Minnesota Great: Bicyclist Dottie Farnsworth and the Six-Day Races of the 1890s
A triumphant and ultimately sad story of one of Minnesota’s earliest sports stars
The introduction of the “safety” bicycle in the mid-1880s ushered in an explosion in bicycling’s popularity, one that continued through the next decade. The opportunity to travel as far as your wheels could take you was intoxicating, and soon a large part of society rode a bicycle. It had social benefits, as well. Bicycling played a vital role in the push for improved public roadways throughout the country and was a major driving force behind the changes in the women’s emancipation movement of the 1890s.
In taking to the “wheel,” women reshaped how they were viewed by society. Bicycling, once a males-only recreation, now had universal appeal. Riding took women out of the Victorian Age, changed how they dressed and allowed them the autonomy to travel as they pleased. The bicycle helped usher in the “new woman” and gave her access to a world that offered the independence that she once lacked. Ladies’ six-day bicycle races were an embodiment of many of these virtues.
Races took place on wooden tracks throughout the country from 1888–1902. Contestants competed over six consecutive days for a predetermined time of two and twelve hours per day. Prize money was distributed between each of the competitors, with most winnings given to the race champion at the end of six days. Thousands of fans came out each night to yell themselves hoarse as they cheered on their favorite rider.
The races were dangerous, and the women that competed risked injury each time they took to the track. However, doing so allowed them to travel the country, dress as they please, and gain a degree of financial independence that they had previously only dreamed. The sport’s popularity contributed to over one million women riding a bicycle in the 1890s. The older generation may have hated what they stood for, but their age applauded them, and the young girls of the next generation hoped to one day be just like them.
One of the stars of the race circuit was Minneapolis resident Leona Marie “Dottie” Farnsworth. Dottie was born around 1873 to Austin Farnsworth and Sarah Bartholomew and graduated from St. Paul’s St. Joseph’s Academy in July of 1895. She took up bicycling that summer and competed in her first professional six-day race in December. When she triumphantly crossed the finish line at the end of six days, she had ridden the equivalent of well over 300 miles. This shattered the previous world record for 18 hours of racing.
Dottie was brash and supremely confident in her abilities. Early in her career, she was involved in rivalries with many other riders and often proposed side-bets with her competitors that matched the race winnings. Her boldness rubbed some the wrong way, but there was no denying her competitive fire. In an 1896 race, she finished a close second to Tillie Anderson. Dottie fought so hard to win that she fainted from exhaustion immediately after clearing the finish line.
Minnesota was a significant race destination in the 1890s, and Minnesotans were incredibly supportive of the sport. Racing venues in Aurora Park, Athletic Park, and Washington Park could be counted on to be over-flowing with people every time a six-day race came to town. Many of the tour’s best racers came from the area as well. Minneapolitan Mate Christopher, St. Paul’s Lillie Harp, Duluth’s Nellie Bartlett, and more gave Dottie a run for her money at every race. However, Dottie was the best of the bunch.
She was one of the region’s earliest sports celebrities. The adoration that fans in her hometown showed her could sometimes be borderline fanatical. In July of 1896, Dottie raced in a six-day race in Minneapolis. On July 6, the last day of racing, she was forced to cancel due to illness. Dottie formally forfeited to the remaining competitors fifteen minutes before the start of the final race.
The crowd of over 2,000 spectators was beside themselves when they found out Dottie wouldn’t be racing. Calls to cancel the race between the remaining competitors went unheeded and the audience, now acting “as one man,” immediately stormed the race track. The restless mob went straight for the ticket office to demand refunds, and when they were refused, a full-scale riot broke out. The angry crowd tore up the track, razed the grandstand, ripped down fences, and destroyed the nearby ticket office.
Event organizers summoned the mob police to subdue the crowd, and “many heads were cracked.” Police officers used clubs, and “revolvers were flourished.” Many people were injured in the chaos, including three police officers who were struck by bricks. After a couple of hours, organizers announced that Dottie would race against Tillie Anderson on July 8, and the remaining crowd could attend for free. The fighting soon subsided, and event employees handed out tickets for the upcoming race. The group soon dispersed.
Dottie was married on April 27, 1899, in Minneapolis to Albert Lester Spencer. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she continued competing on the racing tour after her marriage. She also publicly maintained her identity and remained “Dottie Farnsworth” in most newspaper articles in which she was mentioned.
In 1902 Dottie was a touring cyclist with the Walter L. Main circus. On June 6, she went over the side of the track during a “cycle razzle” exhibition in Salamanca, NY. While at the hospital, doctors determined that she was suffering from peritonitis. She died that night from “blood poisoning.” After her death, the League of American Wheelmen banned women from competing in all six-day races, a ban that was enforced until 1958. Men’s six-day races continued.
She is buried next to her husband at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Guttmann, Allen. Women’s Sports: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
“Leona Marie ‘Dottie’ Farnsworth,” Find A Grave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=77699245.
Macy, Sue. Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way). Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2011.
“Mob Wanted Fun,” Saint Paul Globe, July 7, 1896, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059523/1896-07-07/ed-1/seq-3/.
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Taylor, Barbara. “Saddleback Valley Trails: Leona Marie “Dottie” Farnsworth — abt 1873–1902.” Rootsweb. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~casoccgs/news0513.pdf.