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Friday, 30 May 2014 00:00

Old World Wisconsin exhibit based on book co-authored by Janesville native

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Old World Wisconsin visitors will be able to try out antique bikes during the new “Catch Wheel Fever” exhibit, based on a book co-authored by Janesville native Jesse Gant. The exhibit opens Saturday, June 14, at the living history museum. Old World Wisconsin visitors will be able to try out antique bikes during the new “Catch Wheel Fever” exhibit, based on a book co-authored by Janesville native Jesse Gant. The exhibit opens Saturday, June 14, at the living history museum. Dennis Hines/staff

TOWN OF EAGLE -- Bicycling has a long, storied tradition in Wisconsin, and Old World Wisconsin is giving people an opportunity to experience the history of that tradition.

The “Catch Wheel Fever” exhibit opens Saturday, June 14, and features replica bicycles and tricycles that were manufactured during the 19th century, including an original Sterling safety bicycle built in 1899, a tandem tricycle that was manufactured about 1880 and a tandem tricycle that was manufactured in England during the late 1800s.

The exhibit, in the works for about a year, is based on the book “Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State,” by Janesville native Jesse Gant and co-author Nick Hoffman. Read the current edition here:

Gant, a 1999 Parker High School graduate, said he’s excited to see the book come to life. Both he and Hoffman plan to view the exhibit on its opening day.

“It feels great because we wrote the book hoping it would inspire new thinking about the state’s history,” Gant said. “It’s a very rewarding feeling to see your own research and writing making a difference in terms of how people think about the past. We’re thrilled to see that Old World Wisconsin’s audience will have a chance to encounter the past in such a tangible, hands-on way.”

Gant and Hoffman started working on the book in 2009, and it took them about four years to complete.

“Basically, we were both looking for a strong project to work on together, and as young historians we could see that few had really taken on the subject of early bicycling,” Gant said. “We knew we could make an important contribution by telling this story, but we also wanted our history to be relevant and interesting to people today. We’re probably historians first and bicyclists second, but the gap between the two is not very big, so ‘Wheel Fever’ also gave us a chance to write about something we genuinely enjoyed writing about and studying.”

Gant said bicycling was a popular activity in Wisconsin during the late 1800s.

“Between 1869 and 1900, Wisconsin went from being a place where bicycles did not exist to one of the world’s premier bicycling destinations,” Gant said. “In 1895, in fact, the League of American Wheelmen called Wisconsin’s State Division the ‘Leading Division of the west.’ By 1900, Wisconsin was one of the top bicycling destinations in the whole country, if not the world.”

Lisa McGovern, marketing and communications director for Old World Wisconsin, says the exhibit isn’t something to just look at, but something visitors can immerse themselves in.

“You can explore the technology at work. You get to see the similarities and differences of bicycling between then and now. I think it will be an experience that guests can enjoy,” McGovern said.

Visitors can get a taste for how popular bicycling was in Wisconsin in the 19th century, she said.

“There were bicycle clubs and organized rides,” McGovern said. “People who come to Old World Wisconsin will be able to live that experience.”

“We want our guests to feel the excitement of the 1890s cycling boom as it swept through Wisconsin and the nation,” Old World Director Dan Freas said in a news release. “There is no better way to immerse someone in this story than to place them on a bicycle or tricycle of that era, let them try the bicycle repair tools of the time, listen to the songs cyclists sang and study the maps they used to navigate Wisconsin’s roads.”

Visitors also can board some of the bicycles for photo opportunities, as well as ride on some of the bicycles along a track.

“Folks can take pictures of themselves on a high-wheel bike. We have bikes for children and bikes for adults. A lot of our visitors like to take pictures,” said McGovern.

The exhibit features a workbench where visitors can repair an old-style bicycle.

“It’s a nice experience for old and young to enjoy,” McGovern said. “There’s a lot of different tasks for people to experience.”

Visitors also can view 19th-century road maps for cyclists, try on bicycle clothing and learn bicycle songs from that time period.

The exhibit will be open during the museum’s regular hours for no additional cost. Old World Wisconsin is open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and from Thursday through Sunday from Sept. 4 to Oct. 31.

“Once it’s open, it will be open every day to the public. It’s something we plan on doing into the foreseeable future,” McGovern said. “We’re looking at new elements next year, so we’re looking ahead to continuing this exhibit.”

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