On the Town - Milwaukee
Harley & Me
Whether they ride or not, locals feel a distinct kinship with the legendary american motorcycle company.
BY JEANETTE HURT
The year is 2003. Harley-Davidson Motor Company is celebrating its centennial, and a torrent of summer rain is pouring down on Milwaukee. Still, many residents-mostly non-riders-braved the wet heat and hung out on highway overpasses, holding up signs saying, "WELCOME HARLEY RIDERS," cheering and waving wildly every time a Fatboy roared by. Last summer, for the 105th anniversary, the weather proved better-and the signs and welcome remained the same.
While Harley riders across the world share this fondness of their bikes, the people of Milwaukee-bikers or not-hold a special affection for the motorcycle company, which was founded and is still based within city limits. "It's kind of an emotional attachment," says John Schaller, owner of local dealership House of Harley-Davidson. "During the 100th anniversary, we did four parades… and we had people running out of their houses to stand at the curb and wave at the riders. Milwaukee really is the friendliest city in the world to motorcycle riders."
One of the reasons that Milwaukeeans embrace the orange and black is because, statistically speaking, Harley holds its largest market share in the world in the area. "If you ride a motorcycle in Milwaukee, there's a 70% chance it's a Harley," Schaller says.
But it's about more than just statistics. "It's a hometown pride," says Kirk Topel, president of Hal's Harley-Davidson dealership in New Berlin. "It's not unlike a sports team. For residents of Milwaukee, they take pride in that ownership."
Perhaps the biggest evidence of this pride is the Harley-Davidson Museum (www.harley-davidson.com). Open since July 2008, it's home to the largest collection of Harley motorcycles in the world.
And it's thanks to founders William Harley, and brothers Arthur, Walter and William Davidson that so many of the old bikes have been preserved. As far back as 1915, they started building archives by saving motorcycles that came right off of the factory floor and purchasing older models from customers. The company also built solid relationships with its dealers and riders through its magazine and training workshops.
While these meticulous archives and records made the museum possible, at the time, the owners weren't preserving things for posterity. "They were saving the bikes for engineering purposes," says Bill Jackson, the museum's archives manager.
Just across the Milwaukee River from the museum, you'll find the country's first boutique motorcycle hotel. The Iron Horse Hotel (www.theironhorsehotel.com; 888-543-4766) offers everything from covered motorcycle parking to details like custom hooks to hang heavy leathers, and benches for removing and storing boots and helmets.
"This is really a great accent, a continuation of the Harley experience," says owner Tim Dixon, who rides a Harley Road King custom bike. "We wanted to capture that industrial legacy, yet honor that refinement of luxury. The luxury of a Harley is defined by the rumble, the comfort, the design."
The Iron Horse, like a Harley bike, is simultaneously rugged yet refined, upscale yet earthy, and its spaces encourage riders and non-riders to mingle. Lunch hour at its bar, Branded, has been known to bring together ladies from the Red Hat Society and visiting riders decked out in heavy leathers. "They were just like my mother's friends who do their lunching," Dixon says.
Such rider and non-rider encounters happen all the time, especially during the yearly Milwaukee Harley Rally. This year's event (Sept. 3-6) is expanding its scope to become a full-scale bike week extravaganza, and is expected to draw 35,000 bikers and enthusiasts. "It's really growing this year," says Ed Hanrahan, event producer/owner of Open Road Events and producer of the Milwaukee Harley Rally.
While many details are still in the works, there will be a national factory sale of Harleys and Harley merchandise at State Fair Park; a free street party with nationally known bands; a custom bike show at The Harley-Davidson Museum; and a poker run hosted by Potowatomi Bingo and Casino in which bikers can visit all four local dealerships and the casino to get cards for a poker hand-the person with the best hand wins a custom bike.
"The rallies are events where non-enthusiasts have a real exposure to all that Harley-Davidson does and what that means for Milwaukee," Hanrahan says.
And sometimes, non-riders walk away wanting a Harley of their own-or even something a bit more permanent. As Jackson says, "What other company logo do people have so frequently tattooed on their bodies?"
RIDE OF YOUR LIFE
Visiting the museum and chatting up riders at a rally is fun, but nothing beats getting on the back of a Harley. Well, you've come to the right city: All four local dealerships offer lessons and bike rentals, as well as guided rides during the summer. If you want to venture off on your own, though, here are some top routes:
• KETTLE MORAINE FOREST. While you can't ride on the bike or horseback trails, the highways and roads in the region offer some great scenery.
• LAKE MICHIGAN. Ride alongside the lake on one of the area's most scenic routes. The four-hour trek begins just north of Milwaukee, taking you from Port Washington to Door County.
• DRIFTLESS REGION, JUST WEST OF NEW GLARUS. One of the hilliest areas in the state, it's also home to some of the best creameries, so you can stop for a treat.
Pull up a seat and mingle with bikers
STOLLEY'S HOGG ALLEY, OCONOMOWOC
Even the hot sauces here are motorcycle themed. You can pick up a bottle of Smokin' Tailpipe or Burnin' Rubber for the road. www.stolleyshoggalley.com
MUSTANG SHELLY'S ROADHOUSE, NEW BERLIN
This corner restaurant and tavern not only features great live bands during special events, but also hosts rides and bike parties. www.mustangshellys.com
KOOZY'S BAR & GRILLE, WEST ALLIS
Koozy's hosts a summer Monster Series Ride-in Bike Show Championship, so the lot is sure to be filled with some tricked-out rides. www.koozysbarandgrille.com
For more biker-friendly hangouts, visit www.bars4bikers.com