Jeremy Lahey and Paul R. Mullins
Bicycling captured the national imagination in the late-19th century, and Indianapolis residents were among the scores of Americans who embraced bicycling for transportation, recreation, and sport. By 1896 bicycling was sufficiently popular in Indianapolis that the Indianapolis News predicted the city would have “over fifteen thousand wheelmen and wheelwomen” that summer. A year later the paper reported that the canal towpath was clogged on weekends with recreational cyclists riding from the city to Fairview Park and Broad Ripple. While many Americans took to bikes for recreational riding, a bike race was held at the State Fair in 1881, and by the 1890s bike races were a staple of the local sports pages. In 1898, Arthur Newby opened a velodrome on Central Avenue known as Newby Oval, where the League of American Wheelmen held their state championships in 1898.
In 1895 the Indianapolis City Directory included 10 bikes dealers, seven bike manufacturing firms, and 10 bike repair shops. Thomas Hay and Van Burton Willits, for instance, purchased the Indiana Bicycle Manufacturing Company’s retail store on West Washington Street in September 1889, where they ran a bike shop opposite the State House. In 1892 the firm moved to 70 N. Pennsylvania Street, one of a series of bike shops along Pennsylvania Street that the Indianapolis News dubbed “bicycle row.” Hay and Willits’ most famous employee was a local African-American rider, Marshall Taylor, who Hay hired around 1890 to perform tricks on a bike outside the shop. Taylor wore a uniform during these shows, leading to the nickname “Major” Taylor. Taylor won his first race in Indianapolis in 1891, and in about 1893 Taylor began to work for the Henry T. Hearsey bike shop, which had opened in 1885 on North Delaware Street and moved to Pennsylvania Street in 1890. Hearsey migrated to Boston from England in the early 1870s, and when he came to Indianapolis he became the city’s first prominent entrepreneurial champion of the “safety bike” (that is, bikes that had two wheels of the same size). Indianapolis bike manufacturer and former racer Louis Munger soon began to train Taylor. Taylor was barred from most bike races in Indiana and moved to Massachusetts in 1895, though he would race at the Newby Oval in 1900. Yet Taylor was systematically denied entry to races throughout the US despite holding seven world records in 1898, and he would spend most of his career racing in Europe.
In 1900 the census found that 49 Indianapolis businesses did bicycle and tricycle repair, and six bike and tricycle manufacturers were based in the Circle City. In 1905, though, the cycling craze had waned (for instance, Newby Oval had closed in 1903, and both Arthur Newby and Henry Hearsey became well-known automobile manufacturers); nevertheless, Indianapolis still had 12 bike dealers and 32 bike repair shops in the 1905 city directory.
One of those shops was managed by Beverly Howard, Jr., who began to manage a bike repair business in 1900. Born in Kentucky in July 1869, Howard was a competitive cyclist and boxer who ran a gym and billiards hall alongside his bike repair business on Roosevelt Avenue. Howard’s father Beverly came to Indianapolis from Worthville, Kentucky in 1873 with his wife Catherine and six children. Their son Robert told a Federal Writers Project interviewer in 1938 that Beverly Howard Sr. was born into captivity in Virginia and sold to a Kentucky slaveholder and held separately from Catherine. Robert indicated he was one of five Howard children held in captivity; in 1900 the 58-year-old Catherine indicated in the census that just three of her 10 children were still alive.
