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Leona "Dottie" Farnsworth (c. 1873 - 1902)

Between 1895 - 1902, cyclist Leona Marie “Dottie” Farnsworth competed in national women's six-day bicycle races. Her tenacity and will-to-win made her both a fierce competitor and local favorite.

Late nineteenth century Minnesotans were strong supporters of professional bicycle racing, and the state was a key race destination. Race fans filled saucer-shaped racetracks at Twin Cities venues like Aurora Park, Athletic Park, and Washington Park and yelled themselves hoarse as they cheered on their favorite cyclists every time a six-day race came to the area. Several of the tour's top female competitors, including Minneapolitans Farnsworth and Mate Christopher, Saint Paul's Lillie Harp, and Duluth's Nellie Bartlett, were among the many racers that called Minnesota home.

Women's six-day races took place on wooden oval tracks throughout the country from 1888 - 1902. Female contestants competed over six consecutive days for a predetermined time of two two twelve hours each day. Prize money was distributed to each of the competitors, with the majority winnings given to the champion of the race at the end of six days. Although incredibly dangerous, these races allowed female competitors to travel the country, dress as they pleased, and gain a previously unheard of degree of financial independence. Bicycling, once a male-dominated recreation now had universal appeal.

Farnsworth was unquestionably one of the sport's stars, both locally and on the national circuit. The Minneapolis resident was born in June 1873 to Austin Farnsworth and Sarah Bartholemew. She graduated from St. Paul's St. Joseph Academy in July 1895, taking up bicycling that summer, and competed in her first professional six-day race during Christmas week of that year. When she triumphantly crossed the finish line after the sixth day of competing she had ridden the equivalent of three-hundred-and-nineteen miles. Her pace shattered the previous world record for eighteen hours of racing. Farnsworth's family was initially opposed to her racing professionally, but they eventually gave in to her desire to compete.

Confident to the point of being brash, Farnsworth became one of Minnesota's earliest sports celebrities. Soon after her first professional race ended, she boasted that she could beat any female racer. Farnsworth also proposed pre-event side-bets with her fellow athletes that matched race winnings. Her boldness may have rubbed some the wrong way, but few denied her competitive spirit. In a July 1896 race at Athletic Park, she finished a close second to Chicago's Tillie Anderson. Farnsworth pushed herself so hard to win that she fainted from exhaustion immediately after clearing the finish line and had to be carried from the track.

The adoration bestowed on her by hometown supporters could become fanatical. Farnsworth raced in a six-day competition at the Normanna cycle track in Minneapolis during the first weekend of July 1896. On July 6, the last day of racing, she withdrew due to illness. Farnsworth announced her intent to forfeit to race organizers only fifteen minutes before the start of the 8:45 pm event. Anticipating another exciting, down-to-the-wire competition between her and Tillie Anderson, promoters had doubled the final event's admission price over previous days rates. The crowd of more than two-thousand race fans was beside themselves when they learned that Farnsworth wouldn’t be competing.

Calls to cancel the event were ignored, causing those in attendance to charge onto the race track. A mob stormed the ticket office to demand refunds, and when they were denied their money, a massive riot erupted. Angry attendees tore up the arena, razed the grandstand, ripped down fences, and destroyed the nearby ticket office. Mob police were summoned to subdue the crowd. Many people, including three police officers, were injured in the chaos. After a couple of hours, organizers announced that Farnsworth and Anderson would race on July 8. The fighting subsided, and tickets were handed out to the remaining crowd. The group soon dispersed.

On April 27, 1899, Farnsworth married Albert Lester Spencer in Minneapolis. Unlike many contemporaries, she continued to race after her marriage and often used her maiden name on promotional materials. In 1902 Farnsworth had begun touring with the Walter L. Main circus. While performing a non-racing "cycle razzle" exhibition near Dunkirk, NY on June 6, 1902, she went over the side of the track and was gravely injured. Farnsworth was taken by train to a Salamanca, NY hospital where doctors determined that she'd suffered peritonitis among her injuries. Dottie died that night.

After her death, the League of American Wheelmen prohibited women from competing in six-day races, a ban that was enforced until 1958. Men’s six-day races remained active. Farnsworth is buried near her husband in an unmarked grave at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Bibliography available here.

Creative Commons Attribution

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Matt Reicher

Matt has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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