Book preview –
Yep, my buddy Stewart and I made a book. We worked for five years on this pictorial history of motorcycling, which focuses on San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties and covers 1900-1970. Many years ago, Stewart began gathering historic photographs for such a book and he arranged for many photos and artifacts to be donated to the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in Micke Grove Park, where I was the director for eleven years. When I retired five years ago, I suggested that we work together on a motorcycling book. My enthusiasm breathed new life into Stewart’s dream-book and we were off and running. We were slowed by the pandemic, but our book, Motorcycling in California’s Central Valley, will be released on January 30, 2023.
Stewart and I share deep roots in the northern San Joaquin Valley—his family has lived here for five generations, mine for four. He is a gearhead and has for his entire adult life been a member of the Stockton Motorcycle Club (and has served as its president), the Lodi Motorcycle Club, and the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). He was for decades the track photographer at the Lodi Cycle Bowl racetrack and for ten years he curated an annual motorcycle exhibition at Stockton’s Sherwood Mall. His son, Stewart Jr., was a three-time Valley district motorcycle flat track champion, with Stewart Sr. serving as the racing team leader.
My interest in motorcycles was sparked by my grandfather, who was a San Joaquin County motorcycle officer from 1927 to ’29, then transferred to the new California Highway Patrol, from which he retired in 1950. In the ‘60s, my brother worked with the mother of a Modesto High School kid who would become one of the world’s greatest motorcycle racers: Kenny Roberts Sr. My brother rode in the Roberts’ family van—with the motorcycle—to some of Kenny’s first amateur races. I rode “dirt bikes” recreationally with Ken and a group of friends called “the Modesto-Manteca mafia.” We rode along the Stanislaus River near my hometown, on the Corral Hollow hills above Tracy, and in the Sierra foothills. I followed “King” Kenny’s entire career and remained a fan of motorcycle racing.
In this article, I’ll share some of the stories and a few vintage photos from the book, which has more than 200 photographs showing the Valley heartland’s love of motorcycling from the first motorized bicycles in the early 1900s through spirited racing competition in the 1960s. The book commemorates the eleven local AMA Hall-of-Famers and many of the dealers, mechanics, and riders that built the motorcycling community in the region. Proud working riders such as police officers, soldiers, and deliverers are depicted, too, as are several of the clubs that brought heartland motorcyclists together over the decades.
The forerunner to motorcycling was bicycling and the northern San Joaquin Valley, with its flat terrain and nine months of fair weather, was a leading participant in the bicycling craze at the end of the Victorian era. In the 1880s-1910s, every small town in the Valley had at least one bicycle club for men and women, especially after the development of the “safety bicycle,” bikes with wheels the same size and a pedal crank driving the rear wheel.
Bicycle racing was a popular spectator sport and the first simple motorcycles, really motorized bicycles, were used as “windsplitters” to pace bicycle racers. Bicycle dealers and repair shops were plentiful. Bike shops provided a readymade sales, service, and support structure for the multitude of motorcycle manufacturers that sprang up, seemingly overnight.
Motorcycle manufacturers in the United States were led by the Hendee/Indian Motocycle Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, which was started in 1901 by a popular bicycle racer. Indian was the most successful brand before World War I and by 1913 was producing more than 30,000 motorcycles per year. The iconic Harley-Davidson Motor Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was established in 1903. Two years later, the Excelsior Motor Manufacturing & Supply Company of Chicago, Illinois, began production. There were dozens of other smaller early U.S. motorcycle brands.
The Valley heartland had a good supply of potential motorcycle riders and repairmen not only because of the weather and the popularity of bicycling, but also because it was a center for mechanical innovation and manufacturing. Agricultural machinery companies employed thousands of mechanical workers, best exemplified by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Stockton, developer of the Caterpillar tractor. The Holt factory covered six square blocks and employed more than 2,500 workers.
“The Chicago of the West,” Stockton in 1900 had more than 300 foundries and manufacturing companies in addition to Holt, producing farm equipment, pumps, engines, food processing equipment, building materials, dredges, and boats and ships.
City-to-city motorcycle endurance runs and lengthy races on tracks were popular in the earliest days of motorcycling. Endurance was taken to the extreme by Northern California bicyclist George Wyman, who was the first to ride a motorized vehicle, a motorcycle, from coast to coast in 1903. He started in Newspaper Square in San Francisco, but lack of press coverage forced him to document the trip himself, with submittals to The Motorcycle Magazine, the first industry magazine. Because the roads were so poor, George often had to ride on railroad tracks, as he did through the snow sheds crossing the Sierra. He made it to New York City with no fanfare, returned via train, and spent the end of his life in Stockton. Wyman’s achievement is now recognized by the AMA Hall of Fame…and he’s profiled in our book.
