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Hail centurions: Pedaling the Midwest’s home for hundred-milers

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By Mary Wilds

The bicycle museum and former railroad depot in Three Oaks, Michigan, has the dubious distinction of having been built, in part, to honor the third American president to be assassinated while in office. Michigan Central Railroad built the depot in 1898 for the then-princely sum of $4,200, lavishing some extra care onto its brick walls, stone trimming, beveled lead glass windows, tin ceiling and slate roof because the president was said to be coming to town. Ironically, President William McKinley did not come to town to see the depot, but rather to dedicate a cannon slated to be placed in a Three Oaks park. Even more ironic was the fact that the cannon didn’t arrive in time for McKinley’s visit. The president had to dedicate the mound of earth where the cannon would sit. McKinley would die in Buffalo of an assassin’s bullet three years later.

Today, the cannon still sits on the mound of earth McKinley dedicated, across the railroad tracks from one of the more intriguing little tourist attractions in southwest Michigan. Today, the Three Oaks Bicycle Museum celebrates railroad, bicycling and local history in a fully restored train depot, but the place has changed hands more often than a water bucket at a fire. Michigan Central operated the depot through the late 1950s. Since then, it has opened and re-opened in various incarnations, including a used bookstore, a grandfather-clock-and-picture-frame store, an antique shop and a Secretary of State’s office. A Chicago SEC broker, John Keeley, bought and restored the building in the mid-1980s.

The Three Oaks Spokes bicycle club purchased the depot for $110,000 in 1993 via a bank loan and a second mortgage from Keeley. The club also owned an antique bicycle collection. Thus the depot was opened as the Three Oaks Bicycle Museum in May 1994. The Spokes have preserved the building’s railroad past in the room that faces the tracks (trains still pass the depot even if they don’t stop there; President Clinton included it on his whistlestop tour of Michigan last fall). The room includes an old-fashioned railroad headlight, a 1905 Underwood typewriter and other memorabilia that might have stocked a stationmaster’s office in the late nineteenth century. Framed mementos from Three Oaks’ past line the museum’s walls. Next to the railroad room sit a half-dozen racks of pamphlets and literature telling you everything you want to know and more about bike riding in Michigan.

One thing you’ll surely want to know is that The Three Oaks Spokes host the Midwest’s best-attended century ride (100 miles) each September. The Apple Cider Century annually attracts about 7,000 riders who pedal its twenty-five-, fifty-, seventy-five- and 100-mile routes, enjoy the free potato soup at rest stops and the complimentary spaghetti dinner after the ride. The bicycle museum’s budget comes from the low-six-figure profits squeezed from the Apple Cider Century profits.

The Spokes host events and rides for members through the spring, summer and fall, though club president Bryan Volstorf cautions prospective members that the club wants active riders, not occasional drop-ins. The museum also rents bicycles by the hour and day and offers a free pamphlet to self-guided bike tours near the museum. Mapped out by club members and volunteers, the routes take cyclists through towns, near farms and orchards, along Lake Michigan and as far north as the Warren Dunes.

The centerpiece of the museum is, of course, the bicycle collection. The Spokes have eighteen of them, a half-dozen of which were built in the nineteenth century. One of these, the Velocipede, was the first two-wheeler to be called a bicycle. First used in Paris in 1861, the hand-built Velocipede was propelled by cranks on the front wheel. It was known as the Boneshaker because of its rough ride. But the 1880s model known as The Ordinary is probably what most people envision when they think of an old-fashioned bicycle. Its high front wheel, metal tube frame, rubber tires and leather saddle offered a smoother ride than the Velocipede’s did.

After you visit the museum, stick around for the afternoon; Three Oaks exudes the kind of cheerfulness that’s peculiar to the Midwest. Downtown you can find ice cream, burgers, antiques and gourmet coffees. Within driving distance of the town lies the tourist mecca of New Buffalo, along with restaurants in every price category, several highly rated wineries and marinas on a relatively uncluttered lakeshore.

The Three Oaks Bicycle Museum was sold in 2005. Click here for more information on the bicycle club and century ride.

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