One spin around the block on the back of a motorcycle does not a biker chick make. But that was my mother’s fear when my high school friend Janice’s older brother took me for a short ride through the neighborhood. I don’t remember the bike brand or the brother’s name, just that the jaunt was an incredible teenage thrill.
It was my first and only motorcycle trip. I don’t own a black leather jacket or chaps and am tattoo-free. But for some reason I wanted to see the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee and stay at the nearby Iron Horse Hotel, which caters to bikers and business travelers. I guess it was a chance to release my inner Easy Rider without getting bugs in my teeth.
On a former industrial site along the Menomonee River in a compound designed to resemble a factory, the Harley-Davidson Museum tells the story of the company founded in Milwaukee in 1903 by William Harley and the Davidson brothers: Arthur, Walter and William.
Self-guided tours begin at the shrine-like display of the oldest existing Harley, Serial Number One, built 110 years ago.
The souped-up bicycle with white tires is parked in a 10’ x 15’ area outlined to illustrate the size of the partners’ first workshop, a wooden shed in the Davidsons’ backyard.
Hundreds of artifacts related to Harley-Davidson styling, engineering, advertising and promotion fill the galleries. My eyes glaze over at the mechanical stats about the bikes, but there’s plenty of engrossing historical and cultural content.
I am surprised to learn how popular motorcycles were with women in the early 20th century, and that in 1908 the Detroit Police Department took delivery on the first law enforcement motorcycle.
The Tank Wall, an exhibit of 100 colorful gas tanks, and the replica of a board track with vintage daredevil racing motorcycles have the Wow! factor. Cameras click at the time-line parade of 145 bikes. If I had to choose a favorite it would be the stylish, two-toned 1936 EL V-twin, considered the first modern Harley for those eye-glazing reasons mentioned earlier.
“Russ and Peg’s Rhinestone Harley,” a 1977 Electra-Glide hand-decorated with thousands of studs, rivets, reflectors and Swarovski crystals creates a buzz in the Custom Culture gallery. Elvis fans appreciate the red and white 1956 KH motorcycle—with the original sale and insurance papers—that he bought four days after recording “Heartbreak Hotel.”
In the Experience Gallery visitors climb aboard a choice of Harleys (no worry about them tipping, they’re bolted to the floor) as scenery rolls across a giant video screen to hint at what it’s like to two-wheel it on the open road. That’s probably as close as I’ll get to sampling Hog Heaven.
110 Years of H-D
Check the museum website for tours, events and more celebrating Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary throughout 2013.
400 W. Canal St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin
(877) 436-8736 or (414) 287-2789
Open daily; admission is charged.
Guided tours offer in-depth looks at the exhibits and behind-the-scenes for an additional fee; see website for times and details.
The Motor Bar and Restaurant dishes up all-American food and drinks. Find leather jackets, bike models, posters, one-of-a-kind HD collectibles and more at the Museum Shop.
Iron Horse Hotel
Nearby boutique hotel caters to bikers and others.
In the Walker’s Point Neighborhood
We walked to La Fuente, a popular spot for reliable Mexican dishes, seafood and vegetarian options. Famous for Margaritas, Tequila and Mexican beer selections. If the weather’s good choose to eat in the courtyard with tiled fountain.
Great Lakes Distillery makes small batches of handcrafted vodka, gin, rum, whiskey, absinthe and other spirits. Tours are free; a flight of five samples is $5.