Biker Lifestyle

Did a riot really break out in a small California town during a 1947 motorcycle rally? Motorcycle club rides strong -Members encourage other riders to join

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These weren’t the headers to tabloid drivel. No, these were titles to articles published by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee in the wake of what one Chronicle staff writer described as “terrorism.”

First, a little background: In 1947, the City of Hollister, a small agricultural town about 150 miles south of Sacramento, revived its annual Fourth of July motorcycle rally it had held prior to the start of World War II.

Less than a 1,000 attendees were expected to show up for the weekend’s activities, but by the night of July 4, some 4,000 people had descended on Hollister, instantly doubling the city’s population, according to averages from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Chronicle had flown two of its reporters down to Hollister to cover the rally, and the highly stylized coverage that emerged from that weekend would go on to inspire the cult classic “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando, and give birth to the image of the “outlaw biker.”

But did “an estimated 4,000 motorcyclists” really “terrorize the city for two days,” as the Chronicle reported? Were 100 persons “jailed during the ruckus for drunkenness, disturbing the peace and reckless driving,” as was published in the Sacramento Bee?

To prove or bust the myth of the so-called riot, I rode down to Hollister last weekend, where the city was holding the 70th anniversary of the infamous rally, and talked to the one person who could set the record straight: Hollister Police Chief Dave Westrick.

“I’ve actually looked at the logbook for 1947, on July 4, and there was one arrest for public intoxication,” Westrick said. “Really not much going on that day.”

Westrick said his mother-in-law, who was 7 years old in 1947, remembers selling bread to the bikers who’d shown up to the rally, and described them as being “very nice.”

Fred A. Earle, Hollister’s Chief of Police during the incident, was quoted in the Chronicle as saying the gathering was “the worst 40 hours in Hollister’s history.”

Westrick disagrees.

“I think the incident was much ado about nothing back then,” he said.

Still, despite the exaggerated claims (or “fake news”), the legend of the Hollister riot remains culturally significant, not only for bike enthusiasts and Brando’s career, but for a whole generation who viewed anyone on a loud, chopped up motorcycle as a “hoodlum,” “jerk,” or “menace.”

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Hometown Source

When asked how they would describe the feeling of riding a motorcycle, Lakeville’s Heritage Center motorcycle club said there is not a way to describe it.

“It’s kind of like when you got your first bike as a kid, that freedom,” member Arlin Miller said.

“It’s exciting and you just can’t explain it. Somebody said it really good one time, if you got to explain it, you’ll never understand it,” member Keith Overbey said.

The motorcycle club is one of many clubs the Heritage Center offers through its Lakeville Area Active Adults program and started in 2005. Since then, the club has gained members and lost members. Both men and women are welcome to join.

Twice a month, an email is sent by leader Bob Powell to remind the approximately 19 members they’re riding. According to Powell, every other Thursday, about five to seven members show up for the ride and each rider has their own unique bike. Every type is welcome, he adds.

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“Most of us are retired and don’t have time to ride motorcycles,” Powell said while letting out an immediate laugh.

He adds there are rules the group abides by. It is required everyone riding must wear a helmet, everyone must be kind and obey the speed limits.

“We don’t ride side by side; we ride a staggered formation because it’s safer. If someone stops quickly, it gives you more room to stop,” member Doug Thompson said.

Much like Powell, the majority of the group joined to get out of the house and do an activity most of them grew up doing.

“When I retired they kept telling me you have to stay involved, talk and communicate or you’ll just get old and die. Rather than getting old and dying, I’m staying old and not dying … it’s also getting me out of the yard because I feel like I’m working on that all the time,” Powell said.

Keith Overbey started riding as soon as he was old enough to and hasn’t stopped since. He travels North America riding around 30,000 miles per year.

“I ride every chance I get,” Overbey said.

One of Overbey’s most memorable trips was when he rode to Alaska and back with a friend.

“I have not been to the Northwest Territories before but I’ve been to the rest of the Canadian provinces … so that was my goal for the summer,” he said.

Overbey has also rode through three Caribbean islands and hopes to someday ride through all 48 states.

Other members ride with other groups in the area in addition to their individual rides.

Husband and wife Ron and Shelly Larson both rode when they were younger and now ride in the group together as well as take rides as a couple.

“I started riding in the late 70s when I was laid off from my job. It was cheaper to ride around on a motorcycle than a car. I kept it for a few years, then I sold it and now I just ride,” Shelly Larson said.

The group hits a new destination for lunch each ride but the destination is not decided until the day of. Their rides fall on the longer side. One trip can fall around 200 miles or so.

“We don’t have to talk to each other on motorcycles. We tolerate each other at lunch,” Thompson said while laughing.

The group’s casual attitude toward their destination shows the real reason they’re there is to ride and enjoy each other’s company.

“The (Heritage) Center is the place to meet people. … If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have joined. … It gives us something to do together,” member Emmet Burdash said.

More information is available at 952-985-4620 or at LakevilleHeritageCenter.com.

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