The reunion of knuckleheads in Upstate South Carolina

Each summer, antique motorcycle lovers flock to Chesnee via their two wheels

Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared in the July 2020 issue of South Carolina Living, a magazine produced by the South Carolina Electric Cooperative.

By Michael Banks

For one weekend each summer, the South Carolina town of Chesnee sees its population swell by 10 times its normal size.

While it may be the long line of antique motorcycles lining this small town’s main drag that transport visitors here, it is the city residents and bike enthusiasts who make the event a success and has the visitors from all walks of life returning each July.

* * *

Bud Blair, president of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Legends Chapter in Chesnee. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

The Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Legends Chapter, which is located in Chesnee, plays a key role in helping to set up and run the festival.

The chapter, which started in 2015, includes about 100 members, ranging in age from 16 to 84 with the majority of them living in the Carolinas. The group is dedicated to telling the history and sharing their love of antique motorcycles.

“A lot of people will see them on a T-shirt, but they never see one in person or get to hear it run. They get to see it, touch it, look at it, ask questions about it,” said Bud Blair, a Chesnee resident and president of the Legends Chapter who owns three bikes — a 1997 Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer, a 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead and a 1942 Knucklehead.

“My love is my older bikes,” said the 57-year-old Blair, whose been riding bikes since he was 9 years old. “It’s just the coolest. It’s like an old pair of blue jeans that’s your favorite. I’m not knocking new bikes, but I’m just an antique kind of guy.”

And it’s not just men who are fans of the older bikes. Amy Jackson is one of about 20 female club members and is treasurer of the AMCA Legends Chapter. She owns a 2009 Harley-Davidson and a 1938 Harley-Davidson Flathead. 

A resident of Cliffside, N.C., Jackson has been riding for the past 10 years. Retired from banking, she’ll get on her bike and ride some 100 miles a day on the roads of the rural Upstate. She didn’t discover motorcycles until she was 47.

“I was running from teenagers,” she said with a laugh. “I bought a motorcycle with one seat so I didn’t have to take a teenager with me.”

* * *

Legendary motorcycle drag racer Pete Hill. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

It’s rare to catch Pete Hill sitting still. 

The Greenville, S.C., native has always been on the go, often at record-setting speeds, in a motorcycle racing career that piled up wins on tracks all over the United States and Canada, as well as Europe and Australia. 

The winner of multiple drag racing championships, Hill’s recognized as the “world’s fastest knucklehead” and is a member of numerous racing halls of fame.

At the same time as he was setting records on the track, Hill continued to run his motorcycle shop, Pete Hill Motorcycles in Greenville, which he’s done for the past 47 years. The four-person shop, which includes his son, Tommy, does a little bit of everything, from welding to building engines and other machine work.

When he was growing up, Hill spent summers working in a machine shop and would advance to working for various auto body shops, including his time in the Air Force during the Korean War. He built his first motorcycle, a 45-cubic-inch engine, in 1946.

“It was an old piece of junk. I could go from my house to my buddy’s house and then leave it there for two weeks until I could scare up enough money to buy a part and fix the one that I broke before I could get it back home,” Hill said with a laugh.

He said the business is what drove him to racing as it served as a testing ground for his ground-breaking mechanical designs.

“I had ideas that were a lot different from the competition and I wanted to try my ideas. That’s what I wanted to get out of racing,” Hill said. “If you win, it proves your ideas were correct. I was so far out of the norm with what I was doing that when it did work out, I was dominant for a number of years.”

He was running motorcycles powered with super-charged nitromethane fuel, reaching speeds up to 190 mph over a quarter-mile track. 

In 1981, Hill won his first International Drag Bike Association championship. That year, he also won the American Motorcycle Association Drag Bike Top Fuel title aboard a modified 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead. He would go on to win four more IDBA titles and four championships with the American Motorcycle Racing Association before retiring from racing in 1994.

Through it all, his wife, Jackie, has been by his side, serving as a business partner, racing crew chief, author of his memoirs and confidante. They just recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.

And even though he is now 84, Hill still has no hesitation to get on the back of a fast bike. Just last year, he topped 120 mph during a run at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

And he still has his South Carolina driver’s license and rides a street bike. Remarkably, the man who has driven motorcycles at speeds close to 200 mph, has never gotten a speeding ticket. He admits that he’s been pulled over a few times, but never been ticketed.

