One day a couple of years ago, Steve Breitenfeldt walked out of the farmhouse that’s been in his family for as long as he can remember and made his way out to the shed. There, hanging on the wall as it had been for decades, was a rusted-over 1948 Schwinn bicycle that once meant more to Breitenfeldt than just about anything in the world.
A realization came to him — if not right there in the shed, then later, after he’d given the matter more thought.
“It’s the only thing I’ve got left from my childhood,” the 69-year-old Breitenfeldt said. “It really is. I’m not a clutter person. Everything else got tossed. It’s the only thing I have left.”
So he looked into fixing it up and found a guy in Omaha, just a couple of hours’ drive from his home in Giltner, Nebraska. He had no idea what it would take to restore the bike or if it was even possible. Turns out, it took about a year and a few thousand dollars.
Now for maybe the biggest surprise: Breitenfeldt’s beloved, fully restored Schwinn is getting museum treatment. The bike will be one of dozens on display at Kaneko, 1111 Jones St., for a three-month exhibition opening to the public Sept. 22.
That show, “Design In Motion,” celebrates the innovative and sometimes iconic designs in the world of transportation, particularly cars and bikes. Nostalgia plays a part; many visitors will be able to find a cruiser or BMX that takes them back in time.
For Breitenfeldt, it just happens to be the real thing.
There’s a photo he keeps of the day his father gave him the bike. Breitenfeldt figures he was about five at the time. Certain things about that day are hazy. The puppy staring out from a basket attached to the bike, for instance.
“I do not have any recollection of that dog in that basket,” he said. “Which is weird.”
He does remember someone telling his dad that it must have been expensive and his dad saying, “No, it was used.”
He remembers he didn’t know how to mount the bike until an old veterinarian who had come to care for a sick cow showed him what to do.
And then he remembers so many memories that the bike’s existence became indistinguishable from his own. He rode it everywhere. Back and forth from his friend’s house, over and over. In and out of town, about six miles from the family farm. He remembers the day he and his buddies packed lunches and explored the day away.
“Even as a kid, I remember being proud of my bike,” he said. “Maybe I thought my bike was better than everyone else’s.”
Then he got a little older. Cars became more interesting. His prized Schwinn found its new place in the shed, perched up high, at once visible and invisible.
“Never thought about it,” Breitenfeldt said.
The oldest of four kids, he moved away from home and then, after his parents died, came back. He farmed the land, its livestock now replaced by corn and beans. He married and divorced, saw five children of his own head out into the world.
A couple of years ago, Breitenfeldt caught a reality TV episode in which the hosts rescued an old, rusted bicycle and brought it back to life.
Suddenly, he remembered again.
He went out to the shed and took down the Schwinn. He looked into restoring it — actually called up the Las Vegas company that fixed up the bike on TV — and eventually found his man a couple hours east along Interstate 80.
“Honestly, I thought, ‘Is this possible?’ ” said George Ferguson, owner of Ferguson’s Bike Shop near 26th and Leavenworth Streets.
The entire bike was covered in rust, which by itself wasn’t a disqualifier (“All rust isn’t created equal,” Ferguson said). The wheels didn’t turn anymore, so the bike either needed to be carried or dragged.
But after taking a longer, closer look, Ferguson saw potential. The steel frame was solid. The biggest challenge, aside from finding the right person to paint it, would be tracking down the original parts — referred to as “new old stock” — needed to return the bike to its younger self.
In addition to selling contemporary models, Ferguson has collected and restored vintage bikes for years. His introduction to the craft came while he was a graduate student in Chicago, where the owners of an esteemed bike shop let him hang around and ask questions. He even made his own documentary, “Cyclotherapy,” about the subculture of classic bike collectors.
He now spends a fair amount of his workday on old bikes. Every so often, someone contacts him with a special project — willing to invest a significant amount of money, which they’ll never recoup, for the return of an old friend.
For a lot of people, their first bike gets thrown out or sold in a garage sale or “handed down to cousin Jimmy,” Ferguson said. “But some people hang on to them.”
They keep them in the basement or toss them in the garage, where they collect dust, then moisture, then rust. They forget about them until one day, a memory jars loose.
“And they remember what it looked like when it was new,” Ferguson said. “That’s what they see when they look at that broke down, rusted bike.”
Last Christmas, Breitenfeldt walked into Ferguson’s Bike Shop. A year had passed since he left it in Ferguson’s care. The project, about 90 percent done, left him awestruck.
Memories from childhood came rushing back. “I had a wonderful childhood,” he said. “I had all I wanted and more than I needed.”
Later, Breitenfeldt learned about the design exhibition at Kaneko and how some of Ferguson’s bike projects would be shown there.
Would it be OK if they displayed his old Schwinn?
Now a familiar sense of pride returned — the pride of a kid with the best bike around.
But he’s also a little anxious to get it back, he said. After decades languishing in the shed, Breitenfeldt’s bike now commands a prominent place on a wall in his home. And, truth be told, the house feels a little empty without it.
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Not far into a tour of “Design In Motion,” an exhibition of cars, motorcycles, bikes and boats opening to the public next week, Kaneko Executive Director Mike Echternacht stopped at a pristine, light-blue 1967 Jaguar XK-E.
“It’s one of just a handful of cars that’s in the Museum of Modern Art,” Echternacht said.
That auto-meets-art-world designation typifies what Kaneko wants to celebrate with “Design In Motion.” The exhibition might resemble a classic car show in a lot of ways, but the emphasis is on the ideas and innovations that have moved transportation forward through the years.
“In general, the whole show is built around design and designers,” Echternacht said.
Visitors will discover their own favorite pieces. Bike enthusiasts will get a kick out of a second floor that more or less tells the story of American cycling over the past century. But for car geeks, a clear highlight will be a 1937 Talbot-Lago on loan from the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California.
“Maybe the most aerodynamic car in the show,” Echternacht said. “Designed in 1937.”