Over the Fourth of July weekend in 1947, the American Motorcyclist Association Gypsy Tour rolled into the sleepy farming town of Hollister, California. By the time it rolled out, nothing would ever again be the same for motorcyclists, who the non-riding public would forever afterward see through a lens clouded with black leather, big Harleys, beer, and bad behavior.
The small town, still reeling from the aftershocks of World War II with the rest of the country, played witness to violence, crashes, arrests and destruction in an incident that many say cemented the “outlaw” image of the motorcyclist still prevalent in culture today.
Depending on who you talk to, Hollister is either a watershed event in the history of motorcycling, or a long-dead horse that some motorcyclists just can’t stop beating. Whether it really turned the American public against motorcyclists, or merely served as a scapegoat for a problem that already existed long before the Gypsy Tour roared into that small California town in 1947, is a question that will never be settled for certain.
But the debate that still smolders 68 years later has been marked by both a scarcity of facts and a surplus of fancy. I had heard enough versions of the “truth” about Hollister over the years that when I was assigned to write a piece about it in 1994 for the inaugural issue of American Rider, I took to the task eagerly, and remained interested in the topic for long enough afterward to do some additional investigation.
First, some background: On the evening of Thursday, July 3, 1947, motorcyclists began arriving in Hollister for the annual Gypsy Tour, a three-day carnival of races and field events planned for the Fourth of July weekend. By the next day their numbers had swollen beyond expectations.
AMA officials said they had registered 1,500 riders and that at least that many more had arrived but not registered. Later estimates of the number of riders in the town of 4,900 varied, but the most frequently quoted figure was 4,000.
By Saturday night the celebration began spilling over into the streets. The local hospital was jammed with injured bikers, and the police arrested so many revelers for a variety of offenses that a special session of night court was convened.
About 30 California Highway Patrol officers armed with tear-gas guns were called in to supplement the overmatched Hollister police force. Two blocks of the main drag, San Benito Avenue, were cordoned off and all but ceded to the motorcyclists. A band was summoned to play for them, and they danced amid discarded beer bottles. By Sunday, with the county jail bulging with hungover lawbreakers, the party began to run out of steam. The last of the motorcyclists left after Monday’s races, and life returned to something like normal in Hollister.
How bad was the Gypsy Tour? Did the police over-react? Did the press exaggerate the damage?
The question is so subjective that it borders on pointless. Remember that many of the young men who converged on Hollister that weekend arrived with the horrors of a world war still fresh in their memories. To someone who had stormed the beach at Normandy, or huddled in a foxhole on some flyspeck of sand in the Pacific, riding a motorcycle through the doors of a restaurant was nothing to get upset about.
To some of the folks on the home front, however, who had spent the war years tilling their fields, raising their children and praying that the chaos devouring the world would spare their community, it couldn’t have been any more terrifying if German tanks had come rolling down San Benito Avenue.
Less subjective is the question of whether, as is often claimed, the press unfairly exaggerated events. The primary source of information about that weekend was the local newspaper, the Free Lance, whose reporters were not only first on the scene, but fielded telephone calls from newspapers all across the country as word of the event spread.
I decided to try to find out.
In the late 1990s, back issues of the Free Lance were available on microfilm, so I ordered them up from my local library. From these reports I gleaned the essential details of the story that spread in the wake of the Gypsy Tour.
Next I ordered microfilm back issues of prominent national newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Times. Not surprisingly, the farther the paper was from Hollister, the more perfunctory its accounts were.
In contrast to the multiday coverage in the Free Lance and the Chronicle, the Chicago Daily Tribune gave a total of 67 lines of copy to the story, the Los Angeles Times 60, and the New York Times a mere 43, and none ran photos. The tale did not grow in the telling, as I had often heard charged, but rather shrank, and the Free Lance’s account was, for the most part, accurately retold, not grossly exaggerated, in subsequent press reports.
The locals were divided in their reaction to the “invasion” of their town. “It has always been a pleasure to come to Hollister to shop—until I came over Saturday,” wrote R.E. Stevenson of nearby Salinas in a letter to the editor of the Free Lance.
“The town was overrun with lawless, drunken, filthy bands of motorcycle fiends and it was impossible for law-abiding citizens to drive on your streets…drunks slept in the gutters…What is the matter with your city trustees that they allow such disgraceful happenings?”
That earned this heated response from Mrs. Ruth Reynolds:
“R.E. Stevenson, our Salinas shopper, might well pick his hometown’s skirts out of the mud before he writes any more letters to the editor….While he may have been offended by the somewhat noisy mob that cluttered up his personal shopping district, I wonder what his reactions were to the indescribable horror that roared up and down Main Street in Salinas on a Saturday night during the recent rodeo…If (motorcyclists) slept in the gutter they took an awful chance—some Salinas motorist might have run over them…It was noisy, often annoying, but was damage-free….”
