Harley’s 105th Anniversary Party

Celebrating more than a century of The Motor Company

Covering Harley-Davidson’s 105th Anniversary Party in Milwaukee for Motorcycle.com was a plum job, even for somebody who is not a “Harley Guy.” After all, it was the Mother of all Harley Rallies. A few hundred thousand people coming from all over the country (and world, for that matter) to celebrate all things Harley, was just too cool to pass up. Milwaukee, the home to Harley-Davidson since its birth in 1903, rolled out the red carpet for the influx of visitors and The Motor Company had planned many events at various venues.

There was no way to determine just how many visitors came to Milwaukee for the four-day event. Harley-Davidson pre-sold 125,000 passes to get into many of the scheduled events. But tens of thousands of riders came to town even without those passes to enjoy many of the free events and venues. The Chamber of Commerce reported that over 20,000 hotel nights were purchased just in Milwaukee, and it was reported that you couldn’t find a hotel room within 40 miles of town. I met several people who were staying in suburban Chicago, which is located 60 miles to the south. Having attended the 100th Anniversary party five years ago, I can say that this year’s event was much larger, and I’d estimate that there were at least 200,000 bikes in the area, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that number turned out to be 250,000. And trying to get to Miller Park for the HOG rally, it seemed like all 200,000 odd bikes were in front of me trying to get into the stadium parking lot.

I tried to get to all of the venues, but naturally it was impossible to be everywhere and do everything I wanted to because of time and traffic. So I’ll just give you some of the highlights of my travels and the places I got to visit. But at a rally like this it isn’t as much about the venues or entertainment that matters most, it’s the people who came to Milwaukee who made the celebration a success, and hearing their stories and finding out what drove them come from so far away.

There were 105 starting points in over 40 states that began “The Ride Home” to Milwaukee, on August 17. Riders from Seattle, San Diego, Bangor, San Antonio, Miami, and Myrtle Beach and all points in between and along the way headed to Harley headquarters, to arrive on Wednesday August 27. And as the riders got near Milwaukee, they were greeted by hundreds of locals who lined the highway overpasses with welcome signs and they waved to the hoards of bikers streaming into town.

My first stop on Thursday was to get to the HOG (Harley Owners Group) rally at Miller Park, the baseball stadium that is home to the Milwaukee Brewers. HOG celebrated their 25th Anniversary as an organization, and the parking lot was overflowing with motorcycles, to the point that thousands of bikes had to park in outlying lots. It was a circus atmosphere at this free event, where the thousands of attendees were entertained by music at two venues from bands like Big Bob and the Ballroom Blitz, Sugarland, the Billy Bob Thornton Band, Joan Jett, and headliner, Kid Rock.

Stunt rider, Bubba Blackwell, of Bon Secour, Alabama, who is sponsored by Harley-Davidson and Buell entertained the crowd by doing burnouts, wheelies, stoppies on Buell’s, and some of the same tricks on stock Harley’s including some spectacular wheelies on his specially painted Ultra Glide. (http://www.bubbablackwell..com/)

The Seattle Cossacks, founded in 1938, wowed the audience with their precision drill team of 16 red & white vintage Harleys from the 30’s and 40’s. Dressed in period garb of jodhpurs and blousy shirts, they ride in formation, then split off into two groups and ride towards each other, swerving left and right within inches of each other. Then they begin building pyramids of riders spanning 3 bikes and climbing on each other’s shoulders, before stacking five riders on one bike as it travels around the show ring. (http://www.seattlecossacs.com/)

I had just missed the performance by the Fort Lauderdale Harley-Davidson Drill Team, sponsored by Bruce Rossmeyer’s Destination Daytona dealership, but spoke to Team Captain Scott Thomas who informed me that the team of volunteers travels to many HOG events in the Southeast to raise money for charity. Their stock black Ultra Classics are owned by the team members, with Rossmeyer providing his tractor trailer to haul the bike to events, and helping them out with expenses.

