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Barney Oldfield

Obsessed With Speed

Berna Eli Oldfield was born in a farmhouse outside Wauseon, Ohio, in 1878. His father, Henry Clay Old-field, and his mother, Sarah Oldfield, worked the farm and struggled to provide for Oldfield and his older sister, Bertha. The severe winter of 1889 was too much for them however, and they decided to move the family to Toledo, Ohio, where Henry could find work. He took a job at a local mental hospital, and Oldfield, then eleven, attended school in Toledo.

At the time, the bicycle was a new invention, and cycling became a national craze. The young Oldfield was fascinated by the machines, and by the time he was fourteen he was obsessed with getting one for himself. During his summer vacation, he got a job as a water boy for a railroad construction crew, earning a dollar a day, hoping he could save some of it for a bicycle. On Sunday, his day off, he spent the time at the local firehouse, hoping for a fire: as firehouse mascot, he was allowed to ride the horse-drawn fire wagon as it sped through the streets of Toledo. Thus, although he didn't yet own a cycle, he could fuel his love of speed.

According to William Nolan in the Toledo Blade, Oldfield told his parents, "Some day I'll own the fastest cycle in the whole wide world. People will come from a thousand miles away just to watch me ride it!"

By 1893, however, times were still hard, and Oldfield had to quit school and take a job with his father at the mental hospital, working as a kitchen helper. He disliked this job, and soon found a new one as a bellhop at the Boody House hotel in Toledo. Oldfield's outgoing and optimistic manner soon earned him plenty of tips. He also earned the nickname that he would use for the rest of his life, Barney, when the bell captain told him Berna was a "sissy" name and Barney was better. Oldfield's family began calling him Barney, and when he became an elevator operator at the Monticello Hotel in Toledo, his paychecks were made out to Barney Oldfield.

Oldfield was finally able to buy a bicycle, but it was heavy. The lightweight cycles used by racers were still too expensive for him. However, he soon discovered that a tenant of the Monticello Hotel had a lightweight cycle, and stored it in the hotel basement. Each night, Oldfield "borrowed" the cycle from its unsuspecting owner, and sped through the dark streets of Toledo. At the age of sixteen, in 1894, he entered his first cycle race. As an unknown beginner in a field of well-known riders, he didn't receive much attention. but as the race progressed, he moved up steadily from the back of the pack to second place. His prize was a $25 diamond ring, which he pawned to finance his next race.

That race was a failure, but it and others to follow were learning experiences for Oldfield, who learned about training, pacing, and tactics, as well as the physical danger of racing: he broke his collarbone twice, and his parents, who had bought a small ice cream parlor in Toledo, begged him to quit racing and join them in the business. Oldfield told them that he understood that they wanted to be proud of him, but that he would earn their praise his own way: through racing. Officials from the Dauntless bicycle factory had asked him to ride for them in the Ohio state championship, and he had agreed.

Although Oldfield came in second in that race, it was a turning point in his life. As a result of his exposure, he was hired as a parts sales representative for the Stearns Bicycle Company, and he met his future wife, Beatrice Lovetta Oatis.


1878 Born January 29, near Wauseon, Ohio
1889 Family moves to Toledo, Ohio
1894 Enters his first bicycle race, comes in second
1984 Hired by Stearns Bicycle Company as a parts salesperson
1896 Marries Beatrice Lovetta Oatis
1896 Forms Racycle Racing Team with Fred Titus
1902 Races gasoline-powered bicycle; meets Henry Ford and buys his first car
1902 Wins Manufacturer's Challenge Cup
1903 Becomes first person in history to travel at 60 mph
1903-10 Wins numerous races, sets many speed records

Oldfield and bicycle racer Fred Titus formed the Racycle Racing Team, and toured throughout the South and Midwest, barely making a living by pawning their medals and trophies. In 1896, Oldfield and Oatis were married. They did not know each other well, and the marriage would not be a happy one. In the meantime, Oldfield continued to tour as a bicycle racer.

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Famous Sports StarsAuto RacingBarney Oldfield Biography - Obsessed With Speed, Chronology, Becomes An Automobile Racer, Oldfield's Legacy To The Sport - SELECTED WRITINGS BY OLDFIELD: