Yes, an arguable case can be made that it all started in Newton. According to Bruce Epperson’s Peddling Bicycles to America: The Rise of an Industry (local libraries), some important firsts having to do with bike manufacturing occurred here in Newton:
1. First “ordinary” bicycle–aka “penny farthing”–made on American soil: credit goes to an Englishman by the name of R. H. Hodgson, who had a small shop in Newton. He made a “small number” of bicycles in 1878. Another Newtonite, a man named A. M. Gooch, may have been even earlier, but his operation was even smaller, little more than a repair shop.
2. First (and biggest) American bicycle manufacturer: Newton resident Colonel Albert Pope began importing, and then quickly thereafter manufacturing bicycles under the brand name Columbia in 1879. Pope Manufacturing would have to be called the first American company to manufacture bicycles on a large scale; it also went on to become the largest and most successful bike manufacturer in America for at least two decades, and led the “bicycling boom” of the 1890′s. Though production took place at a factory in Hartford, CT, Pope himself was a Newtonite and remained in and around Boston. He was a founding member of the first bicycle club in America, The Boston Bicycle Club, and he founded the Massachusetts Bicycling Club, which became something of a marketing organization for Columbia bicycles.
As he was putting his manufacturing deals together in 1878, Pope occasionally raced through the streets of Newton on a horse, trying–and failing–to beat his friend Alfred Chandler on an imported English bicycle. David Herlihy, in his illustration-packed and remarkable book, Bicycle: The History (local libraries), describes Pope’s first encounter with Chandler on a bicycle in Newton as a key moment in Pope’s decision to embark on manufacturing bicycles. It’s a charming story, though it may be apocryphal: it seems from Epperson’s meticulously researched book that Chandler didn’t acquire his “wheel” until after Pope had already begun inquiries at factories in Hartford. Still, it would make for great cinema, wouldn’t it? A horse and a bicycle charging up Heartbreak Hill on a summer Sunday, past the astonished looks of families strolling in their Sunday best.
Pope went on to be an influential member of the League of American Wheelmen (precursor to the League of American Bicyclists) and a major figure in the Good Roads movement at the turn of the century, which resulted in thousands miles of roads being paved for use by bicyclists.
Being first and foremost a manufacturer, he also later manufactured electric automobiles under the same brand name–Columbia–as his bicycles. One even carried President Roosevelt in the first Presidential motorcade.
If anyone has any tips or leads about more information about Pope and early bicycles in Newton, drop me a line in the comments. When I have time, I intend to poke around in the archives at Jackson Homestead. Who knows? Maybe I’ll turn up a photo of Pope himself on an ordinary, racing down Comm. Ave.