Among Beverly Howard’s fellow bike dealers was William A. Kelso. Born in Indiana in 1856, Kelso moved to Indianapolis and opened a bike shop on Virginia Avenue in 1912. For 14 years the shop was managed by Kelso at two locations along Virginia Avenue: after running a bicycle sales and repair shop at 754-758 Virginia Avenue (now razed by Interstate-65), the business moved up the street to 548-550 Virginia Avenue in 1920. The firm was managed by Kelso and his two sons Emery and Orel, who were part of a circle of Indianapolis bicycle dealers and sporting good merchants that outlasted the late-19th cycling craze. In 1916 William Kelso served as the first Vice President of the Indianapolis Cycle Dealers Association representing 16 city dealers, and he was one of 18 exhibitors at a bicycle and motorcycle show in Indianapolis’ Tomlinson Hall, when the Indianapolis News proclaimed that “this year is going to be the biggest bicycle year since the old L.A.W. days” (that is, League of American Wheelmen). The newspaper optimistically predicted that at least 6000 bicycles would be sold in Indianapolis in 1916. While some of Kelso’s peers manufactured their own bikes, Kelso appeared to sell a host of new and used bikes and cycling equipment, and he advertised new and used bikes and equipment like bike lights in the Indianapolis News until 1920. Kelso also had a stake in a garage alongside their 754-758 Virginia Avenue bike shop, and they sold and apparently repaired cars and motorcycles alongside bikes.
Nothing about the Kelsos’ bike shop would seem to distinguish it from the host of cycle dealers in early 20th-century Indianapolis. Nevertheless, at the 1920s peak of the Ku Klux Klan’s Indianapolis popularity, Kelso regularly ran ads in the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross. In May, 1923 Kelso first advertised in The Fiery Cross, featuring the Glide and Excelsior bikes the shop had advertised for several years in other city newspapers. The Kelsos ran 14 ads in the surviving issues of The Fiery Cross, all coming in five months between May 25, 1923 and October 12, 1923.
The Fiery Cross began as a publication called Fact! in 1921 before being renamed by its first Editor Ernest W. Reichard in July, 1922. The newspaper’s most persistent mantra was its xenophobic attack on Catholicism. In August, 1924, for instance, The Fiery Cross ran a dramatic inventory of Catholic offenses on law-abiding Protestants and Klansmen: “A tale that needs no adornment is the mounting list of Roman Catholic offenses against decency and law. To gain their ends Papists and alien enemies of the Ku Klux Klan have stopped at nothing and the report of their crimes for the first seven months of 1924 alone, as culled from the pages of The Fiery Cross, shows arson, murder, theft, assault and battery, intimidation, breach of contract, disrespect for the American flag and violation of the immigration and prohibition laws.” The Fiery Cross waged a similarly pitched battle against immigration, and it regularly turned its wrath on African Americans and Jews.
Milton Elrod became the newspaper’s editor-in-chief in 1923, but Klan leader D.C. Stephenson began to orchestrate the paper’s editorial mission after his 1923 rise to power. Stephenson became Indiana Grand Dragon at a July 4, 1923 rally in Kokomo while spearheading a year of enormous Klan membership growth in Indiana. Leonard Moore’s Citizen Klansmen study determined that the Indiana Klan had nearly 118,000 members by July, 1923.
Most advertisements in the hooded order’s newspaper did not strike any especially distinctive appeal to racism. Many Fiery Cross advertisers made appeals that they were “100% American” or featured “100%” in their ads; others like William Kelso’s Virginia Avenue neighbor Arcade Cleaners played off the KKK initials, hailing they were “Kareful Klothes Kleaners.” But many advertisers like the Kelso bicycle shop ran relatively typical advertisements in the hooded order’s paper, and nearly every possible enterprise was represented somewhere in the ranks of The Fiery Cross advertisers.
From the distance of nearly a century later we are perhaps fascinated by why advertisers like William Kelso were attracted to the xenophobic hatred with which the Klan is today associated. For many Klan followers, the hooded order was simply a populist social organization championing nativist politics, but the Klan’s attraction and its specific popularity in Indiana was very complicated and personal. For instance, Reverend Charles Gunsolus was a consistent advertiser in the Klan newspaper for his Gunsolus Studio of Music at 515 Blake Street (on the present-day IUPUI campus). In 1924 the newspaper recognized Gunsolus as the “pastor of the Spiritual Church of Truth. He has also been very active in Klan affairs and is said to be the first minister to become actively engaged in Klan work In Indianapolis. He is well known in musical circles and as an Instructor organized an orchestra composed solely of women.” Gunsolus contributed religious columns to The Fiery Cross, and he became Pastor at Brightwood Congregational Church by 1923. Brightwood was perhaps Indianapolis’ most prominent Klan champion, and the church was the scene of numerous rallies and cross burnings during the height of the Klan’s popularity.
