Springfield History Museum’s newest exhibit shines a light on the city’s early motorcycle culture.
“Motorcycles in Springfield, 1900-1939” is a new temporary exhibit featuring historic motorcycles, photographs, newspaper clippings and more.
“To me, a successful exhibit is when we see a big broad topic, like motorcycle history, and then we get to see the impact that Springfield had on it,” said exhibit curator Maddi McGraw. “(People) really get to see their roles in the community and get to kind of see them come alive.”
The exhibit is on view now through December. McGraw said she hopes there will be some additions over the next six months.
Motorcycle history almost as old as the town itself
Although settlers came to Springfield as early as the 1840s, the town was first incorporated in 1881. When searching through local newspaper archives, McGraw said she was surprised to find mention of motorcycles in 1900, shortly after its invention in 1885.
“They got here really quick, which is pretty fascinating,” she said. “And the mention − it’s not explaining what (motorcycles) are. The person who was writing the article assumed this knowledge of local people, so there must have already been bikes around.”
She said one theory is Springfield’s proximity to Portland, which had early motorcycle dealerships.
Connection to World War I
McGraw said many people associate the boom in motorcycle popularity with the 1950s after World War II. However, she said the first big rise came after World War I.
World War I was the first war that used motorcycles. McGraw found that the U.S. military specifically recruited men in biker clubs to the military, but many more still learned to ride overseas.
McGraw said that all the people highlighted in the exhibit served in World War I.
Highlighting community members
The two main “characters” in the exhibit are William “Bill” Davis and Raymond Smith Mountjoy, two Springfield residents who were active in the town’s biker culture.
Mountjoy was a photographer and biker. His photographs documented the early days of motorcycles in the community.
Davis was an accomplished “hillclimb” motorcyclist.
Hillclimbing is essentially riding a motorcycle straight up a steep incline without stopping. The sport started at the turn of the century, and became an international phenomenon by the 1920s. In Springfield, Kelly Butte became a popular spot for hillclimbing, but the steep incline proved difficult. McGraw said that no one was able to complete the climb for four or five years, until Davis, who was the first person to make it all the way to the top without stopping in 1928.
Hillclimbing is less common now since the invention of the dirt bike, but there are still some competitions around the country.
Apart from being an accomplished hillclimber, Davis was also the Springfield police chief in the late 1920s. During his hillclimbing days, he was permitted a leave of absence by the city council to allow him to compete in the West Coast circuit.
“It was, basically, like having a professional athlete as our chief of police,” she said.
Davis’ granddaughter loaned and donated a slew of photos and memorabilia to use in the exhibit.
“It allowed us to kind of complete that story of his life,” said McGraw, adding there were several other community members who made contributions to the exhibit. “It takes a village. Once we put the idea out there, then the stuff started to show up.”
Two of the exhibit pieces that made McGraw most excited were a pair of vintage motorcycles loaned to the museum. One is a 1915 Indian Hedstrom Big Twin 1000cc and the other is a 1926 Harley-Davidson JD.
“These bikes in general are just so aesthetically cool,” McGraw said. “When we were putting it (the exhibit) together, I was like, ‘As long as I can get bikes in here, no matter what else is here, you’re gonna want to come in see.'”
Although the bikes weren’t specifically from Springfield, they are the same type that would have been seen in town.
The Harley, in particular, is the type of bike that would often be used in hillclimbing races.
Biker culture still alive
McGraw said in her research, she talked with biker enthusiasts, met vintage motorcycle club members and visited motorcycle-focused swap-meets. There are several biker bars in downtown Springfield. She said she still sees significant biker culture in Springfield, as well as in Eugene and Cottage Grove.
“There are people doing cross country rides as early as 1919,” McGraw said. “People are still doing that today, just they’re doing it with newer, better stuff. It seems to still be just as popular here.”
The Springfield History Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, with extended hours on First Fridays. Admission is free.