Friday, December 27, 2019

A Tale of Two Motorcycle Clubs

by Erin Doane, Curator
“There is no sport that is more thrilling than motorcycling. The powerful little vehicles will give a man all the excitement he is able to meet.” – Elmira Star-Gazette, December 5, 1910

Henderson motorcycle, early 1910s
In 1867, Ernest Michaux of Paris, France fitted a small steam engine to a velocipede and people have been in love with motorcycles ever since. Motorcycling became widely popular in the United States after Indian Motorcycle and Harley Davison began producing vehicles in the early 1900s.

Elmira Motorcycle Club
By 1910, the Elmira Motorcycle Club was actively hosting events like winter rides for its members. At its annual meeting in January 1911, the club received 31 new applications for membership. The club was officially incorporated that year.

J. M. Enyedy, Bertha Enyedy, Oscar Enyedy, and unknown woman with their Indian motorcycles, 1910s
In 1911, the club also received the sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (which went on to become the American Motorcyclist Association) to hold races on Decoration Day at the Maple Avenue Driving Park. The event drew record crowds with motorcycle clubs from Rochester, Syracuse, Auburn, Cortland, and Binghamton attending the event. 18 professional riders competed in seven different races. The grand prize was $50 in cash. The races became an annual event. In 1912, the purse grew to $250 and the grand prize was a side car attachment for the winner’s motorcycle.

Motorcyclists gathered by the Madison Avenue Bridge in Elmira
The club was very active from 1911 through 1915. It kept clubrooms on West Water Street where it held monthly meetings. It organized motorcycle outings, endurance runs, and races. It also hosted non-motorcycling activities for its members like dances and trap shoots. The first annual New York State convention of the Federation of American Motorcyclists was held in Elmira under the auspices of the Elmira Motorcycle Club July 4-6, 1913.

Motorcycle outing, 1910s
Suddenly, in 1915, everything fell apart for the Elmira Motorcycle Club. On September 28, members met to discuss plans to purchase a new clubhouse as the clubrooms on West Water Street were inadequate for its growing needs. But then on October 23, the club announced that it was disbanding. Membership had fallen from around 100 to 39, and the organization was no longer able to survive financially.

I’m sure there is more to that story, but nothing else was reported about the club in the newspaper until 1920 when local motorcycle enthusiasts revived it. The magazine Motorcycle Enthusiast in Action reported that “riders of all makes of machines in the Elmira, N.Y. district are urged to join the Elmira Motorcycle Club just organized.” The rejuvenated club held races, hill climbs, secret time runs, fox chases, outings, and motoring tours until it disappeared from local newspapers again after 1927.

Gathering of motorcyclists, early 1920s

Chemung County Motorcycle Club
The constitution and bylaws of the Chemung County Motorcycle Club were first adopted January 1, 1930. Perhaps members of the Elmira Motorcycle Club rolled into the new county-wide club. The activities of the club were not well publicized in local newspapers until 1944. It hosted round and square dances in Elmira Heights and Breesport where members were encouraged to wear riding outfits. It also held corn and wiener roasts. And of course, it was involved in all types of motorcycle outings and races.

Members of the Chemung County Motorcycle Club, c. 1940s
Beyond promoting the sport of motorcycling and sponsoring motorcycle meets and races, one of the other goals of the Chemung County Motorcycle Club was to help promote the safe driving of the vehicles. To that end, club members led by example. The club won the American Motorcycle Association’s safety award banner three years in a row from 1945 to 1947. Its 23 members maintained an accident-free record of 225,145 miles over that three-year period.

Presentation of the American Motorcycle Association’s safety award banner to the Chemung County Motorcycle Club, 1948
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the club sponsored motorcycle races at the county fairgrounds in Horseheads. The races usually took place in late August or early September, sometimes as part of fair activities and sometimes as stand-alone events. In 1952, the club got permission to hang a banner across North Main Street in Elmira at Wisner Park to promote that year’s races.

View of motorcycle racing from the grandstand at the fairgrounds, 1948
Professional motorcycle racers from all around the Northeast and Canada competed in the races, drawn by up to $900 in prize money. Newspaper articles were quick to point out that these drivers were exclusively piloting racing cycles, not street bikes. The big racing machines had no brakes and drivers used a skid plate on their left foot to help make turns. The races held events in three classes – novice, amateur and expert – but locals usually did not participate because they did not have racing bikes to run. 

Professional motorcycle racing at the fairgrounds, late 1940s
The Chemung County Motorcycle Club became the Chemung County Motorcycle Club, Inc. in August 1955 when it filed incorporation papers at the county clerk’s office. Six years later, in July 1961, it seems to have disbanded. It transferred property on Upper Hoffman street, which had served as their clubhouse, to an independent buyer, and the club name never appeared in the Star-Gazette again.

Pair of local motorcyclists

2 comments:

  1. My grandfather Frank Valois belonged to a motorcycle club in Elmira. I have some of his old photos if your interested let me know.

    ReplyDelete
  2. We would love to scan them for our records! Please contact our archivist Rachel at archivist@chemungvalleymuseum.org to arrange details and thanks for thinking of us.

    ReplyDelete