The Origins and Growth of the Club Scene in Western Washington 1910 to 1941

The club scene is our next bit of history detective work. About five years ago at the motorcycle museum display at Bellingham, one of our members, did an inspiring and informational discussion on the history of clubs in our area that went from the beginning up to the arrival of the Bandidos in our area. I hope that some time soon he’ll share his research with us so that we can take advantage of his thousands of hours of research and we can use it for further discoveries of motorcycle club life in the Pacific Northwest. But for now you’ll have to deal with Bone’s version which is gonna be a lot shorter cause I haven’t had the time to do the kind of research the subject deserves. Having said that I’ll do my best to be informative and provide the little scraps of useful data I have on hand. What follows is my story of the historical trends and reasons why clubs were created and what they did. Let’s start with why motorcycle clubs exist.

When people gather together in clubs the simple motorcycle transcends the status of mere transportation. You or I can go out and buy a bike and commute to work on it. At that level of usage it’s more of an appliance than something that touches our inner most being.
But what usually happens is that the sensation of riding, for many of us, is so exciting and transcendental, when compared to automobiles and other vehicles, we want more and we want to share. We seek out other riders. Perhaps we just ride with friends or the occasional stranger heading down the same road in the same direction but some of us want more. We not only want to ride with others we want to talk and share our enthusiasm. Then a club may form. Once we gather into a group our transportation appliance becomes grander than itself. We go from being motorcyclists to being “Bikers” in the psychological sense of pulling a deeper meaning from our machines and their interaction with our own bodies.
Yes, there are brotherhoods and sisterhoods and that’s an important element but a brotherhood alone is called a Union. A motorcycle club consists of the same spirit of brotherhood but its not predicated on job security and decent wages; its about a place for people who are kindred spirits, in their love of riding, to get together and share mutual interests and activities – runs, picnics, races, hillclimbs, and general socializing. It is the combination of these two (brotherhood and motorcycles) that, I think, makes for the spiritual and psychological setting of “Biker”. That’s not to say that a loner, a guy or gal who isn’t in a club, can’t be a “Biker.” In a psychological sense they already are just by attending motorcycling runs and events. It’s just that riding with others and feeling connected to other motorcyclists brings the riding and lifestyle experience to a whole new and deeper level. And club regalia – back patches, pins and so forth are identifiers that bring pride – the uniform of the bike rider, so to speak; my team against your team out on the track and hill. So I’m predicating my personal definition of “Biker” to a club context.
When each of us became members of the Jolly Rogers Motorcycle Club we connected into a long continuum of people and motorcycles going back to 1941 but in a way we are connected to clubs much older, clubs now extinct that started this whole idea of motorcycle brotherhoods. By this I mean that the same kinds of conversations and topics we have in our meetings; the same kind of activities we’ve participated in – runs and races have always been there and if you could go back in time to the earliest motorcycle clubs, you’d be right at home except that the bikes would be a heluva lot more primitive and your casual ride to a club meeting today would have been an epic journey of survival 90 years ago.
So then, let’s go back, back to the origin of clubs in our area and look at our brothers and sisters from long ago. Getting into motorcycles in the 1900s was an exciting and cutting-edge activity. The allure of the “explosion engine” as they called the early DeDion-Bouton style motors, was as exciting as computerized gadgets are to the youth of today. The early bicyclists wanted to make going up hills easier so they made motor-bicycles to do the work. Before long these proved too weak and the motorcycle, a dedicated and separate machine no longer identifying with the bicycle, came into being around 1905. People began to buy these machines but had to deal with atrocious roads, hostile horse people, unsympathetic cops, and constant break downs. The first clubs formed in the beginning – back before there was certainty about the automobile being the primary form of transport. Bicycles had been the primary form of personal transport earlier so why wouldn’t the motorcycle take their place. No one expected Ford to be so successful at making cars affordable. Many, many people took to motorcycling and the early motorcycle clubs may have had the same appeal that the Automobile Club of America has for people of today – to give a helping hand in a breakdown. So it wasn’t long before they gathered into groups for self-help reasons and these groups soon became the first motorcycle clubs in every major and many minor cities in America. But clubs quickly went beyond self-help groups. I call these earliest clubs the First Generation clubs.

