An Original Road Master

The journey for this bicycle starts and ends in Troy Hill.

I know John Rodgers—tall, white haired, in his early 80s—from Saturday mornings at Lady Di’s beauty salon in Bethel Park. His wife and my mother both get their hair done there, and we’re their respective chauffeurs. One Saturday, Rodgers tells me he still has his old Pittsburgh city bicycle license from 1939. “I thought you might be interested,” he says.

“Well, yeah,” I say. “I didn’t even know there ever were city bicycle licenses.”

“Starting in 1939, you had to have a license,” says Rodgers. “I went the first day and got No. 8. I think it cost a dollar.” It is a round tin badge with flexible arms, and Rodgers has four of them: 1939 through 1942.

“I kept my bicycle for a long time,” Rodgers says. It was a Roadmaster, a Christmas present in 1938. “The day after Christmas, the weather was great, and I rode the hell out of it,” says Rodgers. He was 10 and was living on Lowrie Street on Troy Hill. “My dad had a small store, and I rode around the neighborhood delivering groceries. Lot of old people up there,” he says and chuckles. “There still are.”

Rodgers has a great, old photo of him with his bike—one that was colored by hand. I ask, “Where’s the basket?”
“Oh,” he says, “I put it on and off all the time. It was a wire basket, and I thought it looked sissified.”

During the summers in the 1940s, he would pedal twice a week on Mount Troy Road to the old North Hills Country Club. “It was 13-point-something miles,” Rodgers tells me. “McKnight Road wasn’t even built yet. My friend Lee Detling stayed out there with his grandmother who owned the club. I’d spend the night. It was close to North Park.”

The bike held up. Only the tires changed. “Most kids skidded and wore tires out. I did it with miles.”

Rodgers kept the bike when he got married. He moved to Bethel Park in 1953, and the Roadmaster went into the attic for a while. But starting in the 1960s, both of his children, Joyce and Gary, rode the bike. “It became a sort of rite of passage in our family,” says Rodgers. “It was a big thing when you rode my bike to the top of Keystone Drive here beside our house.” The old two-wheeler had a second life before going back into the attic.

“In 1999, I saw an ad in the paper,” says Rodgers. “‘WANTED: Old Bikes.’ I called, and the guy came to see it. It still had the original seat, fenders, horn box, taillight and headlight. It still had the original paint.” That 1938 Roadmaster was an early model, much used but well cared for.

“It was odd. This guy lived up on Troy Hill on Lowrie Street. The bike went back there. I sold it for $600. I don’t know what’s happened to it since.”

At Rodgers’s house, he still has many other old playthings lovingly stored in his basement workshop. He says he hasn’t ridden a bike since he sold his. “I can’t get used to those brakes on the handlebars,” Rodgers says.

Rick Sebak produces and hosts the weekly TV program “It’s Pittsburgh & A Lot of Other Stuff.” It airs Wednesday evenings at 7:30 on WQED.

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