Friday, August 07, 2015

Sturgis at 75

I am compelled to comment on the 75th edition of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which is wrapping up this weekend. I drove through the Black Hills a couple weeks ago and already significant motorcycle traffic was evident, lending credence to the expectation that this year's rally would be a monster with attendance approaching 1 million bikers.

Many of the articles leading up to the 75th rally mentioned its start in 1938, giving credit to J.C. "Pappy" Hoel as the founder. I claim a unique perspective on the rally because, although I have never driven a motorcycle in my life, I was a reporter for the Sturgis weekly newspaper 1978-84, and I met with Clarence (as locals called him) and his wife Pearl at their home soon after I started at the paper. I remember him as a cordial but sort of deaf old gent. He talked about working as a young man in the family business, which was cutting and storing ice in the winter and delivering it in the summer. In 1936 when refrigeration was making ice delivery obsolete, he bought an Indian motorcycle franchise. Clarence founded the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club in 1936 and helped start the rally in 1938. I got the impression that he didn't want to take personal credit for founding the rally, but whether that was due to modesty or embarrassment about the crazier aspects of it, I'm not sure. Whenever I dealt with him after that initial interview, it didn't have to do with "the Rally," but with the White Plate Flat Trackers, an organization he helped found in 1979-80 that was devoted to preserving the history of motorcycle racing. ("White Plate" refers to the white numbered plate awarded to expert riders, and "Flat Track" was the dirt track upon which they raced.)

Part of my beat was city and county government, so I covered countless meetings where rally proponents and opponents came to debate whether the town should continue hosting this insane event. A near-riot by campers in the city park one year led to a series of meetings and a public vote. I wrote an opinion column in the paper advocating that the rally should continue because it was the thing that made the town unique. Without it, Sturgis would be just another ranch town like Belle Fourche. (No offense.) Proponents narrowly won the vote, but there were changes – camping was banned in the park and much of the partying moved, out of sight and out of mind, to new private campgrounds outside of city limits, such as the Buffalo Chip.

In 1989, nearby Deadwood embraced part of its dark history. Gambling was legalized, revitalizing that little town. Today there are dozens of casinos and hotels in Deadwood. Without Deadwood gambling and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, there still would be tourists in the Black Hills, but not nearly as many. Whatever judgments you want to make, moral or otherwise, those two decisions made back in the 1980's bring millions of dollars to the northern Black Hills each year.

Being in the middle of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was part of my job, not something I would do on my own time. These days I live 375 miles to the east and usually visit the Black Hills in the spring and fall when the roads aren't clogged with bikers and RVs. But the rally is a unique event and I'm always interested to see (on TV, not in person) what is going on.

A t-shirt from 1981, one of my few Sturgis souvenirs. The event has gone by various names over the years.