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The Automobilist

Big changes wrought in a bicycle shop

by Jack Neely

Some bicyclists are convinced that the Knoxville driver is a natural enemy, a predator hostile to anything quiet on two wheels. Drivers, on the other hand, think of urban bicyclists as suicidal maniacs who should pursue their strange career some other place, like a bike path or, maybe, California.

Neither bicyclists nor bicyclist-haters are likely to take much comfort in this particular column. See, you crazy bicyclists were the ones who introduced the automobile to Knoxville.

It was right about a century ago. Bicycling had been the rage here for a decade or more. Thousands of two-wheelers were out on the Knoxville streets, and sometimes the wheelman's clubs would bring them out to a race on Middlebrook Pike.

One of Knoxville's most prominent athletes in 1899 was a teenager who lived on upscale Cumberland Avenue with his family. He played football and boxed, but was best known as a regional tennis champ; he won a singles title.

His name was Cowan Rodgers. He made a career choice unusual for the old-family Rodgerses; he went to work for a shop on old Vine Street called Biddle & Bro. Bicycle Repairers.

Will and John Biddle were then in their early 30s. They did all sorts of stuff at their shop—electroplating was a specialty—so they eventually advertised more broadly as Biddle Manufacturing Company.

Young Cowan Rodgers was apparently more interested in bikes than the Biddles were; by 1899, the 19-year-old Cowan Rodgers took over the bike business for himself and split off into his own company: Rodgers & Co. Bicycle Repairers.

You could argue that bicycle repairmen invented the 20th Century. Bicycle gears and chains could do all sorts of astonishing things. The Duryea Brothers, bicycle repairers, built the first American machine that could properly be called an automobile. Later, the Dodge Brothers, bicycle repairers, moved into automobiles, too. There were others. Soon, of course, a couple of bicycle-repair brothers would prove how smart they were at Kitty Hawk.

Cowan Rodgers' experiment took place at his shop at 110 East Vine, near where the Gem Theater would later be, that part of Vine that urban renewal obliterated. If you want to stand on the spot, it was along the south side of Summit Hill, just a few steps east of Central. Maybe the most sinful spot in Tennessee, this neighborhood was known as the Bowery. At Vine and Central you could buy nearly anything or anybody, and murder was so common it usually didn't make the front pages.

But it was right here in 1899 that Rodgers and the Biddles built what was probably Knoxville's first gasoline-driven car. It's hard to know what it looked like; most cars of that period were little sofas on top of internal-combustion engines, mounted on a wagon, with a single lever to control it. By one account, Rodgers drove his machine right down Central to Jackson Avenue and back, an auto tour of the future Old City. It heralded a new age, and surely startled the pool sharks and prostitutes and saloonkeepers of the Bowery.

At the turn of the century, though, you couldn't make a living just selling automobiles in Tennessee. Rodgers & Co.'s main business was manufacturing, selling, and repairing bicycles; Rodgers' own popular model—he called it the "Chilhowee"—went for $35. Rodgers also dabbled in to-order contracts. He made a prototype of new mosquito canopy for the U.S. Canopy Co. He worked on a new invention called the Childress Copy Holder, designed to prevent typists from losing their place. A profile of Rodgers' business in 1902 mentions nothing about automobiles.

They say whatever dreams Rodgers had of opening an automobile factory were discouraged by reports of impossibly massive production at Mr. Olds' assembly line in 1901. By that time, Rodgers and his assistants hadn't finished more than three cars. Instead of trying to beat the big guys, he joined them.

By 1903, he'd moved up in the world, to the third floor of Knoxville Knitting Mills building, near Gay. In a room only 80 feet square, he employed a dozen assistants. That year, Rodgers advertised as the local agent for the steam-driven Locomobile as well as for the new gas-powered Oldsmobile, rolling off the first assembly lines in history. To cover his bets, he still sold bicycles.

It was that year, they say, that Rodgers rode an automobile all the way to Chattanooga, at the breakneck speed of nine hours and 40 minutes. The newspapers from the alleged date of the event—August 10, 1903—are curiously silent about it.

By 1909, in larger quarters near the Gay Street Bridge, Rodgers was confident enough to bill himself as an "expert automobilist." Here, at least, he was. Rodgers sold Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Reos, plus Waverly's electric cars, and "the best type of motorcycles."

In middle age, Rodgers moved on to carry sleeker, more dignified models, the sort that even ladies wouldn't be embarrassed to be see riding, like the Hudson and the Pierce Arrow. By 1928, Rodgers was already advertising his store as "The Oldest Automobile Dealer in the Southland," a claim that his descendants at Rodgers Cadillac maintain today.

Reference books tend to recall Rodgers' influence on roadbuilding in the '20s, and on establishing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He also helped found Home Federal Bank. Those were respectable pursuits. But I'd rather remember Cowan Rodgers as he was right about one century ago—the tennis champ hardly more than a teenager, the bold young genius who fixed bicycles and drove a strange, noisy machine we'd never seen before, right through the heart of the Bowery.