In the cemetery of the small Kentucky town of Owingsville there is a monument to a now forgotten man and to the golden age of bicycling in America. Mounted on an impressive gray stone block is a bronze bicycle wheel enclosing three wings and the initials L A W; it is the emblem of the League of American Wheelmen, now the League of American Bicyclists, the nation’s oldest bicycling organization, founded in 1880. On the stone below is the inscription “erected in memory of A. D. Ruff by Kentucky Division League of American Wheelmen” and the dates 1827 and 1896. Today this memorial is known only to the townsfolk and to a few dedicated cyclists who ride to lunch in Owingsville and visit the site.
But who was A. D. Ruff and why did the wheelmen of his day so honor him? The records, unfortunately, are scanty, but they provide hints of a colorful character and a devoted cyclist. Ruff’s parents were English and their son Alexander (none of the records give his middle name) was born on August 20, 1827, aboard the ship taking his parents from England to Canada, where the family first settled. But after a few years they moved into New York state. Here Ruff grew up and learned the trade of a shoemaker from his father. Evidently life as a shoemaker was not appealing to young Ruff, for he soon left home and wandered about the country, spending some time with a circus. The young man must have been clever with his hands and like other Americans fascinated with things mechanical. Somewhere during his wanderings he learned the jeweler’s trade and followed it for the rest of his life. Like many skilled mechanics, he was also an inventor and secured at least two patents. Nothing seems known of his middle years, but probably he was caught up in the Civil War. Perhaps it was after the war that he made his way to Kentucky. During the 1860s he had a small shop in Millersburg, and then in 1872 he set himself up in Owingsville, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming a respected citizen of the town. Here, after a short illness, he died of pneumonia on January 11, 1896. A life-long bachelor, he left his tools and an estate valued at some $35,000 to friends, together with a bequest of $1,000 to the Kentucky Division of the League of American Wheelmen.
Regrettably the records have little to say of Ruff the cyclist. With his interest in mechanics it is easy to imagine that he was an early devotee of the sport, that he avidly read about the latest technical advances in the Scientific American and tinkered with bicycles in his shop. Perhaps he would have been among the first Kentucky members of the new League of American Wheelmen. Certainly he must have valued his association with the League, whose members called him “Pap,” to have remembered the organization so generously in his will. He did turn his mechanical ingenuity to cycling, for in 1895 he secured a U.S. patent for a cyclometer. A newspaper note reported that on April 15, 1893, he left with a group of wheelmen from Louisville on a trip to the west, supposedly to Yellowstone National Park. The same note added that “there are few who can cover more ground in a day than he.” When he died, the Louisville Courier-Journal’s obituary described Ruff as “one of the pioneer cyclists in the country” and “the oldest member” of the LAW.
After his death, the Kentucky Division of the LAW, having no particular use for the bequest, decided to erect a memorial to A. D. Ruff in Louisville. A fountain and bench, designed by Enid Yandell, a well-known sculptor born in Louisville, was erected in Wayside Park on Southern Parkway near Churchill Downs. Its inscription says it was erected by the Kentucky Division of the League of American Wheelmen in memory of A. D. Ruff in 1897. It has recently been restored. And there is the monument in the Owingsville cemetery with its winged wheel. Now it can remind bicyclists of today of Pap Ruff wheeling his ordinary down the pike to Mt. Sterling or to Flemingsburg or setting out on a new safety across the plains to Yellowstone. It is a good memory to have.
The Wheelmen's Bench from the Louisville Courier-Journal, 13 February 1898.