The National Champion Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Motorcycle Drill Team, who travel the country performing at parades, children’s hospitals, Presidential Inaugural Parades, college football bowl games and other worthy events, also showcased their precision riding skills, and those learned for their duties as motor officers. I was impressed when I saw them perform at the Indy 500, where they rode the entire length of the 2-1/2 mile track while standing on the seats of their motorcycles! Each bike in the show rides with a large red letter on their windshields that spell out INDIANAPOLIS – at least when parked correctly.

At the HOG rally I met Dean Luptak and girlfriend Lynn Davis. He’s a real estate broker from Montana. They left Billings on Saturday, and went up through Canada on their way to event. They are doing an Iron Butt ride to visit 25 states and 50 National Parks in 12 months, Canadian parks included. They rode 2300 miles to get here, instead of the 1300 it usually takes. He's already earned a Bun Burner and Saddle Sore patch. Lynn has recently recovered form several brain operations, and rides pillion and loves the feel of the open road. They'll do 25,000 miles this year. When I asked how long he's been riding, he told me he just bought his first bike (a Screaming Eagle Ultra) this past September!

Next, I met a small group of Asians with T-shirts from the Shanghai and Beijing Harley store, waving Harley flags and HOG flags. I approached two of them and asked if they were from China. “Yes,” they replied with a bow.  “Do you speak English?” I asked. One answered, “Yes.” Wow, I was so excited to be able to ask them about their journey for this article. I had so many questions; I didn’t know where to begin. So my first question was, “When did you arrive in the US?” To that they replied, “Yes.” It was then that I realized that they had exhausted their knowledge of English, and my hopes for an informative interview were dashed. Then they reached into their pocket and handed me a Harley key chain, with the Bar & Shield on one side, and the Shanghai dealership information on the other side in both English and Chinese. And from the patches I saw on their vests, and T-shirt information, I gathered that they were employees of the dealership over there, and came over here for the celebration. I bowed, and gave them the only word I knew in Chinese (other than moo shoo pork) which was “shea-shea”, which I learned from Olympic coverage, means “thank you. At least I hope it did. Anyway, I didn’t cause an international incident.

I spent the rest of the day listening to some music, chatting with a lot of folks from around the country from all walks of like and culminating with the Kid Rock concert, leaving before the finale so as to beat the throngs of traffic leaving the stadium parking lots.

The next day, Friday, I took in the happenings at the local Harley dealerships that had festivities planned all weekend. The first was at House of Harley-Davidson, on Layton Street, in suburban Greenfield. Four or five blocks of the wide boulevard were closed off to all traffic, and vendor tents lined the center of the street and in the parking lots of the businesses surrounding the dealership.

At one tent display, The Chopper Chick Crew, consisting of 7 women, built a custom chopper, from a bare frame, in front of the crowd at the House of Harley lot. They built the bike to donate it to the RAACE Foundation (http://www.raace.org/), which is a charity that raises awareness of the problem of child sexual abuse. The bike will tour the country and eventually get auctioned off to raise money for that charity. The Chopper chicks have built many bikes together and many have been donated to other causes to raise money, and to showcase the fact that women can be skilled technicians and to encourage other women to pursue a career as a motorcycle tech.

I ran into my old friend Eric Herrmann, the famous motorcycle and motorsport artist, who has done many commissioned pieces for Harley and Jack Daniels and even NASCAR. (http://www.ericherrmannstudios.com/) I have several of his prints hanging in my office. The jovial Herrmann was actually working on a commission painting of a special hot rod for a client, as spectators watched the painting come to life.

Condor Products was there to demonstrate how their bike stands and wheel chocks make trailering any motorcycle easy and safe, along with the usual leather, T-shirt, and food vendors. Naturally, there is a lot of food that can be served on a stick, from chicken to corn dogs, to steak, and even fried Twinkies. I passed. And, of course, if you’re in Milwaukee, there are always numerous places for bratwurst and beer.

