Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Bicycle King

Fred T. Merrill on his nickel plated high wheeler

            “You’ve got to give the public what it wants.” That was Fred T. Merrill’s motto and for sixty two years he lived by that creed and brought a little excitement to Portland while he was doing it.  Merrill was born in Maine on December 26, 1858. His father, a Civil War veteran, imported the first English velocipedes to Boston in the 1870s. The velocipede was a dangerous two wheeled contraption, the immediate ancestor of the bicycle, with pedals on the front wheel. Merrill mastered riding one when he was a young man and by the time his family moved to San Francisco in 1873 he began to give exhibitions of trick riding. When the first high-wheelers, with a front wheel that was five feet high, came out Merrill started to do trick riding on one.
            In 1882 Merrill, who considered himself to be the greatest bicycle trick rider in the world heard that Charles C. Booth, an Australian trick rider, had arrived in Portland and was taking on all comers to challenge him for the title of the world’s greatest bicycle rider. Merrill soon arrived in town to challenge the title. Booth accepted his challenge; but skipped town before they could compete. Merrill decided he liked the Rose City, which he considered livelier than San Francisco. Merrill soon became partners in an engraving company, but bicycles were his passion and he never gave them up. Another passion of Merrill’s was publicity and he played that for all it was worth.
            Soon Merrill opened a bicycle shop in a tent on Morrison Street between Second and Third, but there were few people brave enough to try riding the expensive, dangerous velocipedes. Merrill didn’t let the unpopularity of bicycles bother him and soon he had installed a roller skating rink in his tent. When the Willamette River froze over during the cold winter of 1885 he opened an ice skating rink near where the Hawthorne Bridge now stands. He was also doing exhibitions of trick riding, including riding a wagon wheel down a fire ladder and into the fire station at SW 4th and Morrison. In 1890 when the first Rambler “safety bicycle” was introduced Fred Merrill took a hand in starting a bicycle craze in Portland.
            When a new shipment of bicycles arrived Merrill would stage a parade down Second Avenue to his shop. He made a deal with the Columbia Telephone Company and soon 1800 telephone poles around the city were painted with red “Ride a Rambler” slogans. At Multnomah Field he erected the famous “Dip of Death,” a fifty foot ramp that a rider rode a Rambler down and plunged into a tank of water. Merrill was so dedicated to publicity that he ran for city council as a publicity stunt in 1889. His campaign, allied with Republican machine boss, Joe Simon was violently opposed by Larry Sullivan and his gang. Merrill was surprised to be elected, but he took the job seriously and was reelected in 1903.

A Rambler parade in front of Merrill´s Cycle shop

            The bicycle craze hit Portland in 1890 and the first bicycle club was founded that year. That was also the year that Portland built its first paved bicycle paths. Merrill profited greatly from the craze, selling more than 52,000 bicycles in the Pacific Northwest and earning the title “The Bicycle King.” 1898 was the big year for the bicycle fad in Portland; Merrill sold more than 8,000 bicycles that year. They cost about $100 [$2660 in 2011], but everyone had to have one. That year Bicycle Parks became a fad and several were opened around town. These were large parks with paved paths and saloons and theaters in the center. When bicycling became popular with Liverpool Liz and her working girls in the North End the fad started to pass.
            As part of his publicity campaign Merrill promoted bicycle races of all kinds, including the first six-day races in which the riders covered over 1700 miles on the big track laid out in the Mechanic’s Pavilion, where Keller Auditorium now stands. In 1892 he challenged local stable owner Joseph Cook to a race between his bicycle and a group of sixteen horses. The race lasted 48 hours, six 8 hour days. The horses would run for three minutes at a time in relays, Merrill would just ride. The competition was for distance and speed and in the end Merrill was declared the winner, by 200 feet.
            By the time Merrill was elected to his second term on the city council the bicycle craze was passing, helped along by  the introduction of the automobile. Merrill opened the first Portland auto dealership and he claimed that he sold the first 90 cars in the state. In 1905 he ran for mayor on a campaign to “Keep Portland Wide Open.” Portland had long had a reputation as a wide open town where you could always get a drink, a game or a woman. Merrill, following his creed of giving the public what it wants, believed that trying to control gambling, prostitution and drinking by making them illegal was a fool’s game. He thought the activities should be segregated to specific areas of town, taxed and regulated. A lot of Portlanders agreed with him, but he was narrowly defeated in the election.
            In 1906 Merrill bought a large tract of land twelve miles out Stark Street, then known as Base Line Road. He started breeding race horses on the land and opened Oregon’s first “Road House,” which he called Twelve Mile House. The road house was an invention of the automobile age, where people could drive to a place for drinking and dancing. After a series of drunk driving accidents involving patrons of Merrill’s Twelve Mile House and Mysterious Billy Smith’s rival Seven Mile House the county started bringing pressure on Merrill to close his place. In 1916 when Prohibition went into effect in Oregon the end was in sight. Merrill kept the place open for a few years, but after a couple of arrests for illegal liquor sales he closed it down.
            He was also a pioneer in the new business of movie theaters, opening the first Nickelodeon at his old bicycle shop in 1905. Soon he had a chain of movie theaters that stretched from Eugene to Spokane, Wa. In 1906 he opened the Rose City Speedway and began to promote automobile and motorcycle races. Promoting boxing and wrestling matches as well as races of all kinds, by World War I Merrill was considered the leading sportsman in the state. When his son, Fred T. Merrill Jr., was killed at Chateau-Thierry during the Marne Offensive in 1918 Merrill fell into depression that was only aggravated by his legal troubles.
            Even in retirement Fred Merrill continued to race horses and train boxers. He hadn’t lost his flair for publicity either. In 1936 he told his story to Portland’s famous low-brow historian Stewart Holbrook and it ran in big spreads over three Sundays in the Oregonian. Merrill, irrepressible as ever, claimed that he had earned $1,500,000 and spent every penny of it in Portland. He passed away in 1944 at the age of 84.

Fred T. Merrill in retirement


  1. Another great story. But I think I want to hear more about Liverpool Liz...

  2. You've gotta give the public what they want. For more info on Liverpool Liz see my latest post at the Slabtown Chronicle

  3. This is a great story! I was just reading about Merrill in some old Oregonians. What an interesting person.

    One slight correction, not that it matters much: Base Line Road was what we now call Stark Street. Division St. was Section Line Road.

  4. Many thanks for this JD, excellent stuff. Merrill was married to my great-grandmothers sister back in the day, so you have filled in a few details for me. Certainly an interesting gent.