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In 2011 I was fortunate enough to travel to Somers to: conduct research on Mr. Johnson; meet with members of the Somers Historical Society, who in their generosity loaned artifacts from Mr. Johnson’s shop to the Harley-Davidson Museum for a temporary display; meet a member of Mr. Johnson’s family; and meet people who had worked for or rode with Mr. Johnson. What I came away with was that this was a man who had been and still is respected and revered. I had experienced an example of a life well-lived.
In 2017, I was honored to represent the Company at a program during Westchester County’s William B. Johnson Day celebration. I met more of Mr. Johnson’s family and a man who grew up riding with Mr. Johnson who shared very vivid and kind memories.
What an adventure and all from an article in a magazine and a little white card!
On a later tour of the Museum, Arthur asked if we knew why his father was so fervent about recruiting new motorcycle dealers. It turned out that the elder Arthur and his wife Clara loved to travel. But in the course of seeing America and other countries, he recruited ever more dealers and local sales managers to help him.
The dealer network that resulted from Arthur’s travel is one of the key reasons H-D is the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Those early dealers began the tradition of keeping motorcyclists riding as much as possible.
But the biggest buzz was hearing that story from Arthur. Having an historical gap filled in during a casual conversation was unexpected, and meeting Arthur was wonderful. His humor and knowledge were something I’ll always remember.
Slide the cover up, and it reveals something a little more intriguing. This was a hangtag given out to customers and fans of the company’s famed Wrecking Crew—the factory-sponsored race team—ahead of the big road race held in Marion, Indiana in September of 1919. This race was important not only because it was the first major event held after WWI ended, but also because the Harley team swept the competition, taking first, second, and third. Printed inside are schedules for trains connecting Marion with Chicago, Cincinnati, and the East Coast. It also notes the team lineup, identified by the different color sweaters each wore, including winners Red Parkhurst, Ralph Hepburn, and Otto Walker.
What gets me though can’t be seen in the just the object itself—it’s a portal into a bigger story. A 1919 newsreel of the Marion race is in the collection at the Library of Congress. Several times in the grainy old film people appear with the hangtag pinned to their coat or suspended from their belt. For me, this humble paper object has the power to connect us to people who were at that race nearly one hundred years ago. I think about how they cheered, and what they saw, heard, and even smelled as the bikes crossed the finish line.