Column: It all started with a Hiawatha Luxury Liner

From the Eclectic Mind of Roger VanHaren

Roger VanHaren

Until we experienced some health issues a few years ago, Marilyn and I did a lot of bike-riding. (I was going to say “cycling,” but that sounds way more serious than the kind of riding we did.) I consider myself lucky that I found a life partner who shared my love of riding.

I have liked bike-riding since I was a kid. When I was 10 years old, my parents bought my sister and me brand new Hiawatha bicycles from the hardware store in town. They must have made some big sacrifices to do that, because our family didn’t have much money in those days. I didn’t think about their sacrifices back then – I was only interested in me, I suppose – but I do think about it today, and I really appreciate it now.

When we got married after college and our kids were big enough to ride, we made sure that they all had bikes, and we’d load all seven bikes into a trailer and head for the bike trails. We had many memorable adventures as a family on the Sparta-Elroy, Sugar River and Military Ridge bike trails. Some days, we’d ride 50 miles, with Chris and Mark on little 20-inch sidewalk bikes. They were some gutty little kids! (Just so you don’t think we were cruel to make them do that, I usually had along a piece of rope so I could pull them if they got too tired!)

After the kids were all gone from home, we continued to do a lot of biking, sometimes on the trails, but mostly just around town – to the grocery store or to run errands, or just to cruise around town.

On our 25th wedding anniversary, I bought us each a new bike. Yeah, I know. Not very romantic! The bikes were not expensive – Shopko bargains – but they were sturdy, and I customized them with extra long handlebar stems and seat posts and very comfortable seats. We put a lot of miles on those bikes until I decided (when the bikes were 20 years old) that we should have some new “automatic shift” Trek bikes. It was a birthday present for Marilyn! Sure!

But getting back to that old Hiawatha Luxury Liner that was my first bike back in 1949. It was red-trimmed in white and had a tank between the bars of the frame. It had balloon tires, chrome fenders (to which I added mud-flaps – muddy gravel roads, you know!), white rubber handlebar grips and a bright chrome flashlight mounted on the front. It had a big red reflector on the rear fender. Neither the light nor the reflector was necessary because I didn’t ride at night … but it was cool.

Even in those days, I liked “customizing,” I guess, because I can remember taking the tank off to “streamline” the bike. Because, you know, your bike sort of defines you. It’s usually your first real “big” possession.

Our driveway on the farm had a loop which circled the garage, gas pump, clothesline and outhouse. That was so it was easy for the milk truck to come in, stop at the milkhouse and go back out without having to turn around. Most of the miles on that old Hiawatha were racked up on that loop – probably about an eighth of a mile. Never one to lack imagination, I raced the Tour de France many times on that loop. And sometimes a couple of playing cards, swiped from Grandpa’s favorite Solitaire deck, attached with clothespins to the fork, added a new sound dimension to my imaginary races.

Oddly enough, though, I don’t remember ever riding the bike very far away from home. Most of the rest of the kids in the neighborhood didn’t have bikes of their own. So if I ever rode over to any of my cousins’ farms, I usually ended up sitting around while they rode my bike.

And I can’t remember many times that I rode it into town. The gravel road to town was very hilly, the bike had no “speeds” and I was a puny kid, so I had to push the bike up most of the hills. Besides, Mom and Dad wisely thought it wasn’t safe to ride the narrow, hilly road because some of the drivers who used our road liked to drive too fast, and it wasn’t easy to see them coming on the hills.

Well, anyway, I really liked that old bike. That Hiawatha bicycle is part of many of my boyhood memories. During my high school days, it was sort of uncool to ride bikes, and then I went away to college, so that was sort of the end of my bike-riding for a while, and I don’t know whatever happened to the bike.

I recently saw that a 1949 Hiawatha Luxury Liner (“Needs chrome work, mostly presentable, has both front and tail lights, original shape”) sold on eBay for $900! What happened to my old bike?