“I’d say that’s just because the way I look, an old man with gray hair who looks like he’s gonna be in a nursing home in a couple weeks.”

During the Chesnee festival, a steady stream of well-wishers came by to shake Hill’s hand or say hello to. The fame still bewilders Hill.

“I know who I am and I’m not that guy. It (the fame) just comes with the years and years of doing things nationally. I got a lot of coverage and, therefore, people think I’m really something. But I’m not. I’m just the guy who works every day on the winch, building motors in my shop.”

* * *

Rose and Richard Owen, members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association’s Warriors For Christ Chapter in Gaffney, S.C. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

When Rose and Richard Owen were recently involved in an interstate wreck in the metro Charlotte area, there was no hesitation when deciding who they would call for help.

They were heading to Massachusetts to visit family, driving their truck and pulling behind a toy hauler with their motorcycles when they went to change lanes near a construction zone. The next thing they knew, the camper was rolling and they were in serious trouble.

“God had his arms around us because we hit a cement wall and never felt a thing and ended up on four tires. We were physically fine,” recalled Rose Owen.

However, their truck was totaled and the hauler a disaster.

The couple, who moved to Blacksburg, S.C., about 18 months ago and are members of the Broad River Electric Cooperative, belong to the Warriors For Christ chapter of the CMA. Rose said she knew immediately who to call, reaching their area rep, who drove two hours north to assist them.

“They are our family here,” Rose Owen said of the Gaffney, S.C., chapter. “I know that they are the people we can count on on an every-day basis. We were welcomed here phenomenally. I can’t believe the love that we got from the chapter.”

That mission was exemplified during the 10th annual Prayer Ride conducted by members of the Christian Motorcyclists Association attending Chesnee’s Antique Bikes On Main event.

About 50 riders traveled to churches in Spartanburg County (S.C.), collecting prayer requests before returning to Chesnee for a gathering and pray for those listed on the gathered requests.

“We are there for any reason – a biker down somewhere that needs our help, hospital visits. We help bikers that are in need of anything,” said Ralph Coggins, road captain for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Jabez Riders chapter of the CMA. 

The CMA is an international ministry numbering more than 200,000 members with chapters in all 50 states and 41 foreign countries. South Carolina has 13 chapters.

Coggins, who is now retired after working 20 years for the Spartanburg County 911 emergency call center and 23 years in the U.S. Army, said the group’s primary purpose remains “carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world. We do that by riding motorcycles and speaking the name of Jesus to people who need to hear it. Everything we do is all about Jesus.”

The Cowpens, S.C., resident has a favorite gospel verse, John 14:6, that reads “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Ralph Coggins, road captain for the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Jabez Riders chapter of the CMA. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

* * *

Mike Bruso on his 1939 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead that he’ll ride in the Cross Country Chase in 2020. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter.

Among the 17 motorcycles that sit in Mike Bruso’s shop in Forest City, N.C., is a 2018 Indian that “absolutely rides beautiful” with a 3,000-watt stereo, heated seats and an adjustable windshield.

However, he says, “It never gets moved. It just sits in my garage.”

Bruso says he honestly has more fun riding his older motorcycles, especially his 1939 Harley Davidson Knucklehead.

“The new bikes are like a new car. You get in, they’re fuel-injected, you touch them, there’s no squeaks, no rattles. There’s nothing to do. You just drive it.”

That’s not the case with the older models. As an example, he points to his 1926 Harley-Davidson JD that doesn’t use recirculating oil and offers little brakes, a different throttle control and the various loose bolts and screws that come with being nearly a century old.

“There’s always something to think about,” said the 41-year-old Bruso, who makes his living as a mechanical engineer for Facebook. “You’ve got to be prepared to fix something while you’re parked on the side of the road. It’s just a lot more interactive than a new bike.” 

And Bruso has no qualms about riding his older bikes over long distances.

In September, he’ll be on his 1939 Knucklehead in the 2,600-mile Cross Country Chase that runs over nine days from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to Key West, Fla.

The race will be a warmup for the 2020 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run that will stretch over 17 days. Bruno will be among only 120 select riders traveling over 4,000 miles from Sault St. Marie to South Padre Island, Texas. Bruso, who had been trying to get selected to the Cannonball race, which runs every two years, since 2014, will be riding his 1926 Harley-Davidson JD.

