Looking Back

Glenn Christianson, long-time event organizer shares a few memories of the event when it was in its infancy. "Imagine yourself back in mid October of 1983 on a Saturday morning preparing for an unknown number of folks brave enough to ride to the Northwoods and view the colors, and have a brat and beer at the Harley Davidson plant. That was my first experience with the `fall ride' as it is most commonly referred to. We were overwhelmed when about 300 bikers showed up. Although this year's event is billed as the 24th annual Tomahawk Fall Ride, the first ride was actually held in 1981 before Harley-Davidson's involvement.

"What happened after that is a history of incredible growth. We got too big for the plant and moved to Bradley Park. The date was moved into September for better weather. Then we got too big for Bradley Park and moved to SARA PARK. When the Demo Fleet started coming each year things exploded." The event expanded from one to two, and then from two to three full days. Only a few people saw the first Friday night parade with only a few hundred bikes. Now 7 to 10 thousand folks view thousands of bikes. "We get too many bikes to park on the runway at SARA PARK (which holds about 7000), and now have to park bikes on the additional 11 acres across the tracks west of the Park. One or two tents selling biker stuff has grown to a city in itself. Folks now come to Tomahawk from all over the country and people all over the country know about the Tomahawk Ride for MDA. You are just as likely to see a Tomahawk T-shirt anywhere in the USA as you are here in Tomahawk. Pride dwells here."

According to Christianson, there is no one aspect which accounts for the event's remarkable growth in popularity, but rather a series of ongoing developments that made the Tomahawk Fall Ride what it is today. Following is a brief history of the highlights of the event that has become Tomahawk's biggest weekend of the year and the largest local fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Information comes from Collin Lueck who gleaned it from back issues of the Tomahawk Leader and from Christianson's files on Fall Rides gone by.

1981 - Approximately 16 riders, including Willie G. Davidson, take a scenic ride around the north woods, followed by a cookout behind the Somo Avenue facility. One participant recalls the group riding up to establishments and having the "Open" sign turned around to "Closed" before they could walk in.

1982 - The Tomahawk Fall Ride started in October with the local North Country Riders Motorcycle Club. In that inaugural year, 21 riders reportedly participated. Money raised from the ride went to charity, although not to MDA.

1983 - Harley-Davidson, Inc. and Harley Owners' Group came on board with the event. That year, about 300 riders on 160 motorcycles took part. Money was raised for MDA, Harley-Davidson's charity of choice, through a $2 registration fee. The total donation to MDA was $350. Participants that year went on a 90-mile ride along Lincoln County back roads. The ride was held Oct. 8. Afterwards, participants were treated to free beer, brats and door prizes at the Tomahawk Harley-Davidson plant. The mostly Harleymounted group came from all over Wisconsin, with a few from other states.

1986 - In the hopes of better motorcycling weather, the event was scheduled earlier in the fall and held Sept. 6. A 60-mile ride through the Harrison Hills area east of Tomahawk was followed by a bratwurst picnic at Bradley Park. About 1,200 people on 676 motorcycles participated. Money raised for MDA totaled more than $3,200.

1989 - The event moved permanently to SARA PARK. Attendance estimates reached 5,000 people and 1,500 motorcycles. The donation to MDA neared $10,000. Money was raised through a $6 registration fee, raffles, product sales and other activities.

1990 - The big news that year was the addition of the raffle bike. A 1990 HarleyDavidson Sportster was the first bike to be given away and was won by a Merrill man. At $1 per ticket for the chance to win a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle, raffle tickets sold like hot cakes and helped the event raise nearly $16,000 for MDA.

1991 - New for 1991 was the Thunder Parade through the streets of Tomahawk. This was the first year everyone was invited to ride along. The annual ride drew an estimated 4,000 riders and more than $20,000 was raised for MDA.

1993 - The donation to MDA took another sizable leap as the event raised about $47,000 for the organization. More than 5,000 motorcycles were estimated to be in town for the ride.

1995 - The brand new Tomahawk Harley-Davidson North Plant opened for tours during the 1995 Fall Ride. The crowd was estimated to be about 13,000 strong with 10,000 motorcycles parked on SARA PARK runway. The total donation to MDA topped $80,000.

1996 - A fifteenth anniversary concert is held with BTO playing to the crowd.

1997 - To commemorate the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl championship, the 1997 raffle bike was painted Green and Gold and personally autographed by Packer coach Mike Holmgren, himself a Harley enthusiast. The donation to MDA that year topped $100,000, with more than $67,000 raised from the bike raffle. Attendance estimates hovered around 30,000 people and 15,000 motorcycles.

1998 - The event added another component to the weekend with a street dance. Four blocks of main street were closed down to allow bikes to park "Sturgis style" with bands playing at both ends. The crowd was again estimated at 30,000 people, with 17,000 motorcycles. The Thunder Parade featured about 2,000 bikes. Along with the HarleyDavidson Electra Glide and sidecar, a powerboat also was raffled off. More than $100,000 was raised for MDA.

1999 -The 30,000-person crowd estimate holds for a third straight year. The number of motorcycles is estimated at 14,000. About 2,700 bikes participated in the Thunder Parade.

2001- The Tomahawk Fall Ride Committee hands over the street dance to the city, Chamber of Commerce, Tavern League and Business Association. To commemorate the 20`" anniversary of the ride, a second bike was added to the raffle. The first place winner received a 2001 Ultra Electra Glide Classic and second place received a 2001 Sportster.

2002 - Proved to be another huge success. Two raffle bikes were given away, over 25,000 guests in attendance and over $100,000 raised for MDA.

2003 - A comedian was added as well as a very successful Thursday night concert with national act Jackyl headlining. Rain didn't dampen the spirits as over 20,000 still attended the event. A record $116,000 was raised after all was said and done.

2004 - The event lengthens to 3 full days with a Thursday noon start. Jackyl once again headlines a Thursday nigh concert. A picture platform is added to allow participants a bird's eye view of the grounds. Warm temperatures (for September) and sunshine held out for the weekend, a sure contributor to the record $185,000 raised for MDA. $75,000 from raffle bike proceeds alone, another record. Estimates put the crowd at 40,000.

The Tomahawk Fall Ride has grown beyond the wildest expectations of those who guided it in its infancy and is sure to continue that incredible growth.

2005 - The 24th Annual Tomahawk Fall Ride in 2005 began with the crowd showing up earlier than ever. Conversations with our guests are indicating that it is now impossible to judge the total attendance in persons for the weekend as many bikers only spend one day in Tomahawk and are attending events for bikers in towns around the area. This of course means that in total the number of folks coming north is ever increasing, but the daily crowds remain the same. After all, you can only put so much gas in your tank, or folks in the town. Right!

The Fall Ride is comprised of several ad hoc committees who handle separate parts of the overall event. There is group for each of the activities. There are the planners for Sara Park, Thursday evening at the riverfront, the street dances, the plant tours, the parade and Bubba's event. Every thing that happens makes the event a success.

Recently websites have become an important part of spreading the word about events to see and do at the Fall Ride.

The ride in 2005 as a result of the many changes raised about $117,000 for MDA. Much of the money raised, is always as a result of the bike raffle. Many charities in Tomahawk benefit from the event selling food, cleaning up and doing other things that help the event go as smoothly as it does.

It appears that Birthdays, Christmas, New Years, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and the Tomahawk Fall ride have become special dates on more biker's calendars every year.

by Glenn Christianson