american journeys   


To The Golden Gate
George Nellis' 1887 Wheel Across The Continent

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 LIFE AFTER THE GREAT RIDE
While seeking to chart the direction of his life after his transcontinental journey, he continued to ride his Columbia Expert and to be involved in local bicycle activities. In November 1887 he made a trip to Otsego county, pedaling 21 miles over the Mohawk hills in two hours and twenty minutes. In 1888 he wrote a vigorous article in support of road improvement activities and he joined with other Herkimer cyclists to form the Fort Dayton Wheelmen. The club was named after the fort that had been constructed in the community during the Revolution. Nellis was the Club captain in charge of riding. He was assisted by lieutenant W. I. Taber. The original twenty members adopted a uniform with blue caps, coat and pants, white shirt and belt, and black hose and shoes.

The club sponsored a Grand Bicycle Tournament on July Fourth with 15 races preceded by a parade. The day was a great success and almost 1,000 spectators watched the 100 regional riders in the parade and races. He demonstrated his versatility by placing second in the half-mile club championship and winning the one-mile county championship, the half-mile tandem race, the one-mile club handicap, and the tricycle half-mile. The affair concluded with a “Royal” banquet at the Fox Opera House that was prepared by the lady friends of the Fort Dayton Wheelmen.

Nellis continued to read national cycle papers and when a cyclist requested information on the route from Chicago to Detroit in the Wheel and Cycling Trade Review, George responded in the July 20, 1888 issue. He suggested using a train between Chicago and Valparaiso, Indiana to avoid forty miles of sand. Surprisingly, he also suggested that from Detroit, a trip through Canada would be interesting if the rider avoided the direct route he had used between St. Thomas and Niagara Falls. After his encounter with Western roads, perhaps Canadian highways didn't seem as terrible as when he first encountered them.

Even an experienced rider like Nellis had accidents. The local newspaper reported that when he was riding his cycle on July 12, 1888, “The tire came off the large wheel and threw him violently to the ground. He was insensible for nearly half an hour…The accident was purely carelessness, as he knew the tire was loose and neglected to fix it.”

The situation would have been even worse if the accident had been caused by a flaw in the machine, rather than a human error, since Nellis and new partner W. I. Taber had the local bicycle dealership that sold Columbia machines. The partners also carried second-hand wheels, Springfield Roadsters, and sold wheels on installments. Their ads extolled the merits of Columbia machines and never neglected to mention the reliability of his stellar bicycle that went from Herkimer to San Francisco “without loosening a spoke.”

The Columbia Expert used on the ride also received special attention from Colonel Pope who made arrangements to borrow the bicycle, his old riding suit, cyclometer, and satchel. The items were exhibited at the Bicycle Tournament in Buffalo that was held as part of the International Exposition in September 1888. Bicycling News reported: “No exhibit in the main building proved more attractive to the 1,500 wheelmen who were present at the exposition than the array of historic bicycles, velocipedes, and tricycles sent here from the museum of the Pope Manufacturing Company of Boston. The collection included a velocipede ridden by Pierre Lallement, one of the first tricycles with balance gearing, a wooden home made bicycle, Thomas Stevens’ famous Expert Columbia, Karl Kron’s bicycle, and the cycle ridden from New York to San Francisco by G. W. Nellis.”

When his machine returned to Herkimer it had an interesting adventure with a strange rider. On a Saturday in 1889 when Nellis was away from the office, his assistant Lambert Will allowed a Joe Schermer to borrow the Expert for a ride toward Richfield Springs. On his return trip Schermer started down the steep and long Vickerman Hill near Mohawk, New York. The road was little better than a cowpath with a hump in the middle to keep water off. Being a novice rider Joe didn’t realize that even the most experienced wheelmen always walked down this hill. He was soon jolted off the seat, slid down the backbone and lost the pedals. He came down the hill in this manner with his hair on end. The high wheel came through the ordeal with flying colors. Joe never asked to borrow the wheel again and never spoke of the incident. Nellis only learned of the matter years later in a letter from Will.

 
 A CAREER
Of greater long-term importance than these bicycle matters was Nellis’ decision, late in 1888, to make journalism his life’s work. This wasn’t a surprising decision in view of the years he had worked for local papers as a printer and correspondent and his experience as a cycling journalist crossing the country. What was surprising was the fact that the 23-year-old planned to begin publishing his own newspaper in Herkimer, a town that already had two newspapers. This was another form of the “pluck” he had demonstrated on his long ride. The first issue of his weekly paper, the Record, appeared on December 20, 1888. The newspaper stated that it was independent in politics, “untrammeled by party alliances, independent of social dictum, and free from personal restraint.” This position made good sense since the community already had a Democratic paper and a Republican paper. The Record claimed a circulation of several thousand and it continued under Nellis’ editorship until 1896.

