MILWAUKEE, AUG. 29-SEPT. 1–If anyone has figured out how to throw a party on a grand scale, it’s definitely the folks at Harley-Davidson. And if ever a community was in complete support of a company, it’s undeniably the very steeped-in-history city of Milwaukee. Known for its beer, baseball and bikes, the city that rests along some 10 miles of Lake Michigan’s shoreline rolled out the welcome mat for Harley-Davidson-riding bikers in a huge way. Attendees came from around the world and engulfed the city to celebrate the longevity of the motorcycling world’s most enduring marque. There aren’t, after all, too many companies that can boast 110 years of continued operation dating from the days of Bob Hope’s birth, Calamity Jane’s death and the Wright brothers’ first flight.
For a full year Harley-Davidson planned out an epic, global event that was monitored by a digital clock at the H-D Museum. Flashing the hours, minutes and seconds until the big bash officially began, the pulsing countdown added to the excitement, and the cheering crowd went hog wild as the clock wound down to register 00:00, the words “Welcome Home” filled the frame and the party kicked into hyper drive.
The royal family
Outside the epicenter, the THUNDER PRESS crew arrived on scene and jockeyed around trying to find parking. Motorcycles filled every conceivable space on the compound and had begun to spill out onto the surrounding streets, even up to and upon the steel grid drawbridge over the Menomonee River. One of the lot attendants enthusiastically shared his perspective of the chaos that surrounded him: “You know, Harley is its own country. I mean, lookit; we have the first family right here: We’ve got the president and the vice president. I’d vote for them, wouldn’t you? Think about it; 110 years—c’mon, you know they’re doing something right. Don’t tell them, but know what? I would have volunteered to do this job for free! This is absolutely incredible.” And the jubilant employee was right; this was no ordinary shindig.
Anniversary attendees showed their loyal support by filling the city with the brand’s motorcycles, clothes and accessories displaying the familiar Bar & Shield logo and snatching up Celebration tickets, the most expensive of which were packages that sold for $499 and did not include the headliner bands at the Marcus Amphitheater, but did allow for a one-time admission to the H-D Museum. The constantly-crowded museum had exhibits—many of them interactive—laid out showing the company’s vast collection of first-run items. The history and evolution of the famous motorcycle captured visitors’ imaginations as local news stations carried H-D-based media and event schedules. On-air reporters offered constant news coverage while decked out in black and orange outfits and motorcyclists cruised the city streets with H.O.G. flags flowing behind them. Parties and events were held across the area at all hours of the day and into the night, while local dealerships became mob scenes of activities.
Trying to give an accurate estimate of the number of visitors in for the festivities is pretty much a joke since the given count of 130,000 souls is based on hotel reservations but does not consider the RV crowd that set up at the fairgrounds, folks who stayed with locals or campers who pitched tents. Many events were free or were included in a package purchase, so no gatekeeper tallies were involved and the museum doesn’t seem anxious to assign a number to the masses who crossed their threshold, either. In Texas we’d just say there were a buttload of attendees and be done with it, but since those in the know seem to think attendance was down from the last anniversary celebration in 2008, you’d think a more reliable measurement would be utilized.
Regardless of the head count, it was absolutely patriotic as stars and stripes flew from every conceivable flagstaff and proud Americans embraced fellow Harley-riding foreign visitors with wide smiles and open arms. Warm and friendly locals also participated in the celebration, attending concerts and block parties right alongside travelers from around the world and one just couldn’t help but get caught up in the unbridled exhilaration of the nonstop revelry. Even the cops were on board as they busied themselves with things like directing traffic and rolling their eyes at stupid drivers rather than the harassment that normally comes with motorcycle gatherings. We chatted up an officer during one of the city’s nightly block parties as he meandered along visiting with partiers and he told us point-blank that, “You’d have to be an absolute idiot to get arrested this week. We don’t want to have to put people in jail; we just want everyone to have a good time and be safe.”
Daily rides departing from the museum were planned for riders who wanted to enjoy the pack experience and some were even escorted by local police who were, of course, mounted on Harley-Davidsons. Over 60 bands played, including concerts with all-American performers like Toby Keith, Aerosmith, Kid Rock, ZZ Top and the Doobie Brothers who performed evening concerts at the local waterfront Henry W. Meier Summerfest Grounds, where a day was set aside for H.O.G. members to meet and greet fellow riders. A giant Bar & Shield was erected onsite where visitors were welcome to inscribe a greeting on the sculpture as well as pose for photos. It was there we saw patches from such faraway places as New Zealand, Denmark and Germany. Altogether, over 40 international H.O.G. chapters were in attendance. One large group of sombrero-wearing riders we met rode up from their hometown near Mexico City and had made an adventure out of the trip, touring through several U.S. cities like New Orleans and Memphis, then riding up to see Niagara Falls before rolling into Milwaukee. Their trip ended with riding back to New York and loading up the bikes to be shipped back to Mexico before flying home.