There was also a unique tattoo parlor there. For $10 to $12 they would spray paint a tattoo on your body, from a stencil, that would last for about 2 weeks before washing off. That was right up my ally – easy to choose something cool, without the pain or long term commitment of a needle tattoo. But alas, the line was long, and I wanted to move on.

No party is complete without pretty girls, and the Fictitious Groove Photo girls were ready to take a picture with you on their custom chopper, and print an 8x10 photo for $25. I guess it’s a small price to pay to show your friends back home and tell them she was the girl you picked up in a bar the night before.

Not being on the prowl for single women, I approached a couple, Amy & Randy Shoemaker, from Geneva NY. They rode the 760 miles in two days on his Road King Classic. Once in town they visited the new Harley Museum the day before the event started, because they didn’t get lucky with the lottery to get tickets for over the weekend. They were impressed with the museum, and as first time visitors to Milwaukee, couldn’t say enough good things about the town and all it had to offer. Their only complaint was about the crowds at the HOG rally and that they couldn’t get near the stage for the Kid Rock concert.

Next up was Hal’s Harley-Davidson, in nearby New Berlin. His dealership grounds also boasted a circus atmosphere with rows of vendors and entertainment. Rather than spend a lot of time looking at the same old vendors, I spent a few hours walking the parking lot, and meeting and talking to people as then rode in to find out what made them come, and what they had been doing since they arrived.

(Black t-shirt and gal with red T-shirt) Mike & Peggy Flemming from Albany Georgia spent their first night on the road in Knoxville. He's got a Road Glide and she rides a Heritage Softail. According to Peggy, “I’m a breast cancer survivor and just recently finished my last chemo treatment, so I decided I needed a long ride to prove to myself that I’m strong and well enough to make the trip.” They rode up to Green Bay to visit friends and family before coming back to Milwaukee. They enjoyed the German food at Gasthaus in nearby Waukesha. Said Mike, “We enjoyed the museum and had a good day at the HOG rally watching the drill teams, and toured all the local Harley dealerships.”

Monica and Randy Stein rode up from Charlotte NC. They braved an all day rain until they finally stopped in Maryville, IN, before riding on to Milwaukee. Monica, a dental assistant back home, said they were soaked to the bone even though they rode in full rain gear. They left their kids with the grandparents and had to come up for the festivities. They toured all the dealerships, and spent a lot of time enjoying the music at the Summerfest grounds. They've been riding together for 10 years and have made the long trips to Daytona, and Myrtle Beach and love the open road. They got to enjoy the Kid Rock concert at the HOG rally, too.

After my stay at Hal’s, I headed over to the Harley-Davidson Mecca, the Juneau Avenue headquarters. They were offering tours to the visitors, but most of the folks just came to take pictures of the building and see where the bikes were first made – at least after the Davidson brothers moved out of their garage behind their home in the early 1900’s. While chatting with a security guard about the crowds and the magnetic draw this building has on the faithful, he said, “I’ve seen rough and tough looking grown men pull up here, get off their bikes to take a picture of that sign over there, and start crying like babies, just at the sight of this historic building. It’s just amazing.”

Then I met Donna & Kris Hanneman from Waterville, Ohio. Rather than take the long way around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, they decided to ferry themselves and their bikes across the lake from Muskegon Michigan to Milwaukee. Said Donna, “It’s only 2 hours, and costs $120 for each bike and rider - one way.” They’ll take the long way home. They’ve been riding together for 11 years on their white Hogs. Kris started riding on an ‘84 Sportster with Donna on the back. I asked if they would ever consider buying any other brand of motorcycle. Kris shook his head, and said, “I’d only buy American, and even though I know that many parts are from overseas, it’s still an American company and that’s important to me.”  They’ve been at the 95th anniversary, the 100th and now this one. I’m sure they’ll be at the 110th as well.

