We thought we knew what to expect from the MrColumbia website: a postcard recapitulation of Wikipedia cycling history from the late 1800s punctuated by a few antique ads pulled from Ebay. Were we wrong! Publisher Kenneth Kowal looks back on the legacy of the venerable Columbia brand, a major Northeast manufacturer maker with a history of continual safety & performance innovation. The company also took a leading role as a manufacturer in promoting cycling as not only a means of personal transportation but also for recreation and emancipation too, just as this new mobility craze was sweeping urban America.
MrColumbia is nothing if not a labor of love. Mr. Kowal is a bike enthusiast and collector who plies the bicycle show circuit and his personal collection of Columbia bikes makes his bones in the world of vintage cycling. But this is a personal story that began with his dad, Jack Kowal, longtime Columbia worker and lay historian who emerged as a lay curator of industrial and cultural history for the company.
The younger Mr. Kowal himself followed in his father’s footsteps to to the Columbia factory floor in Westfield, Massachusetts, right out of high school (a New England tradition). And shortly thereafter, his dad too returned to the factory after having stepped away for a time. Now both Kowals who shared an interest in cycling were in the bike business!
And what a business it was: Columbia turned out a huge variety of frames in so many styles that to look across them is to know something about the times.
One could argue that it the Columbia banana seat model (right) was the apogee of style! For a kids from the 1970s, nothing says pimped ride more than the graceful lines, long seat, and sissybar so common to that era. Heck, we slapped on mirrors, turn signals, and sparkly crap on ours, but that Schwinn just didn’t have the chrome accouterments that this Columbia ‘Mod Mach’ did.
But as it happened, the progression of sturdy steel Columbia frames in so many styles from the Westfield factory belied the turmoil that was actually racking the industry in the later 20th century. While the frames themselves may have been plenty resilient to bumps in the road, the company making them wasn’t in the end roadworthy enough to weather a shift in popular attitudes.
Despite a resurgence of interest in the 1970s (think oil embargo), cycling never had a chance in the 1980s against hundreds of millions of dollars annually pimping two tons of steel wrapped around a 5-liter motor. Kenneth wouldn’t reach his own retirement at the company because it simply couldn’t last: caught between slack domestic demand and new foreign entrants into the cycling market, the firm declared bankruptcy shortly after passing its century mark, a moment when it had actually begun to coast to a halt. Read more about the changes at MrColumbia and you’ll get a good look at the elder Mr. Kowal in action on the factory floor too.
Remember those dark days of the 1980s? Not the music or the hair. Not the TV. The emergence of the gas-guzzling deathtrap we call SUV. They were marketed by Madison Avenue as an aspirational bridge from banalities of suburban life to adventures in the wild – an experience that most of us only saw on TV. Or from behind the wheel of an Expedition or a Range Rover, the marketers would have us believe.
Back when every suburban garage counted a bike or two or three, we were riding more regularly. Once our interests turned elsewhere, suddenly we kept two or three cars in the driveway and stowed that rusty bike. Even today the forces pushing motoring remained misaligned with our larger policy goals. If we want to reduce consumption, perhaps the Pentagon shouldn’t pump $26 million annually into one Nascar sponsorship but instead spend on bike promotion. After all, bikes once played a key role in military campaigns!
But then Americans haven’t been serious about cycling ever since the ‘wheelmen’ supported the Good Roads movement. We haven’t taken cycling seriously as transportation and, aside from team support, we’ve never taken a keen interest in competitive cycling either.
A Bit of Columbia History
How could such a venerable institution survive so long as a maker of bicycles beginning in the nineteenth century with a huge factory (right) and then simply morph into a company that makes only tubular furniture for the school market?
Well, simply the changing market itself. Aggressive competition and the vicissitudes of American capitalism produce innovation and big rewards in the market, but they also exacerbate risk and increase the chances of failure. This story of risk, failure, redemption, and failure again in a changing market stands as an elegiac ode to a storied maker.
Variously called Pope, American Bicycle, Westfield Manufacturing, and eventually Columbia Co., the firm began as Pope Manufacturing Company in 1877 and turned out its first Columbia bicycle a year later. The company went through numerous restructurings and failed no fewer than three times in its first half-century as a going concern!