Everyone loves a parade
Milwaukee roads are laid out on a grid for most of the city, except for the part along the waterfronts or where the roads follow original Indian trails that crossed the area before the city charter was adopted in 1846. Downtown streets are named after presidents and statues grace the center medians, which made for a great backdrop for the anxiously-anticipated and heavily-attended parade on Saturday morning. For over two hours riders as many as four abreast rolled along an almost five-mile route as folks of every ilk, many with homemade signs, clamored to watch and wish riders well. The museum had also offered nicely done “Welcome Home” signs free to the takers in the early days of the weeklong event and well-wishers were given advice on the best places to gather. About halfway through the route between Miller Park and the Summerfest Grounds a group of young drummers arrived and added a frenzied element to the whole affair. An estimated 6,000-plus riders cheered and saluted the energetic kids’ performance as they rolled past with huge smiles and genuine respect. The entire spectacle was, in a word, emotional.
Our crew, as well as several other publications, were housed at the newly-opened Brewhouse Inn and Suites, a 150-year-old converted Pabst Brewery that displays copper kettles once used for brewing as videos of old black and white beer commercials play on screens near the atrium. Original building materials were retained and guest rooms of brick and exposed beams were appointed with elegant décor. The history-rich building was downright elegant. Our suite came with French doors inset with glass panels made to look like frothy beers and made us feel blasphemous that we weren’t beer drinkers. It was enough to make us take up imbibing. Almost.
Admittedly, no trip to a new city is complete without a taste of the local flair, and brewery tours were on top of the to-do list for folks who yearned for an authentic Milwaukee experience. Options ranged from elaborate tasting tours to include food or just simple jaunts through breweries that included a plastic cup of the brew of the day. We got a pretty clear picture of what beer means to residents when discussing tours with friends and were politely told, “We’re from Wisconsin. We’re baptized in breweries.” Instead, we sought out local food to authenticate our visit to the Brew City and discovered cheese curds, a battered and deep-fried morsel that serves to delight both young and old Wisconsin natives. We instantly understood the true meaning of being a “cheesehead.”
A few hand-selected vendors were invited to hang a shingle in the surrounding areas of the museum, but each of the three officially licensed Harley-Davidson artists, painters Scott Jacobs and David Uhl, as well as sculptor Jeff Decker, were present and pressing flesh. You could take welding lessons from Kendall Polster or buy a handmade cigar box guitar (CBG) from artisan Robin who was absolutely giddy over his good fortune in being invited to show his work. AMD held an invitational bike show, but for our part, the really cool part of the week was Sunday’s custom bike show hosted by the museum itself. Bill Rodencal, the museum’s official restorer, hosted 160 entrants in 11 classes for what turned out to be the real deal in bike shows. Genuine antiques as well as street bikes and sleek rides—including some non-Harleys—rolled onto the museum campus and held attendees’ attention for most of the day on Sunday.
The main award is a tower of a trophy that has each year’s recipient engraved on its face. The 2013 winner, Billy Sharp from Kentucky, rushed to the stage in absolute rapture and rattled off an overjoyed acceptance speech as Bill, Willie G. and Nancy Davidson all stood smiling in awe while Sharp jumped around the stage and punched the air with his fist, all the while declaring Harley-Davidson the best motorcycle in the world. He had first ridden his winning 2003 Heritage Softail Classic to Harley’s 100th Anniversary Celebration before he began tinkering with it and entering the immaculate bike in shows. He had just finished its last incarnation in June before rolling out for the 110th. The charming Billy also brought his lovely wife Sherry onstage, introduced her to the crowd and expressed his amazement and gratitude over the fact that’s she’s been married to him for 38 years as he wiped a tear from his eye.
Of course, no matter what, there are always the Gloomy Gus folks who like to grumble and we’d heard all about the past anniversaries’ missteps to include the Elton John debacle, the cost of the event and the complaints with the H-D company itself, but being anniversary newbies, we found the entire event very moving. People from so many cultures, ethnicities and countries gathered with one thing in common: Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
CLICK HERE For the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary Photo Gallery