Weekend Wanderlust: A labyrinth of bicycle history in the middle of nowhere

A monthly guide to day trips across Ohio and beyond

Kevin J. Elliott
The Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio

For much of Ohio's history, mobility and resources have determined its population centers. Surveying the state's large, culturally relevant cities, Ohio boasts Cleveland, a lake city, and Cincinnati, a river city, but from there it’s all tied to railroads and canals. Most Ohio towns, villages and outposts exist because of the railroad, but it’s those canal towns that have, in my travels, become the most intriguing destinations.

The village of New Bremen, Ohio, was platted on a prairie in 1833 by 32 German farming families who traveled on the Ohio River to Cincinnati and then headed directly north. By 1845 the location became a boomtown because of the Miami-Erie Canal that stretched north to south, linking the Ohio River to Lake Erie. The so-called “miracle ditch” employed a prominent lock and stop in New Bremen, bringing goods, industry and visitors to the burgeoning community. That era would unfortunately be the peak for New Bremen – the population would never top 3,000 – yet that distinct history remains in the architecture and general camaraderie of its residents. 

The place has a semi-utopian, small town vibe. Downtown showcases a beautifully restored canal lock adjacent to a modern park and restaurant. There’s also the William Luelleman House, the village's oldest structure and a fine example of the German settlers’ ingenuity. But the true gem of New Bremen is the history that exists in the Bicycle Museum of America.

Opened in 1997, the museum began in Chicago as a tribute to the Schwinn family’s foothold in bike production. When the company declared bankruptcy, New Bremen philanthropist Jim Dicke II bought the entire collection of bikes and built a Smithsonian-worthy space that does an amazing job detailing an exhaustive history of the bicycle. Of the 800 bikes Dicke now owns, over 150 are on the floor at a given time. The collection boasts the oldest representation of the bicycle — the 1816 Draisine, which resembles something from medieval times — as well as modern marvels, like the 2008 Monovelo Monowheel used in the Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony.

The museum is rich with fascinating stories and stunning artifacts. There’s an 1896 Quadricycle invented by Henry Ford, the family tandem of Ignaz Schwinn (the namesake company’s founder), novelty bikes, trick bikes, infantry bikes used prominently in war, and perhaps the most incredible piece: a fully adorned, cherry-red 1947 Schwinn racing bike used in Tim Burton’s 1985 cinematic masterpiece, "Pee-wee’s Big Adventure." It’s quite something to behold and momentarily took my breath away.

The bicycle featured in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure"

Throughout, the museum presents the evolution of the bicycle and the role it played in modernizing the world with increased mobility. Ford’s Quadricycle begat the Model-T; the Wright Brothers in Dayton built well-made bikes and then pioneered aviation; and Schwinn mass-produced the modern bike, making it affordable. It’s a history that Bicycle Museum of America coordinator Ryan Long sees embedded in every bike the collection displays. 

“I think that the bicycle had a lot larger impact on late-19th century society than we really gave it credit for,” Long said. “It was a great equalizer for workers. It was a tool for women’s suffrage at the time. It allowed them to gather and protest.”

Indeed, there’s much more to curating a bicycle museum besides the upkeep. The current rotating exhibit is in honor of Black History Month and tells the story of five African American women who rode 250 miles from New York City to Washington, D.C. Why exactly they made the trip is still a mystery, but the feat serves as a landmark of inclusion that was otherwise lost to time. There’s also a tribute to Nelson Vails, the first Black sprint cyclist to medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, along with a promotion celebrating Black Girls Do Bike, a nonprofit organization started to “champion efforts to introduce the joy of cycling to all women, but especially women and girls of color.” There are several chapters around Ohio, including one in Columbus.

Inside the Bicycle Museum of America

“My favorite part about my job is that I’m constantly learning,” Long said. “There’s so much to learn about bicycle history and culture that I never run out of things to learn.”

Prime time to visit the museum would likely be in early August, when the town holds Bremen Fest, which offers beer tents, turtle races, German foods and a festival parade featuring rare and antique bikes from the museum's collection.

With the recent debates over bike lanes and mobility in Clintonville, and accessibility across the city, it seems like a fine excuse to travel to New Bremen to experience the quirky charm of this canal town and indulge for a few hours in the unmatched wonder of the Bicycle Museum of America. Ironically, though, New Bremen's roads don't offer local cyclists their own lanes. 

“There are not designated bike lanes here," Long said, "but there should be.”

For hours and information, visit bicyclemuseum.com

There and back

New Bremen is geographically the gateway to the Land of the Cross Tipped Churches, a region in western Ohio settled similarly by German Catholics in the early 1800s. Driving through the area you’ll see a Gothic steeple emerge from the empty expanse of a rural soybean field, or maybe an uncanny rosary lit up in neon on a barn.

The Germans also brought beer, and within this multi-county farmland you’ll find a number of breweries that offer their own “trail” experience. While there is Gongoozlers on the outskirts of New Bremen (the name describes a canal enthusiast), Moeller in Maria Stein and Endless Pint in Versailles, I highly recommend a visit to Tailspin Brewing Company in Coldwater. Operating out of a renovated dairy barn, the brewery boasts recipes culled from those 19th-century settlers and provides a lager and a bock for Minster’s historic Wooden Shoe Inn. Built in 1933 and recently updated with an expansive wine and cocktail list, the restaurant’s draw is its famous fried chicken dinners. People travel to tiny Minster from all over the region for this delicacy.