Agriculture in the Central Valley rapidly mechanized after the turn of the Twentieth Century and most farmers were quick to appreciate new technology, including motorcycles. The number of farm families in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties grew rapidly in the 1910s, primarily because the creation of irrigation districts allowed huge tracts of dry-farmed grain to be subdivided into many smaller, family farms. Motorcycles provided farmers with a convenient way to go into town.
Spectator sports were significant pastimes before mass-media entertainment such as radio and television. The earliest motorcycle races in front of large crowds were at banked wooden (“board”) bicycle velodromes. College stadiums and horse tracks were repurposed as unpaved (“dirt”) motorcycle flat tracks.
Clever motorsports promotors created exciting competitions and spectacles, including team events and relays. In 1912, for example, the “First on the Coast Team Competition” at Agricultural Park in Sacramento pitted motorcycle riders from Stockton against the capital city’s finest racers. Motorcycle manufacturers sponsored professional racing teams and popular early “factory riders” included Lathrop’s Otto Walker and Oakdale’s Albert “Shrimp” Burns, both AMA Hall of Fame honorees. Walker was one of the first professional racers on Harley-Davidson’s famous “Wrecking Crew” team; in 1915, he won Harley’s first race, a 300-mile road race in Venice, California.
World War I, The Great War in Europe (1914-18), was the first mechanized global conflict in which warring nations used airplanes, submarines, and tanks—the latter based on Holt’s Caterpillar tractor. Motorcycle racing was put on hold, but motorcycles were used by the militaries, particularly for reconnaissance and delivering messages. The 1915 Triumph model H, considered by many to be the first modern motorcycle, was developed for use by Allied forces and propelled the British company to become a major global brand.
To meet the motorcycle needs of US doughboys overseas, the federal government contracted with the three largest American manufacturers: Indian supplied about 40,000 motorcycles, Harley-Davidson about 18,000, and Excelsior 3,500 motorcycles. The scale of that production challenge and a zero or even negative profit margin left Indian a weakened company after the war. Harley, on the other hand, became the best-selling brand in post-WWI America.
Many of the men returning after World War I became motorcycle enthusiasts in the 1920s. The Stockton Motorcycle Club first appeared in the newspapers before the war, in 1914, but the club was put on hold during the war. It was formally re-established in 1924, after the Spanish flu pandemic had subsided, and the club still thrives today.
Spectator sports such as boxing, college football, baseball, horse racing, and motorcycle racing remained popular in the roaring 1920s. Motorcycle hill-climbing champion Dudley Perkins, who began his career in Stockton, was among the era’s most popular motorsports champions. Hill climb events in California drew thousands of fans to the base and flanks of hills, including locations above Tracy and Oakland. (Perkins was also a longtime Harley dealer and racing sponsor; he is a Hall of Fame honoree and AMA named its most prestigious award after him.)
Military use and competition led to improved mechanical reliability, so motorcycles were applied to uses other than personal transportation and recreation. Working riders used motorcycles for business deliveries and in public safety. Fully organized motorcycle traffic squads emerged after the war and roads throughout the Central Valley were patrolled by city and county motorcycle officers. In 1920, Fresno motorcycle officers started the San Joaquin Valley Traffic Officers Association. The organization was renamed the California Association of Highway Patrolmen in 1921 and it continued after the State created the California Highway Patrol in 1929. (My grandfather’s CHP retirement badge notes that he was a member of the Association from 1927 to 1950.)
Automobiles became accessible and abundant with Ford’s groundbreaking Model T. By 1928, President Hoover would promise, “A car in every garage,” and by the end of the decade four out of five families owned one. Highway 99 through the Central Valley was one of the first highways in California. The transcontinental Lincoln Highway also passed through in the 1920s, connecting Sacramento, through Lodi, Stockton, and Tracy, over Altamont Pass to the East Bay, and via ferry to San Francisco. Many consumers purchased affordable cars rather than less-practical motorcycles, but Harley-Davidson showed its marketing savvy by promoting the motorcycling lifestyle and sense of community.
The Great Depression, triggered by the stock market crash of 1929, rang the death knell for most motorcycle brands. By 1931, only Harley-Davidson and Indian survived as American motorcycle manufacturers (their rivalry remained preeminent until Indian ceased production in 1956). Still, motorcycle races at college stadiums and local tracks provided affordable entertainment and the AMA initiated new, low-investment Class C races for unmodified motorcycles, a series nicknamed “run what you brung.” Racers such as Stockton’s Hall-of-Famer Leonard Andres had devoted fan bases in the 1930s.
During World War II (1939-45), Harley-Davidson stopped civilian sales after it obtained exclusive federal contracts to supply motorcycles and training for US armed forces. More than 85,000 Harleys were used during the second global war.
The war effort brought tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and civilian workers to the northern San Joaquin Valley, which was strategically distant from seaborne attacks but was served by the inland Port of Stockton and multiple railroads and highways. Many military facilities were built in the heart of the Valley. Shipyards on the Stockton Deep Water Channel employed 10,000 civilian workers. Valley farmers and canneries went into overdrive to feed American soldiers and sailors. And recreational motorcycling was popular with many of these folks.