The earliest club in our area was the Seattle Motorcycle Club. I suspect this club formed up in 1910. They held their first Reliability Run on June 6, 1911. Here’s the link for reading the story of this run: http://www.pnwmom.org/history1.html The story is fascinating and shows the challenges that motorcyclists faced in those early days.
Reliability runs were very popular in the first several decades of the 20th Century mostly because just getting from one city to another was such a pain in the butt. As I told in the first blog, the roads, if you could call them that, were bad enough within a city but usually became non-existant once outside city limits. So the reliability run was a way to see which manufacturers built the toughest bikes and a chance for the riders to see who was the toughest amongst them.

I’ve uncovered another Seattle M.C. Reliability Run of August, 1917 which reminded me of last summer’s Eastern Washington Run under our current Road Captain Grizz. Several of our brothers went for a two day pleasure ride and had a great time doing it. But a similar ride in 1917 was considered. “the hardest endurance route in the country,” and the attached picture of the magazine article from that event sure does prove it. There are four grainy photos. Two show the kind of roads that bike riders had to put up with.

Late News The Seattle Motorcycle Club was typical of early clubs in all cities. Most were named for the City of origin and most went extinct as interest in motorcycling declined after World War 1. The original SMC went extinct in this time period. Henry Ford had made the Model T so affordable that the original riders went domestic and gave up their bikes. The Seattle Motorcycle Club ceased to exist. The name was reclaimed by the current AMA racing club of that name probably in the 1960s. But there is a clear and long break with the original club. This also happened to Portland’s Rose City Motorcycle Club which also resurrected decades after the original club shut down.
Another thing about the original motorcycle clubs is that they tended to be associated with dealerships. Either Thor, Merkel, Indian, Excelsior, Harley-Davidson or other dealers would sponsor clubs. I suspect that the original Seattle Motorcycle Club was sponsored by the Excelsior dealer because all the bikes in the 1911 photo (see first blog) appear to be Excelsiors.
Second-generation clubs were more complex. They were the clubs that formed up separate from dealerships or weaned themselves away and became independents. They had sympathetic dealers associated with them, and in many cases dealers were card carrying members of the clubs but their purpose was not driven by dealerships. And, unlike the earliest clubs that existed for large groups of people who got into motorcycling when they really wanted a car (though there were plenty of really committed “bikers” back then also), these Second Generation clubs were created by people who had a passion for motorcycles and motorcycles alone. They owned cars but used them as the appliance they are – going to work, shopping and family trips but it was their motorcycles that reached into the deeper psychological recesses of their hearts and brought them joy. We know the feeling today or we wouldn’t be members of the J.R.M.C. These are the clubs that I consider to be the ancestors of all subsequent clubs and the great-granddaddy of them all (in our area) is the Tacoma Ducks, the informal name of the Tacoma Motorcycle Club. The Ducks, so named for their clever logo of a duck with an umbrella – signifies typical Pacific Northwest weather.
The Ducks currently date themselves from 1926 but there is photographic evidence that they may actually be several years older as the next photo shows. The photo below, of two sidecar outfits is from the Tacoma M.C.’s 1923 Reliability Run from Tacoma to Olympia and back. Additionally there have been claims on some web sites that the club dates from 1907 but if that’s the case I suspect a precursor Tacoma Motorcycle Club would have been a dealer sponsored club similar to the old Seattle M.C. and not the club of the 1920s. Perhaps the name was dropped and picked up by individuals who gave it the “Duck” logo. Regardless of web sites there is solid evidence the Ducks were here to stay by the 1920s. Two sidecar outfits at the Tacoma Duck's 1923 Reliability Run from Tacoma to Olympia and back They rightfully claim to be the oldest club in our immediate area and one of the oldest motorcycle clubs in America. They held the same kind of events that the earlier Seattle MC did – picnics, reliability runs, hill climbs, and horse track races. Fifteen years after their founding we formed up and raced against them. There is long history of our two clubs supporting each others events and competing against each other in races and hill climbs. Many of the Duck’s racers became very popular with our own club including Red Farwell and Gwen Myers. Our club members became deeply intertwined with the Ducks and often J.R.M.C. members belonged to the Ducks and visa versa (J.R.M.C. charter member Paul Stockinger for example).

