Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Visit to "Hog Heaven" -- the Harley-Davidson Museum

Milwaukee is a city that is chiefly known for two things: beer and “hogs”.

Regarding the latter category, I am not referring to the animal where pork products are derived from (and in the form of sausages, which goes well with beer … but that’s a topic that will be tackled in next week’s column). What I mean by “hogs” are the roaring, high-octane, free-wheeling motorcycles made by Harley-Davidson, which is recognized around the world as one of the leading manufacturers of those two-wheeled vehicles that represent freedom, rebellion and the love of the open road.

Milwaukee is the birthplace of Harley-Davidson, and this year, the company is marking its 110th anniversary. Celebrations are going to culminate this Labour Day Weekend with a three-day blowout that will attract over 100,000 H-D riders and enthusiasts to Milwaukee. Activities include a custom bike show, the 110th MDA Parade of Heroes which will showcase H-D riders from around the world, street parties, a “Harley-Davidson Hometown Throwdown” edition of UFC 164, and a three-day concert at the Summerfest grounds (Milwaukee’s answer to Parc Jean-Drapeau), with such headline acts as Aerosmith, Kid Rock, ZZ Top, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Blue Oyster Cult, Toby Keith and the Doobie Brothers.

Perhaps the nucleus of the Harley-Davidson universe in Milwaukee is its 20-acre museum, which is located on West Canal Street in the downtown area. It’s a fascinating, interactive celebration of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and how they defined a part of American history and culture, and how it forever changed transportation into an art and a way of life.

Last month, while staffing the B’nai Brith Youth Organization’s (BBYO) Chapter Leadership Training Conference in nearby Mukwonago, me and two fellow BBYO staffers – Todd Kay from Cleveland and Marty Paz from Las Vegas – decided on our day off to check out this virtual “hog heaven” (we're pictured above, atop a Harley-Davidson hog built for three).

From the moment you set foot onto the museum grounds, you are immediately immersed into the Harley-Davidson culture, which is quite evident with the manufacturing plant-style of the museum’s exterior (with the H-D logo proudly emblazoned above the entrance), to the long lines of motorcycles that are diagonally placed in its parking lot.

As soon as we entered the museum (the permanent exhibition begins on the second floor), you are immediately given an up close history lesson on the evolution of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, as a chronological procession of actual bikes are on permanent display from 1903 until the present. The museum also includes the oldest Harley-Davidson motorcycle in existence (called “Serial Number One”, pictured below), which is displayed in a special glass encasing, and is surrounded by the actual dimensions of the original shed where it was built 110 years ago (and believe me, that shed did not allow the designers, builders and mechanics a great deal of elbow room to create this piece of transportation history).

The motorcycles that are on display (as well as the countless pieces of memorabilia and artifacts) also tell the story of Harley-Davidson’s contribution to the development of the motorcycle as a vital means of leisure, commercial and military transportation, including the armed forces during both World Wars, the post office, courier companies, and of course law enforcement (police departments began using Harley-Davidson motorcycles as early as the 1920s).

As well, there are interactive exhibits, where for example you can see and demonstrate how a typical Harley-Davidson internal combustion engine works. One of my favorite parts of the museum was its salute to how Harley-Davidson and its bikes played a role in making its company more visible to the general public through pop culture (i.e., TV shows, movies such as “The Wild One” and daredevil Evel Knievel); there is even on display the two choppers that were driven by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 cult classic film “Easy Rider” (which are pictured above). 

But what if you wanted to experience the feeling of riding an actual “hog”? The museum can help you fulfill that wish with “Jumpstart”. Located near the main entrance, it gives the visitor that rare opportunity of what it’s like to drive a genuine Harley-Davidson bike. As you sit atop a current model of the bike, a licensed instructor from the Harley-Davidson University gives you a step-by-step lesson on how to operate and drive it, from starting up the engine, to accelerating and stopping, to changing gears, maintaining speeds and using the clutch (pictured on the right is my friend Marty Paz "riding" a hog). And by the way, don’t worry about driving off with the bike … the rear wheel is placed on a treadmill. The three of us tried this motorcycle ride simulation, and realized the great feeling one gets when they tear down the road on one of these high-powered machines, and what it involves to operate it (I handled it pretty well, I have to admit … although the engine “stalled” on me only once).
So whether you have a passing interest or a passion for motorcycles, or whether you are born to be wild or mild (I fall into the latter category, just take a look at me atop this vintage late 1920s/early 1930s H-D motorcycle), the Harley-Davidson Museum is the ideal place to discover America, and the world’s, two-wheeled love affair with the motorcycle.

For more information about the museum, as well as the Harley-Davidson 110th anniversary celebrations, check out their website at

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This blog post originally appeared in my Grapevine column in the August 10, 2013 edition of the West End Times.

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