Fast Diggers: Mr. S. G. Spier

Among the most notable bicyclists in the City of Angels during the 1890s was S. G. Spier. I am not sure when he arrived in the city, but the earliest Los Angeles reference I have found of him, is from the seventh annual field day of the Los Angeles Athletic Club (1892) in which he competed in two of the races, being awarded 1st in the one-mile safety (3:15 class), and the half-mile safety in which he took 2nd to D. L. Burke. From that time, and through the rest of the summer season, he was a regular participant in local races. At the end of the summer Spier removed to northern California where he remained for about a year; in August of 1893 his return to Los Angeles was noteworthy enough to make the daily paper: "Mr. S. G. Spiers [sic], the well-remembered general agent of the Overman company, has returned from the north, and has located here permanently with his wife. The boys will be glad to have Steve back, as he is a rustler for cycling." 




Spier was indeed a "rustler for cycling," throwing his hat in pretty much all aspects of it, from racing, to promotion, business owner, advocate. Beside his time with the Overman Company, he was also manager of the Los Angeles agency of Osborn & Alexander (San Francisco), whose shop at #16 West Third Street, carried the largest stock of bicycles and accessories in the city and, later, owner of his own shop.

Spier was born, probably, in New York on 9 November 1864, and was living in New Lebanon when the Pope Bicycle Company employed him to ride across country in 1886. The trip was, apparently Spier's introduction to California where he remained, moving between the Bay area and Los Angeles multiple times. In the 1890 San Francisco City Directory he is listed as a clerk with Osborn & Alexander. That same year, however, the Wheel and Cycling Trade Review, Vol. 5, of 25 April 1890, in reviewing the Osborn & Alexander branch at No. 16 West Third Street, Los Angeles, describes the shop as having met with tangible results "that their able manager, Mr. S. G. Spier, has so faithfully built up by his courteous treatment and honorable dealings." Yet another mention in the same journal, from May, noted that Mrs. S. G. Spier, though the only lady on a run between Los Angeles and Sierra Madre Villa Hotel, Pasadena, could "hold her own with most any of the boys." Further, that she, and presumably, her husband, would be missed when they returned to Santa Rosa for the summer. This back and forth between northern and southern California continued through the last decade of the 1800s at least.

Apparently time away from southern California did not hurt as Spier won the two-mile handicap race over the likes of Phil Kitchen, P. L. Abel, T. Q. Hall, and C. Cowan during the inaugural meeting of the Southern California division of the League of American Wheelmen (2 October 1893). This seems to mark a subtle end of Spier's individual racing, and a shift to a focus on tandems. From 1894 onward, there is little indication that Spier raced on anything other than a tandem.

Spier was also well enough regarded to be frequently asked to help set pace during record attempts by other riders. One such took place in December 1893 at the Alhambra track, when Emil Ulbricht attempted to set records for all distances between two and ten miles. In November 1894 Spier was asked to pair with Casey Castleman on a tandem to set pace for Carson Shoemaker and H. E. Scott, who were attempting to set a new 24-hour record, the attempt taking place along the Magnolia Avenue "course" in Riverside. For whatever reason it does not appear as though Spier took on the duty, though he did take charge of "directing" the record attempt for the two men.

Never-the-less, by early in the next year - 1894 - (on Washington's Birthday) Spier raced at a meet in Phoenix, Arizona where he rode tandem with [Sleator] in a curious race in which four other riders - Kelly, Bowers, Warren, and Kibby rode in relay fashion of a mile and a quarter each. Spier, demonstrating his "tandem baldheaded ability" with his partner easily won the race by two laps over their competition. At the end of June 1895, during the Kreisturnfest, held at Los Angeles Agricultural Park Spier had planned, with Emil Ulbricht, an attempt against the tandem world record; when competition ran overtime, the riders were forced to abandon the idea. No matter that he was involved with so many different aspects of cycling, nor that he did not seem to be entering many races through 1894 and 1895, the possibility that he could race (if he so chose) seems to have remained important: "During the next two months Southern California will give away something like $5000 for prizes in the bicycle meets. This, no doubt, is the reason why S. G. Spier is training so hard. He wants it all." (Los Angeles Herald, 4 November 1895)

During his years as a racer in Los Angeles Spier competed with various teams including the Los Angeles Wheelmen, the Los Angeles Athletic Club team, the East Side Cycling Club, and in 1894 became one of the principal organizers of the Owl Cycling Club (Herald 23 September 1894). When the club began to plan for their own track and club house, they gave charge of the business end of the project to Spier who quickly began raising money and recruiting business partners (October 1894).

While most of the distance races that Spier raced on the track were shorter distances, rarely more than ten miles, and road races little more, Spier was able to morph into a champion distance rider and, during the summer of 1886, set a new record for crossing the country from east to west. After ninety-nine days Spier arrived in Sacramento on the 7th of September, and would arrive in San Francisco the following day (other accounts say he reached S.F. on the 9th). This beat the record of 105 days set two years earlier by Thomas Stevens, and did so after covering four-hundred miles more. Spier reported every night to the Pope Bicycle Company who made the Expert Columbia specifically for the attempt. Among the notable adventures Spier experienced during the journey was a close encounter during his run down to Sacramento from Truckee: "On Sunday night he encountered a train of cars in tunnel No. 12... the night was dark, and worse than Egyptian blackness was the interior of the tunnel. The bicyclist says he jumped off his machine, pushed it up against the side of the tunnel, got as close as he could himself, shut his eyes, muttered a prayer, and then awaited consequences..." While Spier experienced no ill health during the trip, the reporter in Sacramento noted that "his appearance shows that it was a tedious and toilsome journey." Some of the writers of the day, while not disputing that he rode the distance, question some of the daily mileage that Spier claimed, insinuating that he tended to exaggerate. 

