Monday, November 29

Alexander D. "Pap" Ruff

I first learned about A.D. Ruff shortly before I left my home state of Kentucky for a job in Golden, Colorado. It was about the time I bought my first real road bike and had begun extensively exploring my backyard roads. I was 33 years old.

Kentucky doesn't have much of a cycling history. In fact, I would venture that obscure "Pap" Ruff is one of the two most notable Kentucky cyclists to have come down the pike. The other would have to be Joe Bowen of Bowen, Kentucky.

The written history of Alexander D. Ruff's life is painfully absent. There is little written and documented about his life and two wheeled exploits. But there is a history there, even if unknown to anyone still alive this day. How to uncover a history with no known record?

In July of 2010 I drove my family 1,200 miles east to our hometown to visit relatives and my wife and I took our bikes. In the back of my mind I had a scheme, to ride from Stanton, my hometown, to Owingsville to visit the grave of A.D. Ruff. I had ridden a portion of my planned route and it had been one of my favorite rides while still living in Kentucky. And I thought maybe if I could travel upon the backroads that "Pap" (as he was known) had pedaled and visit the town where he lived and died I might discern a little of the history that is unwritten about the intriguing figure.

Alas, obligations to family and the priorities of adult life left me unable to make the 60 mile round trip pilgrimage to visit the remarkable headstone in Owingsville Cemetery. I had seen a photo of the monument, but just seeing the stone was not my goal. I wanted to experience something that Ruff may have experienced.

Over Thanksgiving break of the same year I had a glimmer of hope that I'd make the ride, or an abbreviated ride starting closer to Owingsville if nothing else, but again, the desire to spend time with family and friends compounded with declining weather prohibited me from making the ride.

Instead I went out for a quick photo shoot on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving and ended up driving over to Owingsville to the cemetery.

When I pulled through the wrought iron gates I immediately saw the marker and parked my car. A few steps took me right up to the monument erected by the Kentucky Division of the League of American Wheelmen (now Bicyclists).

I tried to compose a thoughtful shot of the stone and bronze bike wheel, but it is what it is. There is little information on the stone itself. The inscription reads:

1827 1896



The bronze bicycle wheel which contains three wings and the initials LAW is the perfect balance of beautiful, yet simplistic. Its worth going to Owingsville to see the monument just for the wheel if you're a cyclist. If nothing else it is an elegant piece of public bike-related art.


Ruff lived in a world where men were diligently striving to refine and produce motor vehicles. Many bicycle makers and mechanics were delving into motor powered transportation while Ruff was working as a jeweler in Owingsville. The year Ruff died the famed Wright Brothers began manufacturing their own brand of bicycle in Dayton, Ohio. The profits from their bikes would fund their experiments in powered flight.

Three years before passing from this life "Pap", as he was known to his Wheelmen compatriots, rode cross country to see the newly designated Yellowstone National Park. In 1893 that must have been quite an adventure.

Imagine a countryside where there were no paved roads. There was no Rand McNally road atlases. Human settlement would have been more sparse and bike shops even more so.

The so-called "Golden Age of Bicycles" came into public consciousness in the 1890s, after the introduction of the "safety bike" and its availability to the masses in the late 1880s. You could imagine that a single, wealthy jeweler like Ruff may have thought the new machine a curious novelty to invest in. Cycling was suddenly accessible to all, with a replacement for the intimidating penny-farthing bicycles of previous decades. The safety bike would have made A.D. Ruff's Yellowstone adventure possible.

Tooling around Owingsville on a stylish safety Ruff would most likely have rested in the shade of the grandiose Bath County courthouse or leaned his trusty steel steed up against the newly built Owingsville Banking Company while he went inside to do business.

I wonder if Ruff was a self styled "cyclist" or if the bike was merely his mode of transportation in his day-to-day comings and goings. Did he love the freedom the bike offered, allowing him to roam about the countryside, maybe pedaling down to Preston or Olympia Springs to catch a train into Mount Sterling or Lexington, or was the bike strictly utilitarian?

Most Americans today do not refer to themselves as "motorists" though the title certainly applies. Did Ruff regard his bike with the same affection as your neighborhood bike hugger? Or did he see it merely as a means to an end, a way to get where he was going that did not need to be fed or boarded?

I believe Ruff was a cyclist. He left a large chunk of money to the then fledgling Kentucky Division of the League of American Wheelmen and he has been commemorated for his support. I suppose its also possible that being single, without a family to speak of that he randomly chose the LAW as a beneficiary of his estate, but its doubtful. Pap Ruff died of pneumonia after a three day illness in January of 1896. It would seem that if he had made any provisions for his untimely demise that he consciously included a chunk of money for the Wheelmen.

He also designed a cyclometer. Its hard to imagine such a gadget prior to the turn of the 19th century, but Ruff, being good with his hands and inventive, patented the device in 1895.

I like to imagine that he roamed about the Kentucky countryside, much as I have myself. He must have been comfortable riding long distances, as it was said of Ruff that “there are few who can cover more ground in a day than he.” In his obituary in the Louisville Courier-Journal he was regarded as one of the pioneer cyclists of that century. That's quite a distinction to lay at the feet of a casual participant in cycling, especially during the Golden Age of Cycling.

The claim that he was a pioneer during such a pivotal time in cycling begs the question: why don't we know more about A.D. Ruff than we do?

I speculate that despite his activism, his invention and his pioneering of cross country cycling that Pap Ruff was just off the national radar and out of the limelight so to speak. Owingsville is a backwater. Even in Ruff's day the C&O rail line between Lexington and Ashland bypassed the hilltop town a few miles to the south through Preston. Who would have known about the exploits of a cyclist in his sixties except his friends and fellow wheelmen?

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