Phil Behling hated all five minutes of the only motorcycle ride he’s ever had. He isn’t a fan of noisy crowds, either. Yet the Milwaukee resident is looking forward to the boisterous Harley-Davidson anniversary celebrations that roar into the city every five years, the next slated for the end of August.
“They’re definitely something to behold,” Behling said of the motorcycles. “You can feel the noise of the engines rumble through you.”
During the multiday Milwaukee Rally, as the festival is called, Behling and his wife, Liz, always head downtown and walk around, gawking at the bikes and chatting with the riders. “It’s just a very loud, fun party.”
About 130,000 to 150,000 people are expected to pour into Milwaukee for the party taking place Aug. 28 through Sept. 1, said Jeannine Sherman of Visit Milwaukee. Among them will be a group of men from Japan who have chartered a 747 so they can bring their motorcycles with them. “This is the level of craziness that goes on,” she said. “A lot of people bleed Harley. They’ll do anything to get here.”
Part of the event’s success is that there are plenty of things to do during the rally, whether or not you’re a rider. A good place to start is the Harley-Davidson Museum. The museum, opened in 2008, will be experiencing its second anniversary event. To ensure visitors aren’t exasperated by long lines, tickets are being sold online with a date and time stamp.
There are three floors of diverse exhibits. Harley’s signature “potato-potato-potato” engine rumble throbs seductively in the background.
Not surprisingly, a wealth of motorcycles is on display in the museum, including the famous Serial Number One, the oldest-known Harley in existence. The company has an impressive collection of bikes, because its founders had the foresight to pick one bike off the assembly line every year.
Besides bikes, the museum showcases roughly 80 years’ worth of intricately decorated Harley fuel tanks, scribbled notes from stockholder meetings and exhibits about the company’s involvement in World War II.
A small kids’ area sports pint-size biker clothes that tots can try on, while the Experience Gallery is filled with vintage and new-model bikes that bigger kids (aka adults) can climb on. Even better, two Harleys are set up outside that visitors can jump-start to experience what it’s like to straddle a Harley while its engine rumbles.
During the anniversary weekend, the museum campus will also be the site of a custom bike show, live music performances and an art sale; these events are all open to the public.
The history of Harley
Harley-Davidson was born in Milwaukee in 1903, when William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson combined their brainpower to produce the world’s first motorized bicycle. Their creation was a hit, and the company quickly grew. Soon competitors were springing up all over.
But two world wars and a Depression battered businesses around the globe. By midcentury, Harley-Davidson was the sole American motorcycle manufacturer left sputtering. During the Depression, when few people had money to blow on a pleasure cycle, the company produced “servi-cars,” three-wheeled utility motorcycles used by small businesses, mobile vendors and police departments. During World War II, it snagged military contracts.
Despite its early success, a stumbling Harley-Davison was sold to American Machine & Foundry in 1961. Then in 1981, a group of Harley managers bought back the company and formed Harley Ownership Groups (HOGs), clubs whose sole purpose is fun on bikes.
Soon Harley-Davidson was in the midst of an improbable, astonishing renaissance. When the dust settled under the bikers’ boots, Harley-Davidson was once again wildly popular.
To celebrate its stunning rebirth, the company threw itself an 85th anniversary party in 1988. Tens of thousands of riders from all over the globe showed up to celebrate, and a tradition was born.
Since then, Harley-Davidson holds a yearlong anniversary party every five years, which consists of various worldwide celebratory rides and events and ends in a rally over Labor Day weekend in Milwaukee.
Harley-Davidson’s 110th celebration began last August with an opening rally in China. Last month, a massive celebration in Rome included a blessing of the riders and their Harleys by none other than Pope Francis, a first. The next celebration is slated for Aug. 3-10 in Sturgis, S.D. After that, it’s home to Milwaukee.
I love a parade
In Greenfield, a suburb southwest of Milwaukee, the House of Harley-Davidson is throwing its own massive party to celebrate the 110th. The business is one of the largest Harley-Davidson dealers in the world, and its 50,000-square-foot store is filled with row upon row of gleaming bikes from all of the Harley model families, plus a staggering selection of merchandise, including clothing, accessories and Harley-Davidson bling.
During the Milwaukee Rally, House of Harley will turn four blocks around the store into a mini festival ground with 100 vendors selling everything from food and T-shirts to furniture and motorcycle parts. A mobile concert stage will host various bands, and there will be four group charity rides. (Erik Estrada — wearing his CHiPs uniform — will be the guest rider for the Law Enforcement Ride.) All events, outside of the rides, are free, including parking.
Other local dealers are sponsoring vendor villages and events, too. And for those looking for something more highbrow, the Milwaukee Art Museum is hosting its first tattoo exhibition, which runs through the fall.
The rally’s highlight, though, is the Harley Parade, a 7,000-rider extravaganza that will wind through the city beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31.
It just may be that Phil Behling will be there cheering.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.