This was One of Six Bicycle Factories in Grand Rapids MI

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan
Date added: July 02, 2024 Categories:
Southeast Facade looking north across Front Street (2003)

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The Grand Rapids Cycle Company factory housed the first and largest bicycle manufacturer in the city of Grand Rapids from 1895 to 1900. For a short period, from 1890 to 1903, the city was an important bicycle manufacturing center. In 1897 there were six factories in the city with an annual production of 25,000 to 30,000 bicycles.

Cycling in America

The golden age of cycling in the United States took place in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Cycles quickly became popular for recreation, racing, and transportation. The manufacture of the "Columbia" cycle by Albert A. Pope's Pope Manufacturing Company in 1878 has been called the "dawn of the bicycle age in the United States". The Pope Manufacturing Company and A. G. Spaulding & Brothers, founded by Albert G. Spaulding, became two of the largest manufacturers. Cycling became a national mania or "craze" in the 1880s and early 90s, with bicycle sales peaking in 1895-96 with around 400,000 sold per year. In 1890 the typical bicycle factory employed fifty or fewer workers, but there were four giants employing 1000-1500 workers. By the mid-1890s there were approximately 500 factories across the country.

Grand Rapids and Cycling

The City of Grand Rapids, Michigan was in a unique position to be a major contributor to this industry. The mechanical techniques developed from the city's woodworking craft adapted well to the growing production of bicycles. In the 1890's the manufacture of bicycles and bicycle specialties became a major industry in the city. Along with Detroit and Chicago, Grand Rapids grew to be a primary center for bicycles in the American Midwest. In 1890 only two companies were listed in the city directory under the category of "bicycles and tricycles." By 1898 the listings had grown to sixty-six that were identified with the business of bicycles. Included were manufacturers, enameling, grip production, machinery, seat production, sundries, liveries and sales. However, by 1905 the number had diminished to thirty-three companies. Of these twenty-seven were in repairs and sales with none of the manufacturers remaining.

This era of cycling also created a publishing market to serve the needs of the bicyclist in the Great Lakes region. Included were the Michigan Cyclist published in Grand Rapids between 1894 and 1897 devoted to the special interests of the sport and trade. This weekly magazine was forced out of business by fierce competition from regional and national magazines on cycling and the trade. Also the Western Wheelman, published in Grand Rapids for only one year (1896), was devoted exclusively to professional bicycle racing.

The Grand Rapids Cycle Company

The Grand Rapids Cycle Company factory housed the first bicycle manufacturer in the city. It was the largest and at its peak employed nearly two hundred-fifty workmen. Although not listed in the city directory until 1891, the factory, according to the local newspaper, was well into production in June of 1890 and in fact was already behind in its orders. Production doubled each year after the company's beginning, a rate of growth that was maintained until 1896. The company's original facilities were outgrown in 1895 and the first two portions of the current building were erected to meet the increasing demand for the product. The new factory was provided with the latest equipment for production as well as the best heating, ventilating and dust control possible at the time. The power for the factory was supplied by three large electric motors, although it was necessary to make steam for heat and other manufacturing uses. Power was also supplied for running the facility's own lighting plant.

The products of the Grand Rapids Cycle Company eventually gained a worldwide reputation. In addition to wide distribution in the United States, orders were filled from Finland, South Africa, Germany, Sweden, Holland and other foreign countries.

Founders and Officers

The founders and officers of the Grand Rapids Cycle Company were prominent local businessmen. The president was Samuel A. Morman, owner for many years of S. A. Morman & Co., a local building material and fuel supply company. He also was one of the founders of the American Box Board Co. and the Wilmarth-Morman Machine Tool Co., treasurer of the Swiss-American Knitting Mills, and a director of the Michigan National Bank. The vice president was Alva B. Richmond, co-owner of Perkins & Richmond Co. Lewis T. Wilmarth was secretary, treasurer, and manager of the Grand Rapids Cycle Company. After involvement in real estate, the lumber business, and a general store near Grand Rapids, Wilmarth returned to the city where he became engaged in the wholesale shingle and lumber business. Subsequent to his involvement with the Grand Rapids Cycle Company he became a director of the American Bicycle Company. He later served as an officer of the Wilmarth-Morman Machine Tool Co. and was one of the founders of the American Box Board Co. Mr. Wilmarth served on the board of the M. J. Clark Memorial Home, was president of the Grand Rapids Charity League, and served as a member of the board of trustees of Albion College. Upon his death, he donated his home at 530 Cherry Street S.E. to serve the community.

The Decline of Cycling

The success of the bicycle industry in Grand Rapids was short-lived. Satiation of the demand and over-expansion of the industry led to declining sales, cutthroat competition, and declining prices beginning in 1897. Led by Pope and Spaulding, in June 1899 thirty-six companies with forty-one factories, controlling "the lion's share of bicycle patents" and "75 percent of the bicycle trade", including cycle, parts, and tire manufacturers, merged to form the American Bicycle Company. The Grand Rapids Cycle Company was one of the companies. Grand Rapids' 24th June 1899, The Evening Press, labeled it an $80,000,000 trust. The Wheelman Club, a current national organization dedicated to the history of American cycling, has identified twenty bicycle brand names associated with the American Bicycle Company between 1898 and 1902 (presumably an earlier American Bicycle Company was one of the companies that merged into the trust in 1899). Included is the "Clipper" that was the pride of the Grand Rapids Cycle Company.