The Port Stockton Motorcycle Club was formed by workers at the Naval Supply Annex in 1937. The Modesto Motorcycle Club was established in 1939. In about 1940, the Port Stockton Club became one of the first clubs sanctioned by the AMA to admit women as full members, a trend of inclusion that continued and expanded in motorcycling.
The post-war era brought unprecedented prosperity and a growing blue collar middle class to the heart of the Valley. In the late 1940s and the 1950s, most former sailors and soldiers settled into civilian family life. Many chose inexpensive military surplus Harleys and recreational motorcycling to continue the camaraderie they had enjoyed during the war. The era was indeed a heyday for recreational, social, and competitive motorcycling.
Veterans of the European campaigns had been introduced to Triumphs and other brands overseas, which created interest in lighter motorcycles and contributed to the stripped down “bobber” trend. Dealers such as Leonard Andres (Modesto and Stockton) and Glen McGill (Stockton and Lodi) provided motorcyclists with services, support, and equipment.
Women “Rosie the riveters” had developed much independence during World War II and sought their own freedoms and recreational expressions, with or without men. The Lodi Comets all-women motorcycle club thrived in the 1950s and its first president became a national spokesperson. The Tracy Gear Jammers auxiliary was one of two females-only clubs to attend the infamous 1947 Independence Day weekend gathering in Hollister.
The heart of the Central Valley was ideal for motorcycle club road rides to locations that continue to be tourist destinations: the Bay Area, redwood forests, beaches, Lake Tahoe and the central Sierra, the foothills gold country, the State Capital region, the Delta, and the beautiful orchards and vineyards of the Central Valley. These places were the settings for motorcycle club picnics and field meets, which brought clubs together and featured good-natured competition in fun events such as slow races, balloon busts, poker runs, plank jumps, scavenger hunts, trials maneuvers, blindfold rides, potato pickup races, and motorcycle polo.
Post-war racing venues included William Micke’s oak grove (now a regional park between Stockton and Lodi), Baxter Stadium at College of the Pacific, Lodi Stadium (the Grape Bowl), 99 Stadium (Stockton 99 Speedway), the track at Modesto Junior College, and horse tracks including the one at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds.
AMA Grand National Series races at flat oval dirt-tracks blossomed after the war and remain very popular; Grand National “disciplines” included short track, half-mile, mile, and Tourist Trophy or TT—the latter requiring at least one right turn and one jump or water hazard. In the early 1950s, airports such as New Jerusalem near Tracy and Kingdon near Lodi started to be used for drag racing by street-legal “hot rods,” specialized dragsters, and motorcycles.
The Lodi Cycle Bowl racetrack was developed by the Lodi Motorcycle Club beginning in 1953, using a borrow pit excavated during the construction of Highway 99. The quarter-mile short track/TT venue was a learning track for amateur racers including Modesto’s Kenny Roberts Sr. and Stockton’s Alex Jorgensen, Chris Carr, and Fred Merkel, all of whom are now AMA Hall of Fame honorees.
Motorcycle road racing gained popularity in the 1950s. Stockton native Brad Andres dominated paved road courses in the ‘50s—winning the famous Daytona 200 three times—and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. He set the stage for later international Grand Prix Road Racing stars including Roberts, Merkel, and Modesto Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Filice. Roberts became one of the world’s most accomplished motorcycle racers.
In the mid-1960s, Japanese-made motorcycles became predominant—brands such as Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Honda. The availability and affordability of these brands extended the reach of motorcycling deep into the Boomer generation, including Stewart and me.
Off-road vehicle recreation areas were developed by State Parks in the Coastal Range hills above Tracy and in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Folsom and Rancho Cordova in Sacramento County. Stanislaus County developed off-road riding areas near La Grange (30 miles east of Modesto) and in the hills 25 miles west of Patterson. These public venues—which had been used by heartland off-road riders and hill-climbers since the 1920s—support off-road riding and motocross, enduro, hill climb, and scrambles races.
This rich tradition of motorcycling in the heart of the Central Valley—club rides and get-togethers, supportive shops, and many forms of competition—continues into the 2020s. For good family entertainment and to experience the comradery of the motorcycling community, I recommend that you sample the weekly short track races at the Lodi Cycle Bowl, the annual Sacramento Mile (an AMA National race on the horse track at CalExpo), the Hangtown Classic motocross, heritage drag races at Kingdon airpark near Lodi, or the Fast Fridays speedway races in Auburn.
After January 30, Motorcycling in California’s Central Valley will be available at many local retailers and museums. (Retailers contact 888-313-2665 or firstname.lastname@example.org .) It can also be purchased directly from the authors; contact me at email@example.com.
David Stuart recently retired as the executive director of the San Joaquin County Historical Society. Previously, he directed the Sacramento History Museum, the Sacramento Science Center, and museums in Ventura. His family settled in the Delta in 1860.