Sometime around 1900 a pair of men in northern Augusta County apparently decided to partake in two of the latest fades of the time period — bicycles and photography. That’s just a guess of course, but we know both of those hobbies experienced nationwide and local popularity in that era. And, given the fact there are two bicycles in this photo and only one rider, an educated guess says the other rider was also the photographer.
The two-wheeled, one-person mechanical vehicle we call a bicycle today actually came on the scene in the early 1800s. Some say the contraption was invented in Germany and called a draisine. It was the French who came up with the word “bicycle” in the 1860s.
Early bicycles, however, were notoriously dangerous with their high front wheel, but were very popular in the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1890s, those high-wheeled bicycles were replaced by what became known as the “safety” bicycle, very similar to today’s bicycle. This bicycle, often also called a roadster, had equal sized pneumatic wheels for a more comfortable ride. A chain attached to the rear wheel allowed the bike to adjust to different grades through the use of gears. The front wheel was used for steering.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, these bicycles became popular in the area. Staunton had at least two downtown stores where bicycles were sold. One, Humphrey & Co., bragged its inventory and selection were the largest in the Shenandoah Valley. Depending on what the purchaser was looking for, a bicycle cost between $25 and $50 (between about $800 and $1,500 in today’s money).
There’s one other interesting thing about this photograph. The cyclists have stopped at the popular Willow Spout, located on Route 11 near Fort Defiance. For several centuries, the spring here provided water to travelers and animals traversing the Great Wagon Road (now Route 11), one of the oldest roads in the Shenandoah Valley.
Legend has it that Samuel Harnsbarger, the proprietor of the Hanger Tavern seen in the background, planted a willow tree in the spring in 1848. Spring water flowed up and out of a spout driven into the side of the tree, and fell into the wooden trough.
The Great Wagon Road was renamed the Valley Pike in the 1830s when a private company straightened and macadamized the road and began charging tolls. Toll booths were erected approximately five miles apart. A toll booth was located here at the watering trough. Turnpikes received their names because a “pike” (a long tree branch) was stretched across the road and turned out of the way to allow traffic to pass once the toll was paid. Hence the word “turnpike” became synonymous with toll roads.
Route 11 became toll free in 1918, turning into a free, public, state-maintained road on August 31, 1918. The Willow Spout remains today, although a storm late in the 20th century took down the willow tree. Visitors, either driving a car or pedaling a bicycle, can still see water spilling into the trough and can stop and read the historical highway marker next to it.