Ed Grisamore

Capitol Cycle has been along for the ride for a century

Don Banks, left, started working at Capitol Cycle when he was 12 years old in 1945. His son, Donny, who just turned 60, was working on bikes at Capitol when he was 14. On Sept. 15, Capitol Cycle will hold its 100th anniversary celebration.
Don Banks, left, started working at Capitol Cycle when he was 12 years old in 1945. His son, Donny, who just turned 60, was working on bikes at Capitol when he was 14. On Sept. 15, Capitol Cycle will hold its 100th anniversary celebration. edgrisamore@gmail.com

In 1945, Jack Banks bought a bicycle shop on Second Street.

It might not have been a big deal, except he was better known for flying through the air than racing down the streets.

As a young man, he had been manager at Miller Field, the municipal airport in Macon that is now home to Bowden Golf Course. He helped look after a plane owned by boxing legend W.L. “Young’’ Stribling.

Jack wore employee badge No. 3 for Delta Airlines, meaning he was one of the first and highest-ranking hires by founder Collett E. Woolman. He was a commercial pilot and flew transports during World War II.

He also was a local flight instructor and part of the aviation training program at Mercer University. He taught Hazel Raines how to fly. She was the first woman in Georgia to earn her pilot’s license and was known as the state’s “First Lady of Flight.’’

One wonders why he would buy a small business with a limited inventory and put his wife and son in charge of running it. He took over the company from his friend and fellow pilot, Loyd Newbern, who was in declining health and struggling to maintain his lease.

Newbern opened the bike shop in 1918 and named it Capitol Cycle. Macon once served as capital of Georgia during the Civil War (Nov. 18, 1864 to March 11, 1865). And City Hall, which was a block up the hill on Poplar Street, served as the Capitol building.

Don Banks remembers when his family opened the doors as the new owners of Capitol Cycle, selling Iver Johnson and Schwinn bikes. He was 12 years old. He worked in the shop with his mother, Betha. They made one sale that first day, earning $1.38 for a pair of bike pedals.

Now 85, Don can look back with pride at a company that has been a mainstay in his life over eight different decades. His son, Donny, is now the co-owner with Dan Martin, who came on board in 2003 and handles the business end. It’s a dream team.

Capitol no longer sells bicycles. It carries an impressive line of motorcycles, scooters, all-terrain vehicles, jet skis and power equipment.

On a recent Friday and Saturday, 31 vehicles rolled out the door with a sales receipt. Capitol has set sales records three of the past four months and sold more than 1,800 vehicles this year.

There’s plenty of history in the block of Mercer University Drive where Macon’s two largest motorcycle dealerships — Capitol Cycle and Harley-Davidson of Macon — are competitors, neighbors and legacies.

At age 97, Grover Sassaman is the oldest active Harley-Davidson dealer in the U.S.

And Capitol Cycle is one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Macon.

On Sept. 15, Capitol will hold its 100th anniversary celebration in what is being billed as a “Twisted Throttle Birthday Bash.’’ There will be music, food, rides, prizes and discounts from noon to 7 p.m. at 4950 Mercer University Drive.

Jack Banks died in 1999, but he lived to see the business grow and prosper. He watched it survive lean years when gas prices were up and expendable income was down. Things were so bad nine years ago that more than three dozen motorcycle dealerships in Georgia closed their doors.

Jack eventually left his career with Delta, which had its beginnings in Macon in 1924 when it was Huff-Daland Crop Dusting Co. He worked in the typesetting department at The Macon Telegraph and News and was publisher Peyton Anderson’s personal pilot.

Betha, who died in 2003, was the heart and soul of the business. Don said she never drew higher than a $40 weekly paycheck in the more than 50 years she worked there.

Capitol spent 12 years bouncing around from Second Street to Poplar to Broadway and back to Poplar.

After Don began a two-year stint in the Army in 1956, his mother told him his dad was thinking about relocating to the old ChiChester’s Pharmacy building on Washington Avenue.

“You’re moving out of town,’’ Don told her. (Yes, it’s hard now to think of College Hill as being in the suburbs.)

They really moved “out of town” when they followed Harley-Davidson out to Mercer University Drive in 1997.

Capitol has survived by diversifying and evolving. Shortly after the Banks family bought the business, they began selling Whizzer motorbikes and added Cushman motor scooters the following year.

Honda was the first motorcycle line on the showroom floor and eventually was joined by Triumph, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Polaris, Indian and KTM. For a time, Capitol sold Evinrude outboard motors and Arista-Craft, Wellcraft and Larson boats. (The company eventually stopped selling boats and switched to personal watercraft, such as jet skis.)

One of Capitol’s legendary employees was Calvin Taylor, who was hired in the bicycle shop in 1967 and became known all over Middle Georgia as “The Bike Doctor.’’

Don’s son, Donny, began working after school as a teenager, just like his father did. He began racing motorcycles in 1979 and continues to race competitively in national and world championships. He turned 60 last month.

Donny said there is the usual curiosity with the name of the business. “Capital” is a city where a seat of government is located. “Capitol” is a state or federal building.

“And I have to tell them it’s ‘Capitol’ with an ‘o’ and ‘Donny’ with a ‘y’ ’’ he said, laughing.

It’s satisfying to reflect on the good times — like the present, when things are rolling. You appreciate success more when you remember the struggles. Don said many times he would write payroll checks on Friday, then call the bank and ask them to cover it, hoping Capitol would have a good day in sales on Saturday.

“It wasn’t always rosy,’’ he said. “But it always evened out.’’

He said loyal patrons have kept Capitol around for 100 years and hopefully a hundred more.

“We have customers who come in here and tell us they bought a bicycle from us in 1960,’’ Don said.

Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.