One of the causes the Record championed was the movement to build new public schools. Year's later Nellis recalled the leadership of Miss Tuger for a progressive school system and the big and long fight needed to achieve that objective. The Record office was originally on the second floor of a frame building but in the early 1890s a new brick building was constructed on North Main Street to accommodate the paper and Nellis Columbia bicycle dealership. This building and the printing equipment were later destroyed by fire but through great effort the Record didn’t miss an issue.

Editor Nellis reduced but did not abandon all cycling. In 1889 he participated in the July Fourth Bicycle Tournament, winning the one-mile Herkimer County race and placing second in the half-mile competition for Rover safety bicycles. Utican Charles Metz who helped get Nellis off to a good start on his 1887 journey won the event.

In 1891 Nellis embarked on another adventure. He married Anna E. Post of nearby Middleville. She came from an old Herkimer County family and was an accomplished musician. In 1893 a son named Aubrey was born and in 1896 Miriam, the first of several daughters, arrived. The marriage lasted almost sixty years and four of their eight children lived to adulthood and provided their parents with two grandchildren.

The exact dates and details of Nellis’ career from the mid-1890s to the early part of the twentieth century are not clear. He severed his connections with the Record about 1896 and became editor of the Johnstown (New York) Daily News for approximately two years. He then must have considered a career change for he attended the Seminary of Colgate University for two years and by 1890 was reported to have obtained a bachelors degree from a university in Chicago. He was a Baptist in this period and had long been involved in Christian Endeavor activities in the Herkimer/Utica region.

By 1900 he was back in the newspaper business as editor of the La Crosse, Wisconsin Republican and Leader. Two years later he became the telegraph editor of the Milwaukee Morning Sentinel. From that position he moved to Chicago as associate editor of the New Voice. In 1904 he returned to upstate New York and purchased the Chatham Republican. While fulfilling these editorial responsibilities he held Republican views, remained active in the Baptist Church, and joined fraternal groups such as the International Order of Odd Fellows or the Modern Woodmen and Royal Neighbors.

The final career move came about the time of World War I when he became editor of the Dedham Transcript in suburban Boston. A house was built in Rosindale and the family put down roots. There were difficulties mixed with the blessings of life in the Bay State. Nellis was becoming quite deaf, his wife lost a leg in an elevator accident, and a sixteen-year-old daughter died. Experiences related to his wife’s accident prompted the couple to turn to Christian Science practices. Nellis continued to work for the Transcript Press in various capacities until his retirement on the eve of World War II. Although the family remained in Massachusetts, Herkimer remained dear to Nellis’ heart. He wrote articles about its history and corresponded with old friends in the Mohawk Valley. He could not return to Herkimer but the old Columbia Expert bicycle did go home again. In 1931 Nellis asked Henry Ford to accept his Columbia Expert, that he estimated had covered 25,000 miles, for preservation and display at the Henry Ford Museum. It remained there until 1947 when, at the suggestion of Herkimer historians, Nellis asked that the bicycle be returned to the Herkimer County Historical Society. He was pleased to learn that the bicycle had returned to his boyhood home in time to be ridden by a young man in the town’s Sesquicentennial Parade that was held on September 20, 1947. The bicycle has remained at the Historical Society since that date.

 
  END OF THE RIDE
Several rather cheerful letters written by Nellis in 1947, signed “joyfully,” describe the couple’s failing health and his memories of the bicycle that had carried a youthful man across the continent. In a letter of September 25, 1947 he admitted, “Well I do think a lot of that Bicycle. It was my lone companion over a lot of weary miles. I slept with it as my only companion many nights, with nothing but the blue sky for a cover. My one great desire now is to see it, caress it, feel of the handles, hop up and ride it.” A poem in his last article on Herkimer history, appearing shortly before his death, also touched on memories of the past.
 

Let’s shout for the days of Old Pine Grove
The days of our Mothers, the days of their love
Let’s shout for the years of Herkimer too
The years we now treasure with friends all true
Let’s shout for the days when we hit it in high
The days when we whacked it all over the sky
Let’s shout for ties pulling us back into line
For memories triumphant of Auld Lang Syne
 

With these memories of the past in his mind, George Nellis, Jr. departed from Boston, without his bicycle, for other Golden Gates on September 29, 1948. Only his ashes went home to Herkimer.

 

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