Hanging onto history

Biker birthplace strikes a balance

Hollister, Calif., July 12—They held something called the 61st Annual Hollister Motorcycle Rally here the second weekend in July. But it really never has been an annual event, so the title was maybe a bit misleading. True, going clear back to the 1930s and ’40s, Hollister has attracted motorcyclists. And in the halcyon days right after the Second World War, a new breed of freewheeling bikers really ripped it up in this small Northern California farm town. They came to race, climb the nearby hills, and do some impromptu street stunts.

But those rough-and-tumble days are long gone. Now, for several blocks down on San Benito Street in the tattered-at-corners part of the city long ago abandoned for the suburbs by most businesses and residents, a so-called vendor village of makeshift tents lines the pavement. Here in what is euphemistically called “Old Town” they’re peddling everything from snow cones to sunglasses to motorcycle parts.

Even if the event is a watered-down “family-friendly” version of the—depending on your point of view—good or the bad old days, riders make an annual pilgrimage here anyway, and they do it in impressive numbers. Acknowledging that assessing attendance at a rally with no gated entrance is “anybody’s guess,” Hollister rally officials nevertheless reported that about the same number of folks were here this year as last when attendance was set at some 130,000 for the weekend.

It had to start somewhere
In theory, this year’s three-day show commemorated a July Fourth, 1947 weekend dust-up between law enforcement and World War II veterans who came on their bobbed motorcycles as part of a Gypsy Tour looking to do some racing and to celebrate the freedoms for which they had fought so hard.

That meant drinking a few beers and letting off some steam as well. When a few of the rowdier riders got thrown in the local clink, the city newspapers and East Coast weekly magazines that constituted the national news media of the day were quick to run stories about the “Hollister Riot.” In turn, the event spawned movies like “The Wild One” with a sneering, black-jacketed Marlon Brando and suitably surly, scruffy Lee Marvin setting biker archetypes that still endure. There were editorials and observations by official motorcycledom that only 1 percent of the biker apple barrel was rotten. In hindsight, many now call Hollister “the birthplace of the American biker.”

Whether that was ever true, the rally was revived under that banner in 1997 in time for a 50th anniversary of sorts. But after a few years of shaky relations with the general community, the Hollister Independence Rally pooped out again in 2006. Horse Power Promotions, a Southern California outfit that produces several other bike-related events annually, brought the Hollister rally back last year but with some significant changes: It would no longer be held over the Fourth of July weekend. Hence, it would no longer be the Hollister Independence Rally, a title that had multiple meanings for many bikers who view this as a motorcycle Mecca.

Of equal significance, attendees’ bikes would not be allowed on the main drag, having been replaced by a blocks-long row of vendors. Those changes were met with some muttering, especially by those who had attended the event back in the ’90s, but most riders were just happy to have Hollister back.

The Mild Ones
Once again this year along Old Town’s barricaded-off main drag, vendor tents took the center stage. Here, baby strollers outnumbered the bikes. Nonriding locals and tourists mingled with the black-leather set. Rather than a rowdy tribute to independence and hard-won freedoms, this crowd seemed content to celebrate the selling of T-shirts, lemonade, and trinkets. If anything, these were the mild ones.

And, also once again, vendors liked the change, while many Hollister rally veterans still muttered about not being able to park or parade down the event’s main drag. But the word from Seth Doulton, the principal guy with Horse Power Promotions, is that these changes are permanent. According to Doulton, the banning of bikes on San Benito—which also normally serves as State Highway 26—is “all about safety.” He said it would take only one errant bike “plowing into the crowd” to seriously damage the whole event.

“You have my word,” promised Doulton, “as long as I’m promoting this rally it will never change back to bike parking on San Benito.”

As to the move away from the Fourth of July weekend, he said, “At first I thought I may have shot myself in the foot but it seems to be working out.”

Those wanting an authentic biker campout experience could toss a sleeping bag down in Bolado Park a few miles out of town. According to Seth, some 1,500 campers did so this year with the Gypsy Tour at Bolado.

Anyone wanting to see riders actually riding motorcycles at Hollister this year was free to hang over the barricade at Fourth and San Benito streets. At this intersection no traffic direction personnel were provided and riders, trucks, cars, and pedestrians struggled to comply with the traffic light and crossing signals. On average, the riders traveled in 20-foot increments. Or one could—and many did—tour the outlying bike-only parking lots or the bike-lined residential streets.