The next of these second generation clubs is the Greater Vancouver Motorcycle Club of Canada dating back to 1922. According to the date, this club should come first but actually the G.V.M.C. was an amalgamation of the Lion’s Gate Motorcycle Club and the Big Four Motorcycle Club in the 1930s so I’m putting them second after Tacoma M.C. The Greater Vancouver Motorcycle Club was another big player in our club’s early days and some of our oldest race photos show G.V.M.C. riders competing on our track. It was this club, in conjunction with the Fred Deeley dealership who brought the early Ariel and Triumph racers down to compete against our Harleys and Indians.This club is interesting in that it formed up via the fusion of the Fred Deeley dealership and some other clubs. Check out the following link for a great story on this club’s history www.gvmc.ca/howitbegan.asp .

Finally there is the Mount Baker Motorcycle Club founded in 1925 and charted with the AMA (charter # 260) in 1927. In 1931 they began sponsoring their AMA sanctioned Cowbell Enduro and it has been run every year since. The early J.R.M.C. riders participated in this event for many years during the 40s and 50s and there are photos of our J.R.M.C. brothers in the 1945 event including one of James“Patty” Patereau and Burt Rhotan who won. Then in 1946 the M.B.M.C. purchased 50 acres of land on Hannegan Road in Bellingham and have had their Hannegan Speedway there ever since.

And now finally we come down to what I’ll refer to as the third generation clubs. These are clubs that were created by the inspiration provided by the second generation clubs and were created for the same reasons but two national historic trends caused them to be started later. The defining characteristics for Third Generation clubs is that they started after 1930 and before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The first historical factor is that the AMA, then a lackey of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, created the Class C category for amateur racers in 1930. The Indian and Harley factories (who were doing secret and illegal price fixing together) would save a bundle of money by no longer paying for factory racing teams (goodbye Wrecking Crew) yet keep their bikes in the publics’ eyes. It was sort of a “have your cake and eat it too” since now amateurs would pay the cost of racing. Rules were set so that a 750cc sidevalve engines could compete with 500cc overhead valve bikes. Both displacements matched the size of the Indian Scout and Harley VL and later WL/WRs in the 750 class and the Indian Prince and Harley Model C in the 500 class. The singles were soon dropped leaving only 750s to race and hill climb. Interestingly Class C is with us to this day.

The other historic factor is the Great Depression. The same reasons of cost cutting that motivated Harley-Davidson’s AMA to create the Class C Amateur racing category effected everything. Money and jobs dried up and Americans, and the World suffered. It took the Roosevelt administrations social programs to pull the economy up and towards the last few years of the 1930s, Hitler’s rapid expansion of German military power. The Feds started expanded factory output with money for weapon systems. Some of the big winners, economically, were Boeing, today’s PACCAR and Todd – Starting in 37 or 38 money was set aside for the production of armor, aircraft and warships and money began to flow back into the local economy. People finally had money for hobby pursuits. So the increasingly good economic outlook and the changes in AMA racing rules resulted in a whole bunch of new clubs being created in our area. So new clubs came on the scene in the late 30s up until our involvement in World War II.

In the previous blogs I’ve suggested the possibility of club founders growing up in families or circumstances that exposed them to motorcycles so I’ll stretch my hypothesis further by suggesting that as young men and women they got into the hobby because they came of age just as the Great Depression was winding down, riding was fun, there was the chance of winning cash purses in victorious Class C races and because there was no television, computers or other gadgets to keep them at home. These third generation clubs were specifically created for racing, hillclimbing and participating in motorcycle games and stunts. They did have road events but these were not as common. (The nice thing then was that there were no light laws so your race bike could also be your street bike without headlights and tastefully bobbed for racing). Competition and the chance for prizes and a higher standing in the AMA Class C. was what it was about.

The third generation clubs I know of are: the Olympic Motorcycle Club – 1937 –Still around today under the name Olympic Peninsula M.C., the Queen City Motorcycle Club – unknown start date but active in the early 1940s but extinct today, and the Seattle Cossacks Motorcycle Club– started January, 1938 and originally an all rounder very similar to the JRMC but eventually became only a stunt team. Most important of all was the start of the Jolly Rogers Motorcycle Club in 1941(though some oral traditions hint at a late 30s start), which has a long history as a competition club followed by a gradual evolution into the current riding and AMA Historical club that we are today. The neatest thing about our club is that there is an unbroken lineage of membership going back to the very beginning in 1941 with at least two members from then still alive at this time (February 2009). Well folks, I’ve run out of steam. Next time we’ll begin an analysis of the Jolly Roger Motorcycle Club itself.

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