Yet in 1931 the African-American Indianapolis Recorder reported on lectures by the former Fiery Cross ideologue, indicating that he “believes that all races are equal in the sight of God; and thinks that Negroes are more mystical and more spiritually minded.” The Recorder reported that the “Rev. Gunzolus, whose work is carried on mostly among Negroes is definitely against Jim Crow laws, lynching and other anti-Christian acts.” Gunsolus began to spell his name Gunzolus in ads in the early 1930s, and in 1935 he advertised in Indianapolis’ Jewish Post and the African-American Indianapolis Recorder as well. A June, 1935 ad in the Indianapolis Recorder for his music courses made the somewhat surprising declaration that any “qualified person regardless of color, race, or creed will be eligible to membership in this orchestra.”
It is unclear if Gunsolus had a change of heart from his youthful xenophobia, but he continued to advertise in the African-American newspaper in the 1950s, and as late as 1968 he was still holding classes at 515 Blake Street on ESP and spiritualism. In May, 1964 Gunsolus wrote the Indianapolis Recorder with the somewhat startling argument that “Let every person now send a letter to the White House demanding that a Negro be nominated for Vice-President of the United States of America on the Democratic ticket. This man ought to be Martin Luther King. Also demand that the lieutenant governor of the state of Indiana be a Negro.” Gunsolus lived at his Blake Street home until 1977, when he was displaced by the IUPUI campus expansion and moved to a home on East 10th Street, where he was living when he died in May, 1982.
The Fiery Cross stopped publication in 1925 in the midst of D.C. Stephenson’s fall from power after being convicted of sexual assault and murder. William Kelso continued to sell bikes on Virginia Avenue until 1926, but in 1927 he and his sons changed the business to a variety store that was primarily managed by the two brothers. The bike shop had sold sporting goods and hardware in the early 1920s, and in November, 1923 the Kelsos advertised their shop as a variety store in the Fiery Cross, so the transformation from a bike shop was probably a gradual shift and perhaps a confirmation of the decline of the bicycle business. In December, 1936 William A. Kelso and his wife Rhoda moved to the Masonic Home in Franklin, Indiana, where she died in February 1937 and he died in September 1939. The Kelso sons finally closed the Virginia Street store in 1939, but the building still stands today.
The Klan’s shadow awkwardly hangs over Hoosier history, often surprisingly linked to such prosaic dimensions of everyday life as cycling and bike marketing, and it is tempting to over-simplify the Klan’s appeal. In the hands of various observers the Klan is rhetorically wielded to evoke the dark implications of Heartland provincialism and homogeneity, or it is used to imply a latent racism bubbling beneath the surface of Hoosier civility. On the one hand, the Klan makes a convenient scapegoat, its demagogues apparently capitalizing on post-World War I nativism to champion hatred whose horrific toll only became clear afterward. On the other hand, the Klan was an enormously successful populist social organization that advocated an emotionally satisfying “Americanist” ideology that acknowledged White Hoosiers’ anxieties over ethnic diversity, working-class urban culture, and the color line. Those are not mutually exclusive readings of the Klan’s meanings in Indiana, and the nativist politics the Klan magnified in the 1920s preceded it and would persist after its institutional collapse. Advertising in The Fiery Cross and a picture of the broader landscape in which Klan ideology flourished in 1920s Indianapolis perhaps begins to complicate our picture of life along the color line in the early 20th century Circle City.
Kenneth T. Jackson
1992 The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. 2nd edition, originally published 1967. Elephant Books, New York.
James H. Madison
2014 Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Leonard J. Moore
1997 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
2008 The Bicycle Boom and the Bicycle Bloc: Cycling and Politics in the 1890s. Indiana Magazine of History 104(3):213-240.
United States Census Office
1902 Census Reports Volume 8: Manufactures Pt. II. States and territories. United States Census Office, Washington DC.