By Leo Landis
In 1973 many Iowans marked their calendars by the time for detasseling seed corn, walking soybeans to clear weeds and attending the Iowa State Fair. On July 22 of that year, during the peak of summer farm work, John Karras announced in the Des Moines Sunday Register that he and Donald Kaul would travel by bicycle from Sioux City to Davenport on a “Great Six Day Bike Ride” from Aug. 26 to Aug. 31.
No one knew what to expect, but Karras and Kaul recognized Iowa had a great county road system that lent itself to a cross-state bicycle ride. They had the audacity to think it could lead to something good for Iowa’s towns, the newspaper and themselves.
The ride began and quickly attracted the attention of many, aided by the phenom Clarence Pickard, an 83-year-old Warren County farmer. A few weeks before the ride, Pickard bought a green women’s Schwinn Super Sport 10-speed. As his wife was having hip replacement surgery in Columbia, Mo., he decided to use his temporary bachelorhood riding across Iowa. His unconventional attire included a Styrofoam pith helmet and wool clothing.
The octogenarian became an instant celebrity. Along the way, Pickard learned to use bicycle gears, accidentally rode on Interstate Highway 80 for several miles, and inspired countless people.
Chuck Offenburger, then a young reporter for the Register, wrote the primary feature on him. Pickard told Offenburger, “I thought this might be a good trip for me to make. Mr. Kaul’s article intrigued me. I thought riding a bicycle across Iowa might be a way of doing some good. I don’t know what good, other than seeing my state and meeting some young people.”
Little did Offenburger know that 10 years later, he would be co-hosting RAGBRAI and chronicling its stories.
The original scheme called for one ride with no plans for the future, but upon completion of the event almost all of the reports proved favorable. Marvel Skadberg of Ames reflected the general sentiment of the state as she thanked the Register for knocking Watergate — it was becoming news — a Soap Box Derby cheating scandal and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s escalating troubles from the front page.
Skadberg gave “Three cheers to Clarence Pickard, Donald Kaul, John Karras, and all the Iowans who made the ‘Great Six-Day Bike Trip.’ The old American spirit of adventure, danger and fighting the elements is still alive. … Thanks for a much-needed shot of togetherness and humor.”
Not everyone felt the spirit of the ride, as Ellis Dickens of Davenport wrote, “The Great Six Day Bike Ride was the most publicized non-event since the McGovern nomination.”
When several thousand Iowans requested a ride redux, the trek took off for the long haul. Women, girls, boys and men, Iowans of almost all types, proved their mettle as the 1974 ride expanded to seven days of cycling and attracted approximately 2,000 participants.
Most people purchase china or furnishings with their wedding money. At the time RAGBRAI began, bicycling reached new levels of popularity across the nation and Schwinn manufactured the premier American-made road bicycles. On May 9, 1972, the recently married Van and Julie Zimmer used their gift money to purchase brand-new Schwinns from Novotny’s Cycle Center in Iowa City, where Van, a Vinton native, had attended law school. The Zimmers bought complementary Super Sports. Julie bought a yellow women’s model, and Van selected a light blue men’s cycle.
The Zimmers enjoyed riding together and with friends, but in 1973, Zimmer, who served as assistant Linn County attorney, was prosecuting a case of livestock theft and could not make the ride. In 1974, he cleared his schedule, and with Julie’s approval, rode SAGBRAI (the “Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa”) on his Super Sport, traveling across the state with a friend and a couple thousand others.
Sixteen-year-old Jennifer Hidlebaugh of Dike typified the independence of many Iowa women and girls who wished to prove they could accomplish the ride. She kept a meticulous account of her expenses and spent $13.62 on food including $1.29 for a hamburger and malt in Guthrie Center. Her miscellaneous expenses totaled $2.28, including 50 cents for a new brake bolt. Her day log shows she began each day’s route by 7:30a.m. and concluded by 1 p.m.
