Jamming into Jamestown

New venue suits MDA fundraiser

Jamestown, Calif., June 7—Pity the poor tourists—we’re imagining a nice retired couple from Kansas decked out in matching shorts and golf shirts—who could have wandered into this normally rather sleepy little California Gold Rush-era town on the first Saturday in June. They could, perhaps, have been hoping to quietly pick up a trinket or two or grab a ride on the old steam-powered locomotive at the nearby State Historic Park known as Railtown. Whatever their plans they certainly would have gotten more than they bargained for; a whole lot more.

That’s because the indefatigable Art Mitchell, owner, along with his wife Linda, of Mitchell’s Harley-Davidson in the valley town of Modesto, had brought some 1,500 of his black-leather-garbed best friends up into the foothills for the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraiser known as the Sierra Hope Ride. Over the event’s 14-year history, SHR has raised an annual average of nearly $215,000 “for Jerry’s kids.”

In years past, the Sierra Hope riders have headed for the fairgrounds up the road in Sonora. There was one main stage and when folks weren’t getting a beer, they sat in the grandstands taking in “the show.” But last year, a rather impish Art Mitchell teased the Thunder Press crew with hints that he and his gang were going to shake things up for SHR 2008. And boy oh boy, he wasn’t kidding. This year, in a change of pace that proved very successful, the ride ended in Jamestown, where local merchants rolled out the red carpet and riders basically took over the town.

Whether or not our imaginary Midwestern couple could have known all this is open to conjecture. What they would have seen, however, was all of Art and Linda’s buddies literally roaring into town on motorcycles. Oh, and the Mitchells, who also own the Jamestown Harley shop (which is managed by their daughter Karen Aldridge and son-in-law Allen), had convinced the city fathers and mothers here to cordon off Main Street for a daylong party. Jamestown itself, with quaint, well-maintained 19th century buildings like the National Hotel, provided a fitting and colorful background for the whole affair.

With the street closed to general traffic (a subpack of top fundraisers and VIPs were allowed to park along Main Street), an army of MDA-minded volunteers had set up attractions like The Wall of Death, a beer garden, a tire-smoking motorcycle stunt show, sword swallowing, and several stages with live entertainment. Into that mix marched some local color in the form of cigar-chomping saloon girls, pistol-packing gunslingers in Old West finery, a whistling and tooting circus calliope, and a roving posse of equestrian-mounted star packers. The entire affair had the general air of a country fair for bikers and, clearly, this wasn’t Kansas.

Nor was it Milwaukee, but right there on the SHR stage in tiny Jamestown was Harley-Davidson President & COO Jim McCaslin. The Motor Company is a very strong supporter of the MDA and McCaslin reported to the crowd that this was the third time he had taken part in the Sierra Hope Ride. The new venue and street party approach got thumbs up from the Harley head man. In turn, Art Mitchell thanked McCaslin and the other Harley honchos in attendance.

Getting the party started
Despite a new end point and, arguably, a new and energized attitude, not everything about the Sierra Hope Ride changed this year. The backbone of the event is still scores of volunteers, those who raise donations all year long, and a brace of corporate sponsors and supporters.

While total ridership and donations have waxed and waned with changes in the economy and other factors, the Sierra Hope Ride has put close to $3 million in the MDA coffers over its 14-year history. It is reported to be the largest single-dealer ride of its type in the nation. (MDA receives strong corporate support from Harley-Davidson and the national, cumulative donations thus far are reported as $60 million).

Also in keeping with tradition, the 2008 SHR formed up early on Saturday morning in front of the Modesto Harley shop. There was live music, some stunt-riding demonstrations from Jason Pullen (who later did a number of shows for the crowd up in Jamestown), and refreshments. From there it was a police-escorted ride east across the valley and up into the Sierra Nevada foothills. As in years past, folks in other small towns along the way like Riverbank and Oakdale lined the ride route to clap and cheer.

The MDA reports that 76.4 percent of each donated dollar goes directly to research, education, administration, and providing health care and special services like summer camp for young people. SHR participants raise varying amounts for MDA and there are a number of incentives offered—like a chance at a drawing for a new Harley Night Train—that increase as donations rise (go to www.sierrahoperide.org for complete information).

An “amazing experience”
Even at the $50 minimum donation level, Sierra Hope Riders receive a run pin and a shot at a generous door prize (this year, an entertainment package valued at $1,000). But this year instead of a meal ticket, riders received an orange wristband that was good for up to 10 bucks at participating restaurants and merchants in Jamestown. (An accompanying green wristband was supposed to allow riders’ access to the various activities, but no one seemed to be doing much checking.)

The new wristband-redemption system proved popular with riders and merchants alike. Many restaurants offered a special $10 menu and there were other wristband deals in the trinket shops as well. If there was one drawback to this approach it came when what seemed like all 1,500 registered riders decided to eat lunch at the same time. Some kitchens got behind and long lines formed for tables nearly everywhere. But, by and large, everyone coped and the 2008 Sierra Hope street party went off with very few hitches.

Diana Koron, the director of MDA in Modesto, rode with the pack up to Jamestown and told Thunder Press that she very much enjoyed the fact that people along the way where cheering and supporting the Sierra Hope Riders. She said other riders told her they were very pleased with the route and the new terminus.

“This was an absolutely amazing experience,” Koron maintained. “The move to downtown Jamestown was a huge success. The riders seemed to have more to do, and the local merchants were very happy with the way things went. Best of all we raised lots of money for the MDA families.”

One sad note at this year’s SHR was the absence of Bryan Smith, the 10-year-old MDA ambassador from last year’s event. Bryan, whose shy smile could charm the birds out of the trees, succumbed to medical complications this last winter. Nevertheless, his grandmother Jane was on hand in Jamestown, taking up her usual post at the SHR gift shop.

From all reports, it looks like the Sierra Hope Ride has found a new party point in this Gold Country town. And while some traditional SHR features, like the auction of donated items like special quilts and awarding of raffle items (Raymond Droll of Madera won the FXSTB Night Train) went off in a little less orderly fashion, the added event features seemed to more than balance the books. Congratulations are due to Dave and Vicki Colombo, who topped the fundraising campagin by raising $9,093.

Reg Kittrelle, a member of the SHR committee and whirling dervish at this year’s event, said, “I thought things went well. There’s room for a lot of improvement but with the great support we received from the people of Jamestown, and our very loyal, trusting sponsors, the event exceeded our highest expectations.”

Kittrelle declined to discuss specific details for next year’s ride but said, “We have started planning for it already. Stay tuned.” Watch Thunder Press for announcements about SHR 15 in 2009. It’s bound to be a rootin’ tootin’ time, even if you are from Kansas.


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