Spier wasn't only in the racing game; sure that 1886 trip across the country was undertaken to set a timed record, yet the tour aspect seems to have been just as important. Flash forward to 1894. In the first part of the year, the first three months, he is entering races, doing well, but then his name completely disappears from the record, with no indication of why, until the end of September when the most brief of notices appears stating that S. G. Spier, the well known bicyclist, has returned from a tour of Mexico "where he found it a very heating proposition to pedal, sometimes seeing the mercury as high as 120 degrees in the shade."

A month later we see another side of Spier - that of race promoter. At the end of October 1894, the Spier annual handicap 25 mile bicycle race, pitting the best riders from both north and south of the state against one another, was run at the Los Angeles Agricultural Park track. As the date for Spier's race in 1895 drew near the racing board took umbrage with its location on the calendar; scheduled for Thanksgiving day would have brought it into conflict with the national circuit race taking place on the same day in Santa Ana, meaning that it would need to be pushed back into December, exceedingly late in the year. The start of a new business venture half way through 1895 may have left Spier with little time for such things, but it is interesting that he appears to have taken little significant part in organizing for the November national circuit races to be held at Los Angeles, and other area tracks, easily the most significant races to be held in the region up to that time. It was only a few days before the commencement of the races that Spier announced he, with help from his fellow members of the East Side Club, would be hosting a grand ball at the Hazard Pavilion, and preceded by a bicycle parade along the streets of the city.

This was not the first instance of event promotion; the earliest (I have yet found) is from 3 May 1890 when Spier was given the "job" of superintendent, in charge of organizing and managing a series of exhibition races during the Flower Festival in Los Angeles.

That new business venture, mentioned above, undertaken in late July 1895 was the purchased of the bicycle shop, formerly Allen & Patterson (who were the local Stearns agents) at 455 South Spring Street. Spier planned to work "in the field" while A. D. Tompkins would have charge in the shop. The word shop, perhaps, did not do the business justice, and it was described at the time as a bicycle livery, with dressing rooms, a machine shop, and a private riding school.

Interestingly another story appeared at the beginning of November stating that Spier was, on his own, pursuing plans for new half-mile track for Los Angeles. The track was planned to have a clay surface over a four-foot foundation of gravel, with concrete sides. The facility would also contain a club house designed in the "Japanese" style, two stories with dining room, kitchen, gym, exercise room, reading room, parlor and Turkish bath. Two additional training cabins were included in the plans, one on each side of the club house. Spier claimed to have $10,000 for the project and expected work on the track to progress rapidly. 

For all the drive that Spier brought to the Los Angeles bicycling scene, he did have moments of ill press, times when he may have been unable to control his temper, or suffer from an occasional lapse of judgement. In December 1895 Spier was convicted of battery against a customer: Burdick "Peterson stated that recently he bought a bicycle of Spier. After riding it for a short time one of the sprocket wheels broke. He went to Spier to have the damage repaired, but got no satisfaction from the fellow. Peterson then took the machine to another repair shop where he was informed the bicycle was of poor make. The wheel again broke and on this occasion Peterson took it to Spier. Peterson asserted that he was roundly abused by Spier and ejected from the place by that gentleman."

A few years later Spier, who at the time was proprietor of the bicycle shop on South Spring Street "wanted back from his wife some diamond rings, pins and other jewelry of a total value of $200, which he alleged she was unlawfully detaining. Mrs. Mattie Spier no longer lives with her husband, having instituted against him an action for divorce on the ground of cruelty and failure to provide which is now pending. Both litigants are natty looking people and were accompanied by prosperous looking witnesses...Judgement went for the defendant." (Herald 12 March 1898)

By the beginning of 1902, at the latest, Spier had once again moved to northern California; he is listed in the Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory for that year. By 1905 he had moved to Santa Rosa where he was the manager of the hotel St. Rose. Owned by A. E. Chartrand, the St. Rose was a fine luxury hotel of one-hundred two rooms whose coffee was reputed to be the best in the state. "The hotel moves like clockwork, and it is to Mr. Spier's unexcelled executive ability that the St. Rose owes its crowning success. He is a man versed in the ways of the world, up-to-date in knowledge, generous and progressive, and will make the St. Rose popular and successful." (the Northern Crown, Vol 1, No. 9, January 1905). Yet one more turn is noted by the Crocker - Langley San Francisco Directory of 1912 which records Spier as manager of the S. G. Spier Commercial Company, located at 918 Market Street.

"Steve" Spier may not have been the most successful bicycle racer, race promoter, or businessman, but he dove fully into anything and everything related to bicycles in the southern California region, and for that reason is one of the most important cycling enthusiasts, boosters and advocates in Los Angeles through the end of the 1890s and into the beginning of the 1900s.

Like the rest of the Fast Digs / Fast Diggers stories, this one on Mr. Spier should be considered incomplete, and will be added to from time to time as new information comes to light.

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