinbach owned a “high wheeler” from 1892-1894.  The village boys were amazed that “he could hoist himself up unto the dangerously high saddle and ride along the village street with a confident bearing.”  Some of the elders saw the matter as unseemly or really inadmissible (Steinbach Post, 9 November 1921).

4 thoughts on “mennonites and bicycles

  1. Reading this post from just north of Regina on tour -with car
    Interesting reading! Those Mennonites and there wanting to make rules that fall by the way over time all thatfrom leaders or individuals who are either short sighted or feel that God has given them the power to see and understand all worldly things.
    Then again if it wasn’t for the strong leaders in our former homelands we might be riding thru the Siberian wilderness these days.
    Looking at my spandex the other day it’s a good thing the bishop didn’t ride behind me.

  2. I always wondered why several of you only ride black bicycles (Rocketman, Merle, Curtis). Is this in deference to your forebears who might have thought that a colorful bike might be somewhat worldly. (Just kidding!!! Very informative post, Ron. I love history.)

  3. Ay only ride my bleck baysicle wan riding with the devout, Jim. Wan I go to yan zeed where nobadee knows me, ay take my yallow or blue baykes.

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