YOU just don’t see a lot of unicycles and inkwells around Bartholomew County these days. The subjects came to my attention recently through a couple of searches launched by local residents. One is underway, the other has been successful.
Retiree Ken Van Liew would love to find a large unicycle once ridden by W.G. Irwin, the legendary Columbus banker who co-founded what is now Cummins Inc. in 1919. In some ways, it’s a personal quest since Ken would occasionally ride atop the cycle for special events or parades in Columbus in the 1960s.
Actually, unicycles are still around. Most are smaller versions ridden by children, the seats close enough to the ground that riders could straddle the wheel with both feet touching the ground. W.G. Irwin’s wheel was much larger, four to five times as high off the ground and tall enough to make a fall extremely painful.
They were popular enough in the late 19th century that there were unicycle races around the world, staged by what were called “wheel clubs.”
“When we think of W.G. Irwin today, we have this image of a serious-looking businessman,” recalled Owen Hungerford, who worked most of his adult life with Irwin Management Co., the entity established to manage the interests of the Irwin, Sweeney and Miller families. “It’s just difficult to correlate that image with the notion of someone riding around on top of one of these things.”
W.G. didn’t just ride around on top of one of those things. He also raced one, competing around the state as a young man in the late 19th century.
“He apparently was pretty good,” Owen said. “I learned about his racing days from Elsie Sweeney (W.G.’s niece), and I’ve even seen photos of him on a unicycle.”
W.G. eventually grew out of his unicycle phase, but his wheel kept on rolling, even if on an intermittent basis.
“When I was working at Cummins, I would volunteer to ride the unicycle in special events around town,” Ken recalled. “Getting on and keeping it steady was tough enough, but I couldn’t imagine anyone actually racing on one of those things. Apparently W.G. employed a trick in not only keeping it upright but also increasing its speed by placing his finger alongside the wheel when it was in motion.”
Ken and the unicycle were familiar figures in parades and celebrations, but even that phase of the wheel passed. He recently began a search for the unicycle but so far has come up empty.
“People remember it, but no one has any idea of where it might be,” he said.
Owen postulates that it might have been stored somewhere on Cummins property but fears that it could have been discarded in later years. There’s still hope, however, because this is not only a valuable artifact but one that is directly connected to the history of Columbus.
Reinforcing that sense of hope is the search for an inkwell launched a couple of weeks ago by the Bartholomew County Humane Society. Obviously, inkwells have been replaced by such modern devices as ballpoint pens, and it’s been quite a few decades since people commonly dipped their writing implements into a glass jar to put words onto paper.
The humane society found itself in need of one when it recently acquired a writing desk that was once positioned in the lobby of the old post office building at Seventh and Washington streets. That building stopped being a post office when the new building on Jackson Street between Fourth and Fifth was opened in 1970.
The contents of the Washington Street building were dispersed throughout the county, the desk eventually being acquired at auction by Gordon Miller for his insurance firm. When the humane society’s new shelter was opened last year, the desk was donated to the society. It was in good shape with one exception. It was missing an inkwell.
Cheryl Zuckschwerdt, president of the society, launched a search for an appropriate inkwell. I wrote a column about her search last month but had little hope that it would get a response. Inkwells aren’t in great demand these days.
Turns out I was wrong. The society not only has an inkwell that fits perfectly into the designated hole but has a couple of spares.
“One was given by Ted Loesch, who told us he collects inkwells as a hobby,” Cheryl reported. “The second was donated by Susan Tener, who said it has been in her family for several years, and the third was presented by Marguerite Rust, who said her mother had received it from her grandfather.”
With that kind of response, I would have to say that there’s hope for finding W.G. Irwin’s unicycle.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.