As the ride expanded, Iowa hospitality and pride became increasingly prevalent and eventually competitive. Ask riders why they participate, and the first response is the people and second will be either the Iowa landscape or food. A bicycle ride of thousands of people can put a major demand on a community’s resources. Specifically, how do you feed breakfast to all those people in a few hours?
Fortunately, a few years before the first ride, Lorin Christiansen of Pocahontas developed a griddle to quickly grill many pancakes in a short amount of time. He also provided entertainment, and “Chris Cakes, Pancakes with an Attitude” became a RAGBRAI staple.
Christiansen retired in 1991 and passed away in December 1999. But when the State Historical Museum of Iowa, where I work, put a call for RAGBRAI material out on Facebook, Christiansen’s niece, Shirley Ezarski of Emmetsburg, contacted us. She had material of her own and reported that her brother Craig Christiansen of Mitchell, S.D., had an original spatula, shirt and belt buckle. While sometimes mundane, RAGBRAI features the creativity and ingenuity of Iowans — and the family relationships that help make RAGBRAI great.
Other family vendors such as Paul Bernhard of Bancroft, known as Mr. Pork Chop, have retired but still make an appearance. Bernhard developed the idea for a 1.5-inch thick pork chop that became known as the Iowa Chop. He served as president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association and began selling his chops along RAGBRAI in 1983. His distinctive call of “Poorrrk Chawww-p!” is legendary among riders. Bernhard’s son Matt continues to sell chops on RAGBRAI, and Paul makes annual appearances on the ride. We are proud to have a RAGBRAI-worn apron and hat in the exhibit.
Food can be a fundraiser for small towns. In 2010, the town of Plover, a pass-through town on the 100-mile Karras Loop, rallied to cook thousands of ham balls as a snack for riders. The United Methodist Church in the town of 95 people had been damaged and needed a new roof. After expenses, the income and donations from RAGBRAI riders topped $10,400. The church began restoration of the roof that fall.
The ride provided an infusion of cash like it does to many Iowa communities.
The dedication of Iowa parents is equally monumental, even in small gestures. When Iowa State University student Rose Ohlinger decided to ride with her extended family in 1976, she looked for a way to listen to music and news on the ride. Her father Jake fashioned a radio holder for her bicycle — from a metal Band-Aid box. The holder attached to her Raleigh 10-speed bike, which she rode with a family group. She no longer had her portable radio, but a GE model in a leather case fits perfectly.
Riders brought their own source of music with guitars on the earliest rides. Showing the national reach of the ride, the State Historical Museum received an email from Jim Zdunek of Fort Collins, Colo. In 2008 he built his own banjo to take on the ride for entertainment. The banjo consists of an aluminum drum head and wooden neck. Zdunek rode with his friends, and carried his banjo on his back. Whenever the group stopped, Jim had an instrument to entertain the group or jam with other riders. Unfortunately Jim dropped the banjo and it is no longer playable, but it still bears the names of RAGBRAI towns from 2009, and makes a great exhibit artifact.
RAGBRAI brings out creativity in Iowans. Mediapolis created a nearly 20-foot pile of bikes and dubbed it Mount RAGBRAI in 1988. In 2012, Marshalltown welded a giant red cup. Showing real dedication to the ride, Sioux Center welder Nelson Wynia constructed a bicycle weather vane at least 12 feet high for display in the starting town of Sioux Center for 2012. His wife, Deb, suggested they drive it to Clinton so riders could sign it at the conclusion of the ride, having seen it at the start.
Even Iowans who haven’t ridden RAGBRAI have few degrees of separation from the ride. Chances are they have relatives, co-workers or friends who have participated. RAGBRAI has been chronicled in Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and Washington Post.
The traditions established by early riders, vendors and communities represent continuity — and yet riders adapt. Pancakes, pork chops and pie are still staples. Riders run a gamut from silly to serious.
The route changes; what remains the same is the dedication of Iowans to provide world-class hospitality and the beauty of Iowa’s landscape.
Leo Landis is curator of the State Historical Museum of Iowa. The museum opens its “Riding Through History” exhibit July 19. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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