Saturday, was my day to spend on Milwaukee’s beautiful Lakefront. The weather for the entire event could not have been better. Sunny with daytime temps in the upper 70s to low 80s with very low humidity. First stop was the newly opened Harley Museum. A few weeks ago I wrote an article for this web site about the Museum, so I won’t go into detail about that. But I was somewhat critical of the stark and industrial looking architecture. I must say, however, that seeing the museum campus teeming with 4 or 5 thousand motorcycles parked “Sturgis Style” around it, made the building look “dressed” so to speak, and really put it in context.

I met two fun loving guys from Memphis, John Mitchell and his buddy Gene Fentress. They were having a great time but complained that they had to pay over $200 for a hotel room that usually costs less than $100, and had to pay for all of it months in advance. That led me to ask if they've ever been to other major rallies like Sturgis or Daytona. When they said no, I informed them that this was nothing new, and the same things happened at all rallies. That seemed to calm them down. They're into their bikes, and this is John's first Harley, after riding a metric cruiser. He loves the sound and power of his Ultra Classic, and his favorite customization is a crocodile and ostrich seat. His buddy Gene had his ostrich seat match his tan ostrich cowboy boots. Neither would consider owning anything but a Harley because according to John, "I love being able to get so many accessories for the bike, and the clothing and gear to match. No other manufacturer can come close to Harley in that regard.”

Terry and Joy Halm were delightful people from Maryville, TN. I literally bumped into them leaving the museum and struck up a conversation. When I asked what they ride, he pointed to his orange and white Electra Glide, and I joked that Mary had a matching shirt. Turns out they also have matching orange and white helmets. He's a nuclear energy plant consultant, and he must be good at it because he wasn't glowing in the dark museum. Joy is an administrative assistant to a local judge. They really enjoyed all that Milwaukee had to offer, and took the factory tours, and were looking forward to participating in the MDA parade. They got their tickets on EBay from somebody who won the lottery for the museum tickets and MDA ride, but couldn't go. They love to ride the roads around Tennessee, and take a trip to the Dragon which isn't too far from where they live.

Saturday’s 105th Anniversary Parade was a highlight for the entire town of Milwaukee as well as the parade participants. There were about 8,000 bikes in the parade led by Willie G. Davidson and other Harley dignitaries. Also included in the parade was a representative from a HOG chapter from every state and country flying their HOG flag. Also, several thousand special guests who each raised over $6,400 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association got to ride. Harley has been associated the MDA for many years and has raised over $65 million to help fund research for neuromuscular diseases. This year alone they’ll raise over $6 million.

Other participants were chosen by lottery. I could have ridden as a member of the media, but I figured that my Yamaha Virago would not be a welcomed sight to the hometown crowd. The bikes were staged in the parking lot at Miller Park with the first bike out at 9:00 am. The last bike left 2-1/2 hours later at 11:30 am. The 8-mile ride took about 35 minutes to run east on Wisconsin Ave. and ended at Maier Festival Park on the Lakefront. There were crowds all along the route that were 6 deep in certain spots cheering on the riders

Bikes sported flags from all over the world. I saw many from Mexico, Canada, Germany, England, Australia, Israel, Columbia, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain. The Australians I met rode in from LA, where their bikes were shipped to. They described their experience as 'gobsmacked" which is Aussie for awesome. It was their first time in America, and they vowed to return.

A group of Italians from Rome, Milan, and Venice rode together. They could not say enough about the friendliness of the Milwaukee people and everyone they met along the way from New York where they had their bikes shipped to. They were so impressed with America and are Harley devotees as passionate as any I've ever met. They described their trip as once in a lifetime, and almost were in tears about the whole event. Even though our dollar is so low in Europe compared to their currency, it was still an expensive proposition to ship the bikes over and spend two weeks on the road, but the money didn't matter to these folks. The opportunity to come to Milwaukee, see the factory, and to ride in the parade was priceless to them. “Harley-Davidson”, said one of them, “Eese in my soul, and in my heart.”

Unfortunately, I gave my camera to someone to take a photo of me with them, and the guy dropped it, so my camera was done for the day, including my parade shots. Luckily, I'd downloaded the photos from the previous days, so all was not lost.