Mean streets
Another big change at the Hollister Rally is the significantly increased presence of law enforcement throughout the weekend. A virtual alphabet soup of agency acronyms adorned the paramilitary uniforms of the officers on hand. Several groups made up of from five to 10 officers were on continuous ground patrol. Police helicopters hovered overhead, officers were seen on the tops of buildings, and marked and unmarked cars patrolled the surrounding area. Thunder Press witnessed several instances where law enforcement officers were making notes of motorcycle club members and photographing their bikes.

Asked about the police presence here, Doulton said he isn’t pro law enforcement, “but I am pro safety.” He thought that the number of officers on site was down this year compared to last. No arrest statistics were available at press time but Doulton said he believed those would also be down this year. However, local news articles quoted law enforcement’s speculation that DUI arrests during the rally were up for the 2008 event. Reportedly, two motorcycles were stolen during the rally.

Despite what appears to be the intent to squeeze riders’ bikes out of the Hollister equation (or, at least, to marginalize them), some two-wheelers managed to sneak in anyway via vendor displays. Notable was the booth of the House of Thunder Harley-Davidson dealerships in nearby Morgan Hill. Builders like Bike Mike’s Choppers, Scott Long’s Central Coast Cycles, Satya Kraus from Kraus Motorco, and Kirk Taylor’s Design Studio were also on hand. Tucked away in various corners of the venue, there were some bike games and a small bike show.

In another new wrinkle this year, the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce took over sales of the official rally T-shirts. Despite coming up with a pretty nifty design, sales of the shirts were good but reportedly not great. Those who missed out buying one at the rally can do so online for $20 at www.sanbenitocountychamber.com (click on “Chamber Store” to place an order).

One of the best bike-related events from a spectator point of view was the show provided by the five-man team of daredevils from the High Rollers Stunt Team. Their wall-climbing feats inside the “Wall of Death” had folks lined up and cheering as they raced Harleys and go-karts up the insides of their 14-foot-high wooden barrel.

Other bike businesses included Santa Clarita Choppers, Road Rage Motorcycles, and Corbin Motorcycle Seats, one of the big sponsors of the Hollister event. Corbin’s factory is on the north edge of town and was the launching point for several optional regional bike rides that were led by Open Road Motorcycle Tours at $25 a bike, and some vendor displays like Samson Exhaust were on the Corbin lot.

Several motorcycle clubs were on hand as well, with booths from the Top Hatters MC (which started here in the late 1940s), various chapters of the Hell’s Angels MC, and the Boozefighters, who were given a tribute on the main stage late Sunday afternoon. On Saturday, the Top Hatters’ annual poker run gave riders a good tour of the area. Several Christian rider groups, including the Black Sheep, Christian Motorcycle Association, and the Soldiers for Christ MC, were in Hollister.

Various insurance companies, motorcycle-accident attorneys, hawkers of patches, hankies, panties, and eye wear were more than amply represented. Over at the Jack Daniel’s Experience they were—just as in the “dry” Tennessee county where it’s made—experiencing everything but a shot of Jack. Someone from Hearst Castle State Park was on hand, and there were at least nine “Official Merchandise” booths scattered about. The Jerky Hut was about 40 vendor spots away from the Rub and Tug Massage booth. Who knew?

There were several fenced-in beer gardens with live entertainment. On the main stage, the MoFo Party Band and National Dust were two of the more entertaining groups. Those who didn’t want to slurp too many of the $7-a-whack outdoor brews could head inside at places like Whiskey Creek or Johnny’s Bar and Grill (where there were $2 drafts).

Hell’s Angel, businessman, and author Ralph “Sonny” Barger was here to sign books and chat with supporters. Over at the Boozefighters MC booth, Bill Hayes was on hand signing copies of his book, The Original Wild Ones. Included were tales of how the BFMC came to Hollister back in the day and one or more of them rode their scoots into Johnny’s and, hence, into the biker history books.

Doulton says that for future Hollister rallies, he wants to return some of the historical significance of the event by including motorcycle races and, possibly, hill climbs as well. (www.horsepowerpromotions.com)


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