Pedaling “Old Betsy II,” a one-speed cruiser bike, Jay White will set out this summer to re-create his great-grandfather’s almost 700-mile “ambassador tour” from Rock Hill to the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing, N.Y.
On the 75th anniversary of James Spratt White II’s trip, Jay White will re-trace the route nearly exactly. He’ll navigate around the Appalachian Mountains, camp near the North Carolina and Virginia state line and visit with mayors in small towns along the way.
With a replica of his great-grandfather’s “Rock Hill is a Good Town” sign attached to his bicycle, the 46-year-old White will have some modern conveniences – like his iPhone holder on his handlebars – but mostly the trip will be the same as it was in 1939.
James Spratt White II was involved with Rock Hill’s Chamber of Commerce. He used the 1939 trip as an informal economic development recruitment venture. He was an active community member – “a little bit quirky” – who just wanted others to “take a look at Rock Hill,” Jay White said.
“He just packs a bag, puts it in the basket and heads to New York.”
He wrote letters back to Rock Hill, some of which were published in The Evening Herald. In 1939, James Spratt White II was an avid cyclist – at the age of 60. He owned White Cycling Co., once located on East White Street in downtown Rock Hill. He was the grandson of Ann Hutchinson White – generally considered the “Mother of Rock Hill” by historians.
Part of a well-known Rock Hill family, James Spratt White II was often the first person to buy new items in town. He was one of the first private residents to own a telephone. His phone number: 6.
The original “Old Betsy” – a one-speed bike made by Columbia Manufacturing Inc. in 1936 – was his great-grandfather’s “absolute favorite,” Jay White said. The bicycle now belongs to York County’s Culture & Heritage Museums.
“Old Betsy II” isn’t a Columbia bike, but it looks similar, and Jay White – the fifth James Spratt White in his family – has replicated the two-wheeler the best he can.
White, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is training now for his July 19 departure from Rock Hill. He works as mental health therapist in Charleston and is married with one son, Jack, 13, and one daughter, Crawford, 10.
He’s designed an “aggressive” biking schedule, he said, for what he thinks will be a 15-day journey to Flushing this summer.
“Old Betsy II” doesn’t move very fast – usually around 11 mph, which White said is “just the right speed to see the world go by.”
Still, “Old Betsy II” has two “enemies.”
“The hills and wind in your face,” he said. “With the single speed, you don’t have any flexibility.”
But that’s the way his great-grandfather did it, so that’s the way he’ll ride on his “75th Year, Still One Gear” tour.
Historic Rock Hill, the nonprofit that works to preserve historic properties, is helping promote White’s trip. It will host a two-month exhibit and a special panel this summer about Rock Hill’s cycling history and the White family’s contributions.
White hopes to travel about 70 to 80 miles each day of the trip, getting early starts to avoid the worst part of a summer that is likely to be brutally hot. During the first leg of the trip, he’ll have a support car ride ahead to meet him in some stop-over towns where he expects to schedule meetings with mayors and possibly media interviews.
Just a casual bike rider before taking on training for this trip, White has now had a glimpse into the world of passionate cyclists. The “Map My Ride” app on his iPhone tracks his trips, monitors his speed and allows him to compare his travel times to those of other bicycle app users around him.
The one-speed limitation always has the same result on his app: “I’m always in last place because I’m on Old Betsy.”
White finally found a worthy cycling coach for his training – an 82-year-old Charleston eye doctor who sometimes has to coax him out of the house to bike in the rain or cold weather.
The sore muscles have been worth it so far, White says. The upcoming journey is a chance to honor his great-grandfather’s legacy and highlight Rock Hill’s progress since 1939.
White contemplated re-creating the trip many years back. But he’s glad he waited because he’s eager to tell others about Rock Hill’s plans to redevelop old textile properties around downtown and host major cycling events at venues such as the Giordana Velodrome and the soon-to-open BMX Supercross track.
It’s the right time to make his own “ambassador trip,” White said, to follow in his great-grandfather’s tire tracks.
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068