- Associated Press - Monday, March 24, 2014

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) - A lot of oddities have come and gone out of Tom Miller’s garage.

There’s been the world’s smallest unicycle, with a 14-millimeter wheel, and a very tall one, measuring 24 feet.

You can find a tennis shoe-wheeled unicycle there, along with one built with rotating knives.

There’s been the unicycle made entirely from plumbing pipe and fixtures, and one made as part of a wheelbarrow. He’s even built a 10-person bicycle inside the small, messy workshop in his backyard in Kokomo.

Building unicycles started out as just a fun hobby, but for the past 30 years, the 56-year-old has made a career out of it.

Now, at places all over the world, you can find more than 900 of the strange, uniquely beautiful unicycles built by Tom Miller.

His knack for building oddities started when he was a kid. When he was just a youngster, he was already building his own go karts, treehouses and rabbit traps. But after watching his cousin get a unicycle as a present, he stumbled across his true calling. He knew he had to have one too.

Miller was hooked.

“A long, long, long time ago, in between the Ice Age and 1970, I got a unicycle for Christmas,” Miller told the Kokomo Tribune (http://bit.ly/1kXx8Ck ). “I was intrigued with the possibility of a unique talent.”

He taught himself how to ride his new one-wheeler, and created different tricks to do on it. Miller loved the sensation of balancing on one wheel - loved it enough to build his own, using his sister’s old bike, plumbing pipe and the assistance of a welder.

“That’s what I liked about unicycles is that it gave me a solid focus to keep building and creating,” Miller said.

His interest in unicycles never faded. In fact, his focus just got stronger.

“You show an interest in something, you’ll start digging and teach yourself,” he said. “You’re inquisitive and ask questions because it means something to you when you hear the answer.”

Miller grew up in a military family, so they moved around a lot. He went to four different high schools before graduating from Maconaquah.

In school, he did well in drafting, which proved to be a valuable asset in understanding parts and pieces. He also learned a little bit of welding when he joined the Air Force.

All those skills allowed him to build unique bikes dreamed up from his imagination.

During his stint in the Air Force, Miller got a part-time job working at Schwinn Cyclery in Kokomo in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While working there, Miller’s love of unicycles became infectious. He got all of the employees involved in riding them.

Larry Barnhart, who still works at Schwinn today, accompanied Miller on all kinds of unicycle adventures back then, riding in parades or trekking from Judson Road to Galveston and back, all atop a unicycle. After working with him at the shop, Barnhart said he soon realized Miller didn’t just love unicycles, he also had an exceptional talent for building them.

“As far as a machinist goes, I consider him a darn near genius with what he can do,” Barnhart said. “He’s made more types of unicycles than pretty much anyone that I’ve ever heard of. The knowledge and engineering it takes to make these things is beyond me.”

In 1983, Schwinn stopped making unicycles, so by word of mouth, people found out about Miller’s mechanical expertise. He soon realized there was a demand for what he could do.

Miller set up shop in Kokomo, and his business took off. He sold more than 250 unicycles a year in those days, and had nearly 500 customers.

After a test ride by Miller, the unicycles he built would be shipped to customers around the world. Some were even featured on TV over the years. Daredevils would perform tricks and stunts on them during programs like “Cirque du Soleil,” ”The Tonight Show” and “The Late Show,” just to name a few.

For Miller, watching his unicycles on television was like watching his pride and joy.

“It’s bragging rights,” he said. “I’m sorry, but if your child was on television, you’d tell the world too.”

Anywhere Miller showed up with his unique bicycles, unicycles and tricycles, it didn’t take long for eager participants to try their hand at riding them.

“Wherever he goes and shows up he always draws a crowd,” Barnhart said. “Kids and adults are anxious to jump on them and ride them around. It’s the novelty of the thing. Everyone’s ridden a bicycle, but not one that you have to pedal backward or the handlebars pivot.”

On nice days in Kokomo, groups of kids could be seen at Miller’s improving their skills at riding the oddities he’d built. Generations of Kokomo kids remember Miller and his unicycles, even after they’ve grown up.

Miller is pretty hard to forget. His distinctive long, red hair and particularly long fingernails, are part of what makes him unique.

“It keeps all the normal people away,” he laughed. “Some people run and some people stick right here. But once you’ve seen me and been around me, the questions have all been answered and it’s just normal life.”

Miller first started growing out his fingernails 13 years ago. At first, he just wanted them an inch long.

But once he reached an inch, he decided to go further. He grew them a little bit longer and longer every year, and then he couldn’t stop.

Miller said it takes a lot of time to maintain them, and he spends about $100 a year on what he terms “claw maintenance.”

