Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog in anticipation of the Harley-Davidson Museum’s summer exhibit, "Collection X: Weird Wild Wonders of the Harley-Davidson Museum."
The exhibit is doing great, attendance numbers haven’t been released yet, but "Collection X" has been visited by 90 percent of the visitors to the museum, according to curator Kristen Jones.
I recently took a tour of the entire museum with Jones and discovered what a gem Milwaukee has. The museum isn’t only dedicated to motorcycles, but it allows a glimpse into the history of Milwaukee, too.
I had never been through the entire museum before, admittedly, I had taken its existence for granted, as I feel so many of us do with the great attractions our city offers. It’s a tour that every Milwaukeean should take, rider or not, and follow the history of one of Milwaukee’s most important and identifiable companies.
Of course there are rotating attractions like the motorcycle from the new "Captain America" movie, and those are fun to see. I found it even more fun, however, to see the permanent fixture, a 1942 WLA Army motorcycle that was the basis for the modified, modern-day motorcycle.
Right from the beginning of the museum, you feel the history of our city. Standing in front of "Serial Number One," the oldest known Harley-Davidson, while surrounded by an outline showing the 10x15 dimensions of the original shed the company was formed in, provided the beginning of what would be a great tour in which I learned more about Harley-Davidson and motorcycles in two hours than I had previously known in my 22 years.
A stop in the Engine Room displays the evolution of the Harley-Davidson engine and includes an interactive portion in which visitors can compare the sound of the engines from the 1910s to those of today. With blowout computer graphics of how the engines are put together to a number of interactive stations to learn how the engines work, the Engine Room is one the museums most integral and educational exhibits.
This may be the nerd in me coming out, but even more interesting than the bikes themselves were the paper trails and legends behind them. The aforementioned "Serial Number One" can’t be affirmed as the first Harley-Davidson produced, but parts inside were stamped "1" leading Harley-Davidson historians to speculate about the motorcycle’s history. Whether or not it’s the first, "Serial Number One" is the oldest motorcycle in the collection and it’s treated with the reverence it deserves.
The museum has one of Elvis Presley’s first Harley-Davidsons on display; the bike was one he purchased before he was truly "The King." Included with the motorcycle, the Harley-Davidson Museum displays the original loan paperwork and title displaying "The King’s" John Hancock.
The historic portion of the museum ends with the 100th anniversary, and from there it covers the design process and more current bikes, including custom motorcycles donated by enthusiasts including "King Kong," a 13-foot-long, two-seat, two-engine custom motorcycle made by Felix Predko. Predko was a student at Harley-Davidson’s mechanic school and when the motorcycle was donated, they pulled out his report card from his time there.
The report card, which is on display next to "King Kong," states that it was unclear whether Predko would become a quality mechanic, mostly because he thought he was pretty good already. It would appear that Mr. Predko "won the war."
Sometimes I think we take for granted the things Milwaukee has to offer; we know it’s there, and maybe that’s why we don’t go see it. The Harley-Davidson Museum isn’t just for bikers, it’s truly for Milwaukeeans. Don’t hesitate, get to 6th and Canal and see both "Collection X" before it closes on August 21, and the special "Captain America" display while that’s up through Labor Day.
Tickets for the Harley-Davidson museum are $16, but discounts for military members, seniors and children (5-17, under 5 are free) are available. Admission to the museum includes admission to "Collection: X," which I covered here in June.
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