– Folks from around the world on the Harley-Davidson tour, attempting to pronounce “Wauwatosa”
The Harley-Davidson plant that existed on 124th Street and Capitol Drive was an important place for everyone who stopped for a tour. (It’s now a giant U-Haul rental place). How do I know? I was there, Gandalf. I was also there 3,000 years ago when Elton John took the stage at the 100th Anniversary celebration in downtown Milwaukee.
Okay, it was more like 22 years ago. And I was too tired from giving tours that weekend to take advantage of my free ticket to the festivities. But the memories remain and, in advance of Harley’s 120th Anniversary Homecoming event July 13-16, it seems like a good time to dust off my recollections of the experience for the fine folks at Milwaukee Record.
The year was 2002. A dashing young rogue by the name of Tobey Maguire had just shown the world that Spider-Man could be a movie star. I returned to Milwaukee after having spent a year on the East Coast after graduating college. Having an English degree with an emphasis in Creative Writing meant there weren’t a lot of places hungry for my qualifications. But I could talk, thanks to a stint at the college radio station and partying with the theater department.
My college roommate’s girlfriend had come into a unique position while I was away in Boston. Harley-Davidson hosted factory tours in three locations: York, Pennsylvania; Kansas City, Missouri; and its Capitol Drive plant here in Milwaukee. Or more specifically, Butler. Or Wauwatosa, according to the T-shirts in the gift shop.
I thought it was a lovely opportunity. I got to do a show a few times a day and meet a bunch of people from all over the world. There was also the hope that, at the end of the contract period, I would find some work as a full-time Harley-Davidson employee. It never happened, of course, even after our boss bent over backwards to keep people on (or rehire them as contractors after a six month off period). For those caught up in employment drama or insurance issues, it’s been going on for 20 years, if not longer.
Each tour group made their way through the factory with a lead guide giving a speech and a trailing guide making sure nobody wandered off into the factory floor. We could also do shorter tours outside of the main groups, which happened a lot during the summer. To me, it was just an assembly line and stacks of parts. But to visitors, it was seeing where the magic was made. That also meant often giving directions to the original Juneau Avenue plant, which served as the company headquarters. Even after telling people that nothing more exotic happened there than people in leather vests making photocopies, some travelers wanted to just breathe the air in the lobby for a few moments.
A lot of folks riding cross country would just swing by to see the factory. I have seen a lot of very burly, very bearded men on the verge of tears after being told their equivalent of Disneyland was closed. Sometimes one of the guides would take mercy on them, and it was like they found a Golden Ticket.
I am not a Harley Guy and I never became one. The public assumes if you’re working there that they give you a bike and a leather jacket on your first day. While I eventually got a jacket, I never got a bike. But that didn’t matter to the folks who came in. They asked questions about deep Harley lore and would often target me because of my gender. The historical stuff I eventually got good at. For the technical stuff, I would usually refer the visitor to one of the retirees who helped us in the tour center. Those guys had forgotten more about Harley stuff than I would ever learn.
I got put in charge of the trivia program to entertain folks while they waited for the tours. In case you’re wondering about the power of branding, I would hand out stickers for correct answers. I learned very quickly that you needed to consult with the winner about how they wanted their sticker. I saw some very angry folks walk into the tour because someone had already peeled their sticker and put it on them.
For the most part this was to entertain the tourists and weekend warriors that came through. We did get some old-school bikers every now and then. I remember one day a crumpled old man sitting in the back of a crew of leather dudes was nailing every question I asked and giving the stickers he won to whomever wanted one. As his crew got up for their tour, he looked me dead in the eye and said:
“You know, if we really wanted one of them stickers from y’all, we could just…take ’em.”
A growling laugh rolled out of his crew like the rumble of engines. I smiled hard and hoped they enjoyed their tour.
For the 120th anniversary, the company is playing it safe with the acts playing in Veterans Park. They’ve been announced ahead of time, and Harley is clearly aiming for the demographic. Leading up to the 100th, there was speculation the likes of which I would not see again until the first of the new Star Wars movies came out in 2015. Springsteen! The Rolling Stones! The reunited Beatles!
I worked as a tour guide at Harley for over a year after the 100th. Not a day went by where someone on a tour didn’t crack an Elton John joke.
While my time in the tour center didn’t end up with me becoming some kind of modern-day beat poet, it did reveal a truth that has been foundational to me:
Everybody is a nerd about something.
It didn’t matter if the people who came through were dentists in their day jobs or had put together their first bike back when Elvis was skinny. They all had a love and passion for the stuff that had burrowed into their hearts. Coming to Milwaukee let them talk about it in the same way that fans talk about Giannis at Bucks games or I talk about D&D at gaming conventions.
It will be fun to see that passion again this weekend, even if the city is full of noise or the downtown parking sucks. To help connect with these folks, here is my favorite trivia question I used to ask visitors. Watch them smile when they get it right or laugh in frustration when they get it wrong:
Q: What brand of motorcycle did Marlon Brando ride in The Wild One?
A: It was a Triumph.
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