Yet in that tumultuous time it contributed significantly to the history of bicycling in the United States. As Pope’s early marketing campaigns show, his firm identified women as potential buyers long before universal suffrage opened the ballot (in 1920).
The founder of Columbia, Colonel Pope himself, was instrumental in promoting the Good Roads movement. He helped to found the League of American Wheelmen (in 1880), according to Mr. Kowal.
In fact, the company’s many advertisements conveyed a wide variety of messages to the buying public, including safety, comfort and ease of use. ‘Chainless’ drive “makes hill climbing easy,” the advertisement at right stated. “Foremost in beauty, grace, speed and durability.” Another ad appealed directly to the intellect by calling Columbias “rational vehicles of health and pleasure.” Who today could disagree?
Other production innovations helped to usher in the modern bicycle, like nickel steel “flush joint frame connections”; premium bevel-gear drive; a “protecto-lock” security option; and of course the obligatory coaster brakes to save effort in braking.
Maybe the most intriguing promotional innovation was Columbia’s Cycling Rules of the Road rotating dial safety guide:
Picturing the 20th Century Limited and including a testimonial from Thomas L. Perkins, ‘crack engineer,’ the promotional poster read, “Qualify as a cycling expert. 16 rules of the road are illustrated and show up with a flick of your finger.” It continued:
You have to know the traffic rules of the rails thoroughly to handle a crack train expertly and efficiently. That goes for handing a bicycle too. The makers of Columbia bicycles have made it easy for you to learn these rules with their Guide to Cycling Rules of the Road. So, boys and girls, whether you own a bike or hope to own one soon…take advantage of this offer to help you quality as a crack bike engineer.
And not least was the stylistic variety of the Columbia line. It suggests a firm seeking its niche in an expanding marketplace. The advertisement for the Columbia Mid Century (“the 20th Century’s greatest bike”), for example, trades on aerospace themes much like the auto industry did (right).
But it was a battle against changing interests Columbia was destined to lose. Despite gaining traction during World War II by supplying bicycles to the military, and then subsequently prospering in the postwar era, the company hit the skids in 1987 and was unable to restart production. That meant the company forever known for the Columbia brand left the bicycle business for good. Even the Columbia Museum fashioned from the post-bankruptcy ashes on the Westfield factory site closed in 2008 when the buildings were razed.
Columbia’s demise reflects our larger post-industrial economy and reminds us of the decline of our manufacturing base. Nowhere is that more evident in New England, where factory sites like Columbia’s in Westfield sit mostly idle. While we tend to look to contemporary phenomena like Silicon Valley for insight into American innovation, we have to remember that our nation’s industrial history was writ not in California or on a silicon chip but was instead crafted along the river valleys of New England and cast in iron and steel.
MrColumbia Takes the Legacy Forward
With Columbia’s closing, Mr. Kowal was left with a story of personal love and loss, but from the elder Mr. Kowal (and his own experience) he gained a more positive view of a dynamic company making its way from obscurity to ubiquity. As ads often said, “You see them everywhere.” Of course, today you see them mostly in shows and in collections.
How did he get so involved? “My father was asked to help put together a museum for the Company and I had the opportunity to help,” he said. “It started with just 3 pages but as I dug deep into the vast volumes of information my father had collected over the years the site grew almost organically.”
What makes him put so much effort into the site? “Getting the ‘Columbia’ bug was completely logical for me,” Kenneth Kowal says. “I grew up one mile from the Columbia bicycle factory, my father had worked at the factory from time to time and I rode Columbia bikes as a kid. My interest in history led to one place – the history of Columbia bicycles.”
And that closed Columbia museum? It lives on online through MrColumbia. The younger Mr. Kowal is now the custodian of the Columbia heritage. Look for Mr. Kowal riding the new Columbia Greenway Rail Trail, a 3.2 mile repurposed, partially-elevated railroad right-of-way through downtown Westfield, Mass. It will soon reach the Columbia’s factory site just in time to mark the quarter-century anniversary of its closing, bringing the story of this venerable firm’s long history in bicycle manufacture full circle.