Just as the furor was dying down in Hollister, a single photograph fanned it back to life. The photo showed an apparently drunk biker on a Harley, a beer bottle in each hand and many more on the ground beneath his bike.
It appeared on page 31 (not on the cover, as is often claimed) of the July 21, 1947, issue of Life magazine, over the headline “Cyclists’ Holiday,” the subhead “He and friends terrorize a town,” and the following caption:
On the Fourth of July weekend 4,000 members of a motorcycle club roared into Hollister, California, for a three-day convention. They quickly tired of ordinary motorcycle thrills and turned to more exciting stunts. Racing their vehicles down the main street and through traffic lights, they rammed into restaurants and bars, breaking furniture and mirrors. Some rested by the curb. Others hardly paused. Police arrested many for drunkenness and indecent exposure but could not restore order. Finally, after two days, the cyclists left with a brazen explanation. “We like to show off. It’s just a lot of fun.” But Hollister’s police chief took a different view. Wailed he, “It’s just one hell of a mess.”
Life’s national distribution made sure that all of America got a good, long look at the drunk on the Harley. The photo, one of two that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, July 7, was taken in Hollister the previous Friday night by Chronicle photographer Barney Peterson. With the click of a shutter, motorcycling’s worst nightmare became a reality. To many motorcyclists, that one stark, black-and-white image dealt a fatal blow to their cherished self-image.
Just as allegations of exaggeration were leveled at the press accounts of the Gypsy Tour, rumors that the photo was faked have survived to the present day. At first glance, there’s nothing in the photo that is inconsistent with the general description of the events. There were certainly motorcycles in town that weekend. Police records show numerous arrests for drunkenness. And in the aftermath, city street sweepers reported hauling away at least half a ton of broken glass, mostly from beer bottles thrown in the street.
My early attempts to authenticate the photo were stymied by the fact that Barney Peterson had died a few years before. He was well remembered by his surviving colleagues at the Chronicle. “Barney was not the type to fake a picture,” recalled Jerry Telfer, a photo assignment editor who knew Peterson. “Barney was the kind of fellow who had a very keen sense of ethics, pictorial ethics as well as word ethics.”
I then shifted the focus of my search to try to discover the identity of the drunk on the bike. Peterson took less than a dozen photos in Hollister, only two of which appeared in the Chronicle. The rest sat in the photo morgue until they were published in a book called Bikes: Motorcycles and the People Who Ride Them, by Thierry Sagnier.
In this book a second photo of the drunk appears, this time with a jacket draped over his shoulder. Across the back of the jacket, partially obscured, is a patch that reads “Tulare Raiders” and “Dave” underneath.
I got back in touch with the Chronicle and spoke to a man there named Gary Fong. I asked him if Peterson had written down Dave’s full name or any other information about him that might help me track him down.
Fong, who had already spoken to Jerry Telfer about the photo, said that he had “got back to the negative, and on the negative is the name Eddie Davenport.” Fong added, “That’s what photographers did with large-format, 4×5 negatives, they put it in ink or pencil. This one’s in ink. After the negative’s dried, and they’re ready to archive it, they usually put the subject [on it].”
If the drunk on the Harley was in fact named Eddie Davenport, it increased the likelihood that the jacket he held in one of the pictures had been borrowed from someone named Dave—although it’s interesting to note that the name Davenport contains the name Dave. A nickname, maybe?
The name Dave by itself wasn’t enough to go on, so I concentrated on finding Eddie Davenport. I contacted the Tulare County Assessor’s Office and found no record of an Eddie Davenport owning property in the county. I placed an ad in the local newspaper, the Tulare Advanced Register, seeking an Eddie Davenport who had attended the 1947 Gypsy Tour in Hollister; I also placed ads in papers in several adjoining areas, and sent flyers to a dozen or so motorcycle shops in the Central Valley.
Those ads and flyers had an unexpected result. Daniel Corral, Jr., a Hollister resident and a member of the San Benito County Historical Society, saw one of them and contacted me. He, too, was researching Hollister, and was also interested in the identity and whereabouts of Dave/Eddie Davenport.
Neither of us had come up with anything so far, but then Corral told me he knew the identity of the man in the Life photo who was standing on the sidewalk behind the drunk on the bike. That man’s name was Gus De Serpa, and he still lived in Hollister. What’s more, Corral said, De Serpa claimed to have watched Barney Peterson stage the photo.
