Oldest Mackinac Island Bicycle Business Dissolved After 70 Years
Mackinac Island's oldest bicycle rental company is closing after 70 years of operation. Island Bicycle Rental owners Tom Pfeiffelmann and Gwen Baker are retiring and are finalizing the transfer of their remaining bicycle licenses to other Island businesses.
Once the owner of 300 rental bicycle licenses, the company sold 100 of them to Arnold Transit Company and, last fall, another 100 to Ira Green's Mackinac Island Bikes. The city council approved the transfer of another 94 licenses to Mackinac Island Bikes March 11, and the company's remaining six licenses are expected to be transferred to Mackinac Wheels, owned by Jim Fisher.
Island Bicycle Rental most recently was operated across the street from McNally Cottage. The business was started in 1939 as Island Bicycle Livery. Mr. Pfeiffelmann's father, Herbert Pfeiffelman, also operated an after-hours speedboat transportation operation that began in 1926. He sold the speedboat business in 1948 to Bill Shepler to concentrate on the growing bicycle livery business.
The business was first operated at the head of Union Terminal Piers, next to the Doud Mercantile building, which caught fire and burned in January 1943.
"It's a funny story how he got started in the bicycle rental business," said Tom Pfeiffelmann, who has adopted the old spelling of the family name, using two n's instead of one. "There was a young, 18-year-old kid named Bob Stiff who told a white lie to a dray company to get a job driving horses. Well, he was fired the first day when his team of horses took off in front of the Lennox after they were spooked by the noon siren," he said, referring to the Lennox Hotel, which houses the offices and employee housing for Mackinac Island Carriage Tours on Market Street. "My dad met him on his way to the boat as he was heading back home to Toledo. He was immediately impressed by him and offered him a job in soliciting his speedboat business."
The young promoter worked out well, when he stayed on the dock, Mr. Pfeiffelmann recalls.
"Trouble was, when Dad took people out on the speedboat, Bob would go up to Truscott's bar, where Ryba's Fudge shop is now on Main Street," said Mr. Pfeiffelmann, "so Dad thought of the idea of renting bicycles at the dock to keep him there. That way, he wouldn't know when the bicycles would come back in, so he'd have to stay put."
Mr. Pfeiffelmann said he met with Mr. Stiff years later in New York City, where he was in the business of buying and selling oil tankers all over the world.
Herbert Pfeiffelman later expanded, buying Jerry Pelton's bicycle business that operated at the head of the coal dock in 1941. Mr. Pelton operated a radio shop in the front, which became Morrow Nut Shop, that was operated by Earl Flanagan, where Freshwater Foods is now.
Herb then established two other rental outlets, one near the old Straits Transit dock and one at the west entrance to Grand Hotel, where he also repaired the wicker bicycle chairs operated by the Edgecombe family from the early 1920s through the 1970s.
At that time, Mr. Pfeiffelman's operation included renting, selling, and repairing bicycles, mainly Schwinns.
Herb Pfeiffelman retired in 1972, handing over the business to Tom, who, in 1975, partnered with Gwen Baker, his wife at the time, and they moved the operation across the street from McNally Cottage. Tom Pfeiffelmann's sister, Nancy May, also was part of the operation, in charge of hiring and dayto day operations. She managed the rental booth for more than 45 years.
Over the years, the price of renting bicycles has steadily increased, although, said Mr. Pfeiffelmann, prices were more steady in the early days.
"We bought Schwinns for $39 per bike, and that price stayed for eight years," he said. "You don't see that nowadays. Prices change all the time now."
In 1945, renting a singleseater cost 25¢ per hour, and that price held until 1955, when Tom was approached by his father about the idea of raising prices.
"Dad asked me if we should raise the price to 50¢," remembers Mr. Pfeiffelmann. "Here I was, just a kid, and he's asking me. I told him we'd never rent another bike. He said 'let's try it, and if people don't like it, we'll change it back.'"
"Well," he continued, "no one batted an eye, and so we kept it at 50¢."
Last year, single-seat bicycles were rented for $4 per hour and tandem bikes for $6 per hour.
By the early 1990s, Mrs. Baker and Mr. Pfeiffelmann downsized the company to operate just as a bicycle rental business.
Under Nancy May's supervison, Island Bicycle Rental catered to many school groups and enjoyed a large following of returning customers, said Mrs. Baker.
"Nancy was very, very active with management," she said. "She was very instrumental with bookings, getting school groups in, and just being great to the customers. She was very knowledgeable about the Island and the company, since she had been working there since she was about 12 years old."
Last fall when Ira Green purchased the property they used to rent bicycles, Mr. Pfeiffelmann and Mrs. Baker saw an opportunity to retire. Faced with the possibility of moving the rental operation one more time, they decided instead to sell their licenses and close the business.
"Gwen and I, at that time, just decided that we've done this long enough and it was a good time to retire," said Mr. Pfeiffelmann.
"What I loved most about the business was the many different people I met," said Mrs. Baker. "It was such a cultural experience because we had people from all parts of the world visit us. We had many returning customers."
With the bicycle rental business now off their minds, Mr. Pfeiffelmann will put his full focus on his new position as CEO of Star Line ferry company, as he was promoted to the post from general manager earlier this winter. Mrs. Baker is looking forward to starting up a business in which she will be available for hire to entertain children with storytelling.