You wouldn’t necessarily guess that bicycles and automobiles had much of a connection other than as a means of transportation but many early bike manufacturers also became pioneer automobile builders. In fact, many companies that still produce cars today have a history with bicycle manufacturing according to Carlton Reid, author of Roads Were Not Built for Cars. The “Good Roads Movement”, organized by the League of American Wheelman was the first to start calling for better roads, and their pamphlet The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer (1891) was aimed towards farmers and how better roads would help move produce. The movement grew as automobiles became more prevalent but was started by cyclists. This connection between bicycles and cars actually has a connection here in Cañon City through Spencer Howard St. John, a machinist and inventor who once lived here.
Spencer Howard St. John was born in Michigan on December 27, 1848. After his marriage to Helen Strong, the family moved to Chicago where they had three sons. Their oldest son, Burt, was sick with tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known at the time. The family arrived in Cañon City in 1890 in the hopes the climate would improve Burt’s health. Unfortunately he passed away just a year later but the family chose to stay in Cañon City. St. John operated a machine and bicycle shop from 1895 to 1903, first at 206 Main Street and later at 620 Main Street under the name of S.H. St. John & Son. Within this shop he not only repaired bikes but also built and designed specialty bikes. According to his obituary, St. John also built the first automobile made in Colorado within his shop. There was an article regarding the machine in the November 28, 1902 edition of the Cañon City Clipper. A photograph was taken of the automobile “at the steepest point of the cemetery hill” at the request of St. John to show its “great power for climbing hills”. Regardless of whether it was the first automobile built in the state or not, it was certainly an impressive feat!
In 1903, St. John and his son Vernon bought George Littleton’s bike manufacturing establishment in Denver and moved away from Cañon City. St. John eventually moved to California where his wife passed in 1914. He remarried in 1916 and his second wife, Mrs. Minnie Kennedy passed in 1931. He remarried one last time to Mrs. Bessie McKilliop, long-time friend of his second wife, at the age of 90 in February 1938, but it was a short marriage as she died just a few weeks after the marriage. St. John passed away in December 1938, the day after his 91st birthday and was buried in Lakeside Cemetery next to his first wife.
St. John patented a total of eleven inventions, according to the December 29, 1938 Cañon City Daily Record paper, “ranging from the very first machine to turn out barbed wire to a successful oil or sand screen for deep oil wells in California.” Patents filed while a resident of Cañon City include an improvement in pulleys and improvements in explosive engines (internal combustible engines). Even up until his 90th year, St. John continued to operate a small machine shop which only goes to show how driven he really was!
Happy Birthday S.H. St. John!
The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.