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My wheel runneth over

Published March 09. 2013 09:02AM

Sometimes you have control of your hobby and sometimes your hobby has control of you.

Just for fun, I taught myself to ride an authentic 1880s highwheel some years ago.

A highwheel is the world's first bicycle, a dangerous contraption with a gigantic wheel. In its day, it was a turning point in human engineering and achievement.

It was the first invention to allow man the ability to use his own power to travel far distance on land. In short, it replaced the horse for many, and it lasted about 20 years until the automobile came along.

As a volunteer at the Tamaqua Historical Society, I learned to ride for the Tamaqua Heritage Festival. It was appropriate since Tamaqua once hosted an 1880s chapter of the League of American Wheelmen. I wanted to recreate that piece of local history. I had a blast doing it. Eventually, I showed a friend how to do it, too. Then, the idea caught on with a few others.

Now, 11 years later, there are seven of us, six men and one woman, age 50 to 70. We dress in period costume and call ourselves the Victorian Highwheelers of Tamaqua. Almost all of us are single, a collection of free spirits and best friends. You might say we're an old fogey biker club. The geriatric daredevils of antique cycling.

But we're also the only group of our kind in the country. There is nobody else doing exactly what we do.

To say that it's been an interesting ride is an understatement. It's been a whirlwind.

Over the past decade, we've taken part in museum events, heritage celebrations and centennials all over Pennsylvania and in New York and New Jersey.

One highlight was appearing at Sunbury's Hotel Edison for an anniversary salute to Thomas Edison at the spot where he conducted his first experiment with electricity.

Then we were hosted by Historic Philadelphia, Inc., and featured at the Betsy Ross House. We also appeared at the Liberty Bell and Penn's Landing. (You should have seen how we tied up traffic in center city. But that's another story.)

A few years ago, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission came and took photos. As a result, we're shown on the state museum's traveling display to promote tourism. It was set up recently at the State Farm Show.

This year, Philadelphia asked us to take part in America's largest birthday bash, the 2013 Independence Day Parade in front of Independence Hall.

Philly also invited us to be part of a nationally televised holiday gala. Most folks know it by its old-time name: Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade. And West Chester wants us to ride in their Christmas parade. Invitations are coming in at a rapid pace. We've even been invited to Illinois and as far as California.

At an event in Bethlehem we were asked to consider taking on corporate sponsorship. We didn't pursue it. Nor are we a business, either. We're just a bunch of historians who interpret and illustrate the development of personal transportation, and we have a website and a Facebook page, just for fun.

It's easy to see how a hobby can get out of hand. But we're simply a small group of friends. And we want to keep it that way.

Today we're in Scranton taking part in one of the largest St. Patrick's Day parades. Next weekend we'll be in Wilkes-Barre. Then we'll take a break for a month or two of down time. We can't go everywhere, and so we'll look at the year ahead and determine what appeals to us. Our wheels runneth over.

We enjoy visiting new cities and making new friends. And Philadelphia, for example, is an exciting town.

But when all is said and done, what we enjoy most are the familiar faces in our own backyard, places like Tamaqua, Shamokin, Danville and Mt. Carmel.

We're at home in the coal regions, and you just can't beat those friendly folks of home.

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