“A lot of people think I’m crazy for riding something that barely has brakes and you gotta hand shift,” he says.

However, motorcycles have always been a part of Bruso’s life. A native of northern New York, Bruso was only 3 years old when he got his first three-wheeler. Now, he can be found on and around the roads of the Upstate as he’s a member of the AMCA Legends Chapter. He’s attended the Bikes On Main event every year. 

“I’ve never not had bikes, ever,” Bruso said.

Louie Hale, an Augusta, Ga., resident who collects and restores antique motorcycles, including the 1920 Harley- Davidson model that he rode in the Chesnee, S.C., bike games competition. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter

That’s a similar comment shared by Louie Hale, an Augusta, Ga., resident who has attended four of the Bikes On Main gatherings.

As he often does at antique motorcycle shows, Hale was competing in field events that test a rider’s balance, dexterity and control of the bike. He ended up winning the Chesnee competition that required him to place a tennis ball atop a line of pylons while riding his 1920 Harley-Davidson model. It was the first time the Chesnee festival had held a games competition.

Hale collects and restores antiques and he has about 20 different motorcycles, including a 1916 Indian and a 1916 Miami Power Bicycle. His favorite is a 1925 Excelsior Super X with its original paint job that was produced by the Excelsior Motor and Manufacturing Company before it went out of business in 1931.

Hale, who is retired after a career as an electrical engineer, said he enjoys collecting unusual bikes. And if it features the original paint and is not “all clean and shiny” it’s even better.

“That’s just like how it came out of the factory, 99 years ago,” he said, pointing to his brown- and bronze-tinted 1920s Harley-Davidson.

***

Longtime Chesnee, S.C., City Administrator Becki Hood. Photo by Matthew Franklin Carter

There was no hesitation by Chesnee city officials some 10 years ago when they were approached by the Antique Bikes On Main organizers to see if they had an interest in teaming up. And that could have been because two of the longtime leaders – Mayor Max Cash and City Administrator Becki Hood – were familiar with motorcycles.

Cash, who has served as the town’s mayor for the past 30 years, had a Harley-Davidson that he rode for years until he decided to sell it two years ago.

He said the city, which dates back to 1911, had held several festivals in the past – including the Poke Sallet Festival that celebrated pokeweed – before hitting a home run by holding its Chesnee City Fest in conjunction with the Antique Bikes On Main.

Hood, who has ridden on motorcycles owned by her two sons, says there have been estimates of up to 10,000 people coming into Chesnee over the three-day weekend.

“We get a lot of tourists in for the bike rally. They come from California and everywhere,” Hood said. “We have people from all walks of life. We have lawyers, we have doctors, we have professional people and we have just plain people that ride bikes. Most of them are very nice.”

And those visitors bring cash, benefitting the town’s merchants, along with paying a 2 percent city hospitality tax that’s added to restaurant bills. Hood estimated the tax generates about $15,000 each month for the city’s coffers.

That money goes a long way in what is South Carolina’s smallest city, which occupies a little over a square mile and numbers 868 residents, according to the 2010 census. The city employs just 10 people and there is a small tax base. 

Hood said the city agreed to allot $50,000 of the hospitality tax money this year to help with the Antique Bikes On Main and the Chesnee City Fest. That money allows the city to offer free carnival rides for children and keeps vendor fees low.

There is no alcohol sold at the event that is geared toward not only motorcycle enthusiasts, but also families with children.

“We had the Hells Angels here in the past. No problem whatsoever,” said Hood, who could recall only one arrest – that for public intoxication — in the last 10 years. “It goes along like clockwork.”

And, according to Hood, that hospitable, friendly atmosphere goes hand-in-hand with what Chesnee stands for – its small-town atmosphere and the wonderful people who call it home.

“The kids grow up, they move away, gets jobs in big cities. But you have the people here that love the small-town ambiance. I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” said Hood, who has lived in her home for the past 37 years.

“It’s just that hometown feel,” she said. “If somebody hurts, we all hurt. It’s this thing of ‘You’re my brother. Can I help you?’ And that’s what I like about it. I love the people. It’s just home.”

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