H.L. Mencken learned to ride a bicycle in the lot behind a bicycle shop owned by Joseph Wiesenfeld at the southwest corner of West Baltimore and Paca Streets. He recalled the story in a piece from Mencken on Mencken, a collection of autobiographical writing originally published in the New Yorker and Esquire during the 1940s:
…in an ancient two-story house which still stands, was Joe Wiesenfeld’s bicycle shop, and at the rear of it was a large yard, floored like a room. On that floor, coached by one of Little Joe’s salesmen, I learned to ride a bicycle. It all seems remote and archaic today, like mastering the subtleties of medieval equitation. But bicycling was a great and urgent matter in 1889, when the pneumatic tire came in.
Wiesenfeld, known as “little joe” thanks to short stature, was a successful Jewish business owner who opened the bicycle shop in 1892. A Baltimore native born in 1864, Wiesenfeld gained local fame at age 15 racing a high-wheel bicycle around Druid Hill Lake and remained an active member and supporter of Baltimore cycling clubs for years. His business soon expanded into a sporting goods store (specializing in saddles and tack) that still stands at the northwest corner of Baltimore and Howard Streets.
In 1957, Clarence R. Mahrer, a former bicycle salesman at Howard French’s competing shop at 304 West Baltimore, recalled the tremendous popularity of bicycles in the 1900s when Baltimore boasted 80 to 90 bike stores and dozens of bike clubs – the Myrtle Wheelmen, Lafayette Wheelmen, Yale Wheelmen, Peacock Wheelmen and others.
During the 1960s, the University of Maryland urban renewal project led by the Baltimore Urban Renewal and Housing Commission tore down the old bicycle shop, along with over eight acres of buildings on the west side of downtown Baltimore, to make way for parks, parking lots and new construction for the university and hospital. The block where H.L. Mencken learned to ride a bike is now occupied by University Square Park.
Thanks to Patrick McMahon for turning up the inspiring quote from Mencken on Mencken. I’m hoping there may be a H.L. Mencken bike tour in my future.