The parade ended at the Summerfest Grounds, a stretch of several miles on the lakefront of Lake Michigan. The grounds include 5 stages, where live music played throughout the day, and there are permanent restaurants and other food vendors serving Greek, Italian, Polish, Mexican, Chinese and, of course, good old American burgers, dogs, brats, and beer. You can’t swing a dead cat in Milwaukee without hitting someplace that sells beer. So I listened to some music, brought some good food to the picnic tables set up along the lakefront, and spent the afternoon looking at the beautiful blue water, and lakefront buildings, and just enjoying a magnificent summer day. I was also anxiously awaiting the evenings festivities farther up the lakefront, at Veterans Park, where the Bruce Springsteen concert was to take place.

I rode up to the concert venue as the sun was setting. About 100 yards or so from the main stage, I settled into an area that wasn’t overcrowded. You needed a gold wristband to get in there. Apparently, that was a more expensive ticket to get that close. Folks were sitting on blankets or the grass and listening to Alejandro Escovedo and his band as the opening act. They finished around 8:00 PM and the crowd was psyched to hear The Boss come on at 8:30. But true to form, the band didn’t come out until about 9:00. However, for some unknown reason, at about 8:45, the security people opened the gates to the “Gold Section” and fans started pouring into the tranquil area, and within minutes it was wall to wall people pushing to get closer to the stage. It forced everyone to now stand, and many of the folks I was chatting with were angry that they paid more for their tickets, but anyone who was there got to fill in their section.

But when Springsteen and the E-Street Band began playing, the crowd roared and the fans soaked it up. After about an hour, I was getting a little claustrophobic, so I moved out of the now packed area, and listened to the rest of the concert from a few hundred yards back, with a lot more elbow room. Hey, it’s about the music, and I could still see the band on one of the two large video screens flanking the stage. This was the last stop on a long tour of America for the band, and they sure gave the crowd their monies worth. They played 30 songs, over 3-1/2 hours, and everyone went home satisfied.

Talking to Paul James, the head of Harley-Davidson Communications, after the concert he told me, “We anticipated that this event would be larger than the 100th five years ago, but this has totally exceeded our expectations. Everyone at Harley has just been blown away by the participation, enthusiasm, and the way the entire town has helped to make this the best celebration ever.”

As I’m sure you’ve been able to tell, I’m not “a Harley Guy.” I don’t own a Harley and probably never will. But I’ve been around long enough, and have been at many Harley press events, and have ridden and enjoyed dozens of their motorcycles over the years. I belong to several riding clubs, and most of our members ride Harleys. One club is made up of mostly working class, blue collars guys and gals, and the other is made up of more upscale white collar folks that would often be described as RUBs, or Rich Urban Bikers. But in either club, the members are riders who put lots of miles on their bikes each summer, and not bar-hopping posers. So I have a good feel for the Harley culture and mystique.

Harley-Davidson freely admits that as much as selling motorcycles, they sell a “lifestyle” and an image. It’s an image of the old west cowboy riding the open spaces of our country, unfettered by society’s rules and conventions. Sometimes it’s the solo lonesome cowboy, and other times the large gregarious group riding with the herd. Toss in a little of that “bad boy” biker image, a black leather jacket and chaps, perhaps a tattoo (or five) , a 3-day growth of beard, a few beers, and you’ve the framework of a lifestyle that can be 24/7 for some, or just a few hours in the saddle on Sunday for others.

You can buy a cruiser bike with more power, better brakes, and better handling for a lot less money from Japanese OEMs, but you can’t buy the same mystique unless you ride a Harley. And it’s at events like this that you really come to understand that.

So thanks, Harley, and thanks Milwaukee. I had a great time. See ya at the 110th.

Related Reading:

H-D Museum Grand Opening
2008 Sturgis Coverage
2009 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Standard Review
2009 Harley-Davidson Model Line-up
All Harley-Davidson Reviews on Motorcycle.com

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