In April of 1997, American Rider editor Buzz Buzzelli and I traveled to Hollister to talk to Gus De Serpa. He and his wife Mary Lou invited us to their home where Gus told us what he had seen that night.
De Serpa was working as a movie projectionist in the Granada Theatre on the night of Friday, July 4, 1947, and after his shift ended at 11 p.m. he walked over to San Benito Avenue to take in the spectacle the whole town was talking about.
“We went uptown, my former wife and I,” recalled De Serpa, “to see all the excitement, and we ran into these people. They were on the sidewalk and there was a photographer. They started to scrape up the bottles with their feet, you know, from one side to another, and then they took the motorcycle and picked it up and set it right in the glass.”
Of the man on the motorcycle, De Serpa said, “That’s not his motorcycle, I can tell you that. He was just in the vicinity, and he was pretty well loaded. There was a bar right there, Johnny’s Bar. I think he came wandering out of that bar, and they just got him to sit down there. I told my wife, ‘That’s not right; they shouldn’t be doing that. Let’s stand behind them so they won’t take the picture.’ I figured if I was behind them they wouldn’t take it. But he took a picture anyhow, this fellow did, he didn’t care. And then after that, everybody went on about their business.”
De Serpa’s testimony would seem to settle the matter of the photo’s authenticity. At the same time, his recollection of the events of that night means it’s unlikely we’ll ever discover the true identity of the drunk. There never was any evidence that the bike in the photo was his—De Serpa was adamant that it wasn’t—or that he was even a motorcyclist.
The jacket with the Tulare Raiders patch might have been borrowed from an onlooker, just as the motorcycle apparently had been. Dave/Eddie could just as easily have been a farm hand who was knocking back a few cold ones after a long day of riding a tractor, not a Harley, and who on leaving Johnny’s Bar was asked by a man with a camera to sit on a motorcycle.
But does the fact that the photo was faked really change anything? To blame the events in Hollister, or the Barney Peterson photo, for the negative image that makes some motorcyclists squirm today is too simplistic.
If all motorcyclists had been model citizens before Hollister, it’s unlikely that the public’s perception of them would have been so drastically altered by an isolated incident. Nor would that incident alone have transformed sober, industrious motorcyclists into the kind of moody, unpredictable, beer-swilling thugs portrayed in movies like The Wild One and countless biker-gang B-movie stinkers.
In the years since I interviewed Gus De Serpa in 1997, I’ve spent more than a few idle hours thinking about all this, and I’m still not sure what to make of it. On one side is Jerry Telfer, a man who knew and worked with Barney Peterson, and who remembered him as an honest and ethical photojournalist.
On the other side is a man who said he saw Peterson staging what was probably the most well-known picture the photographer ever took, and whose claim is bolstered by his presence in the photo itself.
That’s not the only question that remains unanswered. If the drunk on the Harley was in fact a motorcyclist named Eddie Davenport, why did he never come forward to tell the truth about the role he played in the famous photo?
For a long time I thought I’d never know. I originally wrote this piece about Hollister––which you’re reading here substantially unchanged except for a few updates––on a blog in 2010. Then other work came along and I forgot about it.
When I happened to check back a year later I saw a comment had been left by someone who signed it “Garry E Clovis Ca.” I had no luck tracking him down, but what he wrote seems to solve the mystery of the true identity of the biker in the Barney Peterson photo. This is what he wrote:
I have read some of the info on this staged bike picture in Holister. I may have some final truth to the man that is in this historical picture. His name is in fact Eddie Davenport. When he was alive we called him Murice. He is my wife’s uncle. The things that I have read about him are some what true. The one thing that is not true is he was not a drunk. At least in his older days. He would not talk about that time in Hollister. So I can’t speak about that time in his life. He did live in the Lemore- Hanford-Tulare area in his youger days. He passed a number of years back. He was a great man. He was very private with is life. I hope I helped with the true name and where he lived. He only has one brother left. That would be my father in law.
Today, some motorcyclists embrace the so-called Hollister Riots as a middle finger to the establishment that, ironically, many of them––with jobs and mortgages and kids––are part of. A modern revival called the Hollister Freedom Rally gives them the chance to revel in the bad-boy image handed down to them, albeit unintentionally, by men like Eddie Davenport.
But even though the event is more organized and better policed, there are still occasional clashes between biker gangs, and the main drag is closed down to all vehicles except motorcycles, disrupting traffic and business. As a result the locals are still hotly divided over whether their town should celebrate the legacy of 1947 or forget it entirely.
Jerry Smith has been a full-time motojournalist for more than 30 years. You’d think by now he would have found a real job.
A version of this piece originally appeared on the Cycle Guide blog and has been republished here with permission.
Photo credit Barney Peterson/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
Categories: Biker Lifestyle