A man, a bet and a wheelbarrow

Published 10:18 am Thursday, May 12, 2016

Photo courtesy of the Dowagiac Area History Museum

Photo courtesy of the Dowagiac Area History Museum

Publicity stunts have been around since at least the days of P.T. Barnum’s carnivals and sideshows — interesting marketing campaigns that try to gain the public’s attention through unique events.

Dowagiac’s connection to a publicity stunt occurred in 1902 with a man and a wheelbarrow.

Under the headline “On Foot To Coast” in the Dowagiac Daily News on Jan. 9, 1902, it was reported that “Harry Leo, under the name of Harry Adonis, will leave Dowagiac about Jan. 18 to travel afoot and push a wheelbarrow…to San Francisco on a wager from a couple of Worcester, Massachusetts, men.”

According to a later article, he was a student of physical culture and the wager came about when he announced to the gentlemen that “a man could walk across the continent without begging, borrowing or stealing and make $500 besides.”

Not only did “Adonis” have to push a wheelbarrow to San Francisco and earn $500, but he also had to marry a woman who proposed to him. Though Harry “Adonis” claimed to have never tasted intoxicating liquor, I can’t help but think that he encountered the Worcester men in a Dowagiac saloon — how else can we account for such an outrageous stunt?

Lee & Porter Axle Company, with offices in Dowagiac and a factory in Buchanan, became his first sponsor by donating a specially made wheelbarrow (cost $50) and adding advertising for the firm to the side for $100. Fred E. Lee of the Round Oak Stove Company and Henry Porter, both of Dowagiac, founded the company in 1894. They exhibited the wheelbarrow in Schmitt Brothers Hardware on Front Street in advance of the long walk.

Dowagiac Manufacturing Company soon became the second sponsor. The Daily News article says that Adonis planned on selling photos he was “having struck…and selling for ten cents each enroute.” The museum owns one of the cabinet card photographs and it has “Adonis” posing next to his wheelbarrow, which has been painted with advertising for Dowagiac Manufacturing Company and a company poster hangs behind them.

To prepare for his trek, the 27-year-old Harry Adonis took four hour walks about the area in his spare time. He started his journey on Jan. 25—the wheelbarrow weighed 200 pounds once loaded with provisions and food. Accounts are sparse online, but I was able to find a few articles in local papers as he made his way toward San Francisco.

The July 1902 World’s Fair Bulletin out of St. Louis reported that Adonis had been making some money selling autographed photos and he had declined 425 marriage proposals. The Lee & Porter and Dowagiac Manufacturing Company advertisements had been replaced by blue paint and gold lettering advertising the C.F. Blanke Tea and Coffee Company of St. Louis.

The Greeley Tribune (Colorado) provides a fine account of Adonis’ trip in its Sept. 4 issue. He had turned down 446 proposals before finding the love of his life, Jewel Smith, of Kansas City, “and on June 22 [they] were made man and wife and the next day they started on a bridal trip that for uniqueness will go rolling down the corridors of time.”

He had lost 14 pounds by this time and the wheelbarrow featured ads for Faust’s blended coffee. At each town in which he stopped he sought out notable residents, such as the mayor or city clerk, to attest that he reached the town.

“Mr. and Mrs. Harry Adonis, on foot — Dowagiac, Michigan to San Francisco pushing a wheelbarrow” is how Harry Leo signed the guest register at the Hotel Winchester in San Francisco on Dec. 20, 1902. He made the trip in time — he had to reach the coast by Dec. 24 — but he did not win the wager because he failed to earn the required $500. He said, “the trip was a severe strain upon himself and his wife and he is glad it is over.”

Little is known of Harry Leo after this — a descendent doing genealogy research online claimed that he said his wife and two daughters died in the San Francisco earthquake in 1907 and he remarried in upstate New York. We do know that he added a colorful chapter to Dowagiac’s history.


Steve Arseneau is the director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum. He resides in Niles with his wife, Christina, and children, Theodore and Eleanor.