If you don’t ride a motorcycle, you may never understand the freedom of the road, and if you don’t belong to the Greater Akron Motorcycle Club, you may never appreciate the kinship.
It’s been a long ride for the family-oriented club, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month with a birthday bash at the group’s 8.5-acre home at Smith and Riverview roads in the Merriman Valley.
When the group formed in 1919, many city roads were unpaved. Traveling between communities was a great adventure.
“Akron motorcyclists will open the riding season with a sociability run to Youngstown and return April 27,” the Beacon Journal reported April 22, 1919. “This run will be in the nature of a contest. B.A. Waltz will act as referee. The run is assured of nearly 100 entries and the leading motorcycle dealers in the city plan to surprise Youngstown with Akron’s array of two wheelers.”
In those days, Akron motorcycle dealers Joseph J. Bertele, William Coleman, Robert R. Raymund and Henry T. Wagner were licensed to sell such brands as Harley-Davidson, Indian, Henderson, Cleveland, Excelsior and Thor.
The Greater Akron Motorcycle Club, which received charter No. 80 from the American Motorcyclist Association in 1926, was sponsored by Harley dealer Hal Hagarty, whose East Market Street shop later moved to Water Street.
For four decades, the club was famous for holding hill climbs in which motorcyclists tried to reach the top of a steep slope for glory and prize money.
During the mid-1920s, the climb was held at Mount Akron, a 290-foot-long hill on Merriman Road. Only two riders, Orrie Steele and Johnny Grove, ever made it to the top of the 67-degree incline.
The action switched to a 280-foot bluff in Peninsula, known as Mount Peninsula and Seikel Hill, where an estimated 5,000 spectators attended some years. In 1967, the Peninsula Village Council prohibited the climb, citing the difficulty in managing crowds and traffic.
Club of its own
The club bought the wooded property at Smith and Riverview roads in 1955.
“At that time, it was almost all barren,” said Jerry Derhammer, 76, of Tallmadge, a past president and senior member who joined in 1965. ”… There was nothing else down here but us.”
Over the years, members have remodeled and expanded the clubhouse and added a lake, picnic area and playground. Passing motorists sometimes mistake the private land for a public park.
As the Cuyahoga Valley became a popular destination, club members declined several offers to sell.
“Lawson’s wanted to buy the corner and they would move our clubhouse down the field,” Derhammer said. “And we turned them down. And all Lawson’s wanted was the corner for a store.”
Lawson’s is gone, but the club is still there.
Stories about the club’s acts of kindness are legendary. When a member was killed in a crash on the day before he planned to paint his house, dozens of motorcyclists swarmed the home and painted it in a single day.
When a car carrying four women had a flat tire on Interstate 77 in the rain, a club member stopped his bike, changed the tire and refused any pay.
When a bus filled with older women crashed on the way to Blossom Music Center, they were invited into the clubhouse for refreshments while other transportation could be arranged.
“It’s not your average motorcycle club,” said Pat Tenney, 61, of Stow, a past president and board of control member who joined in 2000. “It’s not a TV motorcycle club. It’s a family club. We do a lot in the community.”
Members have raised money for countless groups, including Hattie Larlham, Greater Akron Autism Society, Akron Children’s Hospital, Susan Komen, Tadmor Shrine Circus, Muffins for Mammograms, ABC Food Pantry, Camp Quality, Greater Akron Humane Society and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
“After we stopped doing hill climbs, we started doing poker runs,” said former officer Tom Cox, 63, of Stow, who officially joined in 1998.
During the Centurion Poker Run, motorcyclists drive on a 100-mile course and pick up playing cards at checkpoints. Those with the highest poker hands win prizes. Proceeds benefit local charities.
“The 47th annual Centurion run will be Aug. 11,” Cox said. “That’s where we usually get anywhere from 500 to 1,200 people.”
For 23 years, the club has been a mainstay at the Super Kids Classic, a Soap Box Derby race for children with disabilities.
“You wanna see the big, tough bikers cry? Yeah, come to Super Kids,” said club secretary Richard Robinson, 58, of Green, who officially joined the club in 1992 and whose father, Gene, belonged before him.
Club members, some wearing beards, tattoos and leather vests, work the bottom of the hill during the Derby Downs event. They stop the two-seater cars, get the kids out and take them and their rides back to the top.
“They know we’re not going to let anything happen to those kids,” Tenney said. “They’re our No. 1 priority.”
Tenney joined the club after his autistic grandson raced in Super Kids.
“The day after the race, we have a picnic down here,” he said. “You want to see something cool? You see that pond lined with wheelchairs and the kids fishing. The parents can relax. … They see these big, tough bikers putting worms on hooks, taking fish off.”
Family, work, club
Prospect Dana Cole, 62, of West Akron, an associate professor of law at the University of Akron, has a clock running on his smartphone. It’s counting down the minutes until the club votes on his membership June 6.
“I was looking for a group of motorcyclists to ride with but also a traditional motorcycle club,” he said. “Pat was the past president and the first person I met when I pulled up. And the first thing he said to me is ‘This club is about family, work and club — in that order.’ That was impressive.”
He admired how club members rallied around a seriously ill colleague.
“That let me know that the heart and the soul of the club is good,” he said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to join.”
The club has about 90 members, and it doesn’t matter what brand of motorcycle they prefer as long as they ride. When they join, they are owners. The clubhouse is filled with photos, awards, scrapbooks and other mementos. The ashes of several members have been spread on the grounds.
“It evolved over the years to what it is now,” Derhammer said. “And it’s due to these gentlemen right here all chipping in and making it all work along with the other club members.”
The Greater Akron Motorcycle Club will have a private 100th anniversary dinner March 30 with plans for a public event July 27. And then, as always, the members will hit the road.
“We’re making new history every day,” Robinson said. “Respect the past and embrace the future.”
Mark J. Price can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.