“Many years ago, when I was a kid, I saw the pictures of people with long nails. To me that was another personal challenge that they did,” Miller said. “In the back of my mind, I was intrigued by their efforts, although that wasn’t my goal. People ask am I going for the world record? No, because the world record is too far away and I still have to survive.”

He doesn’t let his fingernail length stop him from doing what he wants, though. In fact, Miller said he enjoys it when they get in the way when he’s trying to work and he can still get the job done.

Barnhart said the fingernails are just one aspect of Miller’s trademark eccentricity, but his unconventional lifestyle doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

“I would say it’s very common for someone with that level of genius,” he said. “Tom would definitely catch you off guard for someone who doesn’t know him, but he’s unbelievably nice and loyal without a fault.”

What was once a booming business for Miller has drastically tapered off these days. Instead of the hundreds of unicycles he used to build and sell every year, it’s dropped to only a handful. The unicycles he occasionally builds now are tall ones for Canadian daredevils.

“None of the Americans want to ride the tall ones anymore,” Miller laughed. “My standing joke is, up in Canada, they have free health care. Maybe when the Obama stuff kicks in, I’ll sell more 10-footers.”

He thinks the low numbers have a lot to do with competition from China and the Internet.

“Nowadays, with connection to the world wide web, once you get an idea, you can send it off to China and it can get mass produced,” he said. “. I’ve also heard rumors recently that somebody’s even written down on the Internet on how to build one of my 10-footers and 12-footers. They’ve put all the secrets on the Internet.”

Even though Miller said the Internet has hurt his business, he refuses to use it. It kills creativity, he said.

“Type in whatever you want and you don’t have to use any self-imagination,” he said.

Miller says he builds quality unicycles that have a second and third life, but ultimately, that hurts his business.

He recently had one of his 6-foot tall unicycles come back to him after 28 years of use with the Ringling Brothers Circus. After only making a minor modification, fixing a clasp, and stripping off the old paint, it was back on the road again with the circus.

“I found out that because I build the unicycles so well, they never die,” he said. “How long do you expect a Walmart or Kmart bicycle to last? Not 28 years.”

With the demand for unicycles plummeting, Miller said he’s made less than $5,000 building one-wheelers in the past few years. What he does make just goes back into equipment.

The shrinking business has gradually taken its toll, Miller said.

“I generally don’t have a car payment, my house is paid off, nor do I have credit cards, no cable TV, no Internet, no cellphones, no hot tubs, and it’s been over a year since I’ve gone to the last restaurant,” Miller said.

But even with the financial strain, Barnhart said he thinks Miller will keep building unicycles whether he turns a profit.

“This is who he is and I don’t think he’s ready for a life change,” Barnhart said. “I just think he’ll continue on.”

One thing Miller does spend a little money on is VCRs from Goodwill. He’s got about 30 of them, and uses them to scour TV programs for clips of unicycles.

So far he’s recorded 165 movies that have unicycles in them, as well as an hour-and-half videotape of nothing but TV commercials that feature unicycles.

“I’ve sought out all the corners of building unicycles and techniques,” Miller said. “The one undiscovered territory so far is preserving some of that history that’s out there. I’m probably the only one doing it because I’m known for doing oddities as much as possible.”

When Miller isn’t building one of his unicycles or fast-forwarding through more than 20 hours of video tape a day trying to spot one, he leads the Unicycle Club.

Miller started the club in the 1970s, and the membership ebbed and flowed over the years. Last year it was a group of 9-year-olds who went to Miller’s on weekends and learned to ride a one-wheeler.

The kids in the club have learned how to ride backward and rock in place on a unicycle. They’re even good enough now to ride to Wendy’s for ice cream or go to a park, where a new audience can see them.

According to Miller , half the fun of riding a unicycle is showing off your skills.

“It’s fun to actually watch them where they can barely stay on the entire trip to having no problem whatsoever,” Miller said. “As irritating as it is that they can’t do it for the longest time, finally, when they get it, they start bragging and showing off to everybody. But it’s the fact that it was so hard is what makes it so fun.”

Ten-year-old Kyle Fortier has been riding with Miller for more than a year now. He said the higher you go, the more fun it gets. Kyle must be having a lot of fun now, because he can ride a 7-foot unicycle.

“I feel like I’m flying and I have full control over where I’m going and how I’m doing it,” Kyle said. “I can go anywhere.”

Riding a unicycle is about more than just learning how to pedal the thing for Kyle, though. He said it’s a way to break away from the crowd and doing something special that nobody else can.

“It’s kind of a rare thing to ride a unicycle,” he said. “I like being different from everybody and doing things that other people can’t do.”

___

Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com

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