Although it was reported that the public would never realize the trust had taken over, the new organization only continued production in Grand Rapids until the middle of 1900. Curiously the Rapid Rifle Co. was listed in the city directory in 1901 and 1902 as a bicycle manufacturer at the same building address as the Grand Rapids Cycle Company. However, research has revealed nothing more about this company. By 1903 the bicycle industry had essentially disappeared from the city of Grand Rapids.

The American Bicycle Company also soon disappeared. In June 1902 the New York Times reported that the company was in the hands of Pope and John D. Rockefeller. In 1903 it went into the hands of receivers.

Other Owners

In 1902 the C. S. Paine Company, Ltd. purchased the building. Owned by Charles S. Paine and William Gay (1866-1948, son of George Gay and later president of the Berkey & Gay Furniture Company), this company was in existence from 1901 to 1924. It was a major manufacturer of "Japanned" (lacquered) furniture in Japanese, Chinese, and European forms, oak furniture, davenports, hall pieces, and dining room and breakfast room furniture. C. S. Paine and its successor company, Williams-Kimp Furniture Company (1923-1948), a manufacturer of mahogany reproductions of American Federal furniture, then occupied the building. In 1951 the Baker Furniture Company purchased Williams-Kimp. From 1952 until 1957 the American Seating Company used the building as a warehouse. In the mid-1960's the Star Mist Foam Rubber Company occupied it briefly. The Kent Foundry operated in the building from 1970 until 1994. Since then the building has remained unused.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century the rapidly increasing demands of industry accelerated the development of new structural concepts and systems. However, in Grand Rapids, as in Michigan in general, timber for large structural members was still available and relatively inexpensive. As a result, timber framing for factory buildings appears to have remained the norm into the twentieth century. In the Grand Rapids Cycle Company building, massive squared timber posts support squared timbers that, in turn, support floor and roof joists. In the manufacturing spaces the joists and underside of the floor planking are visible from below, and no finishes cover the interior faces of the structure's brick outer walls. The massive scale of the timbers and the openness of the timber construction seem to reflect an awareness of the value of slow burning mill construction promoted by the fire insurance industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The insurers promoted the use of large timbers, since they were more fire-resistant than lighter wood or iron construction and tended to support the weight from above despite considerable section loss.

Building Description

Located near downtown Grand Rapids, the Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory stands in a former industrial district close to Grand Valley State University that is undergoing considerable change. The building complex fronts directly on Butterfield Street SW to the north, Front Avenue to the southwest, and a forty-foot wide railroad right-of-way to the west. It is a flat-roofed nineteenth-century industrial building with masonry exterior walls and a wood-framed interior, approximately 38,600 square feet in size. The original parts of the factory were constructed in 1895 as two separate buildings. The one to the east is two stories in height with an eighty-foot frontage on Butterworth Street and one hundred feet on Front Avenue. The other, standing west of the first, was originally separated from it by a ten-foot alley. It is three-story in height and faces north on Butterworth Street with a fifty-foot frontage and a one-hundred-foot depth paralleling the railroad tracks. Prior to 1912 the buildings were joined with a second floor connection along Butterworth. This formed an open courtyard between the two buildings. By 1912 a three-story 110-foot by thirty-foot addition was constructed onto the southwest facade of the original two-story building along Front Avenue. At that time all structures were connected at the center of the total building mass.

All three portions of this building are constructed with masonry bearing walls and a post and beam structural system with wood-framed floors and roofs. The exterior is built of cream toned brick laid with a bonding header course every seven courses. The fenestration is primarily segmental-arched windows. However, semicircular arched openings are located in the original office portion of the facade to emphasize its importance. Today, the elevations are mostly unchanged, but several delivery entrance revisions have been introduced. Almost all original windows are missing and the openings are covered with plywood. However, remnants in place indicate that they were 12/12 double-hung windows.

A large majority of the total space was originally used for manufacturing and storage. However, a relatively refined administrative office area remains on the first floor in the north side of the westernmost portion of the building complex along Butterworth. This is finished with plaster, a detailed cornice, paneled wainscot and walls, and a fireplace. Also in the northeast corner of the first floor, paneled walls and ceiling evidence a special use, probably a superintendent's office. Similar treatment can be seen in the northwest corner of the west building's third floor.

Because of its proximity to Grand Valley State University, the future plans for this building are to rehabilitate it for student apartments. The exterior will be restored to its 1912 appearance. The interior will be adapted for studio, one, two, and three bedroom apartments. The materials and features of the small originally finished office will be retained and the space planned as a studio and a two bedroom apartment. The remainder will be converted so that as much as possible of the original industrial character will be evident.

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan North Facade looking southeast across Butterworth Street (2003)
North Facade looking southeast across Butterworth Street (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan West Facade looking east at railroad tracks (2003)
West Facade looking east at railroad tracks (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan West Facade looking northeast at railroad tracks (2003)
West Facade looking northeast at railroad tracks (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan South Facade looking north (2003)
South Facade looking north (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan Northwest Facade looking southeast (2003)
Northwest Facade looking southeast (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan Southwest Facade looking northeast (2003)
Southwest Facade looking northeast (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan Southeast Facade looking north across Front Street (2003)
Southeast Facade looking north across Front Street (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan Southeast Facade looking west across Front Street (2003)
Southeast Facade looking west across Front Street (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan Administrative Office looking north (2003)
Administrative Office looking north (2003)

Grand Rapids Cycle Company Factory, Grand Rapids Michigan Administrative Office looking north (2003)
Administrative Office looking north (2003)