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  • Dale C. Maley

Motorcycles were big here

Fairbury has often been referred to as the "Motorcycle Capital of the World" in the era of the 1910s.

The early history of motorcycles in Fairbury helps to explain why motorcycle ownership was so widespread in Fairbury.

The first mention of motorcycles in the Blade newspaper was back in 1908. In July 1908, the Blade reported that Chatsworth rural mail carrier John Sluth had purchased a motorcycle for delivering the mail.

In 1909, the Blade reported that Emerson Mitchell, a Fairbury rural mail carrier, had purchased a motorcycle for his mail route. With the bike, Mr. Mitchell could finish his mail route in three hours with a maximum speed of 70 miles per hour.

The 1910 Blade had two articles about motorcycles. The first mention was an advertisement for E. C. Van Loon in Streator, selling Indian motorcycles. No record could be found of Fairbury having an Indian motorcycle dealership. The Blade also reported nine motorcycle races at the Woodford County Fair held in El Paso.

In 1911, the number of mentions of motorcycles in the Blade exploded to twelve different articles. According to a 1911 issue of New American Motorcyclist and Bicyclist magazine, Joseph E. Carrithers, of the law firm of Carrithers & Carrithers, was planning on creating a Fairbury motorcycle club.

In April of 1911, James "Kentucky Jim" Seifers and William "Pete" Murray got drunk on whiskey at the John Winslow farm and got into a fight. Mr. Murray chewed on the ear of Kentucky Jim Seifers. Mr. Seifers went to Fairbury and swore out a warrant to arrest Pete Murray. Mr. Murray fled to Forrest after the fight. Deputy Sheriff Codlin rode with Charles Bradley on Bradley's motorcycle. They made it to Forrest in 10 minutes and arrested Mr. Murray. This event was the first reported use of a motorcycle for law enforcement purposes.

Also, in April of 1911, the Fairbury Harley-Davidson dealership owned by Purdum & Bradley sold four motorcycles. The customers were Carl Vance, George Vance, Reuben Fuller, and John Phillips. This article was the first mention of a Harley-Davidson dealership being in Fairbury.

In June of 1911, the first advertisement for a Fairbury motorcycle dealership was published. Purdum & Bradley ran an ad for their Harley-Davidson motorcycles. They said a good motorcycle could do the work of three horses at a small fraction of the upkeep of one horse. The ad also stated that mail carriers had proven the benefits of motorcycles.

Also, in June, the Blade published its first story about a motorcycle accident. Mrs. Mowry and Mrs. H. A. Foster drove their horse-drawn buggy to a Methodist church picnic. Emerson Mitchell, a mail carrier, ran his motorcycle into the buggy when it started to turn into the Dominy pasture. Nobody was hurt in this accident.

In July of 1911, the first speeding ticket was issued to a motorcycle driver. Gene Morrison rode his motorcycle too fast down Locust Street and was fined 10 dollars plus 2 dollars court costs. The total fine of $12 in 1911 would be equivalent to $387 in today's dollars.

Andy Walker, a Cropsey harness maker, purchased a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Fairbury in July 1911. In August, Bud Codlin crashed his motorcycle while riding to Piper City. He did not remember what happened. He speculated that sometimes he fell asleep driving a horse and buggy, and he may have fallen asleep on the motorcycle.

Also in August of 1911, the Fairbury Excelsior dealership owned by Carl Goudy and Mr. Keck sold twin-cylinder Excelsior motorcycles to Dirk Hanks and Clark Hanks. They also sold a motorcycle to Carl Wilson of Colfax.

In September 1911, Elmer Wurzberger's motorcycle caught fire while riding it with his friend Will Goudy. Elmer had built the motorcycle and had been riding it for one year. The fire destroyed the motorcycle. Elmer was able to get off the motorcycle before his clothing caught on fire.

The Fairbury Fair was held in September 1911. The Blade published four different articles about motorcycle racing during the Fair. 1911 was the first year that motorcycle racing was held at the Fairbury Fair. The Excelsior team had Carl Goudy, Will Goudy, Mr. Ramsey, and Elmer Wurzberger. The Harley-Davidson team was Mr. Morrison, Mr. Hiday, Mr. Purdum, and Mr. Bradley. Carl Goudy placed third in this race.

The 1912 Blade only had one mention of motorcycles. Mr. E. F. Cavanah ran an ad for his Indian motorcycle dealership in Sibley. The June 26, 1913 issue of the Motorcycle Illustrated Magazine published an article with photographs of the Fairbury Motorcycle Club. The club recently had 85 members who rode from Fairbury to Pontiac. The club thought they would have had 125 members if the weather was not threatening to rain. John L. Purdum, the Harley-Davidson dealer, hosted a dinner for the club. Fairbury claimed to have the largest motorcycle club in the State of Illinois.

The July 1913 Blade reported the first motorcycle-related fatality. Thomas Holley was a business partner of Fairbury native Elvin Crouch. Mr. Holley proposed marriage and gave Miss Zina Ficken of Bloomington a diamond engagement ring. The next day, Miss Ficken sat on her front porch waiting for her fiancée to arrive. Tragically, Mr. Holley's motorcycle collided with a Bloomington street car less than 100 feet from Miss Ficken's porch. He was killed, and Miss Ficken witnessed the terrible accident.

At the 1913 Fairbury Fair, Will Goudy finished 2nd in the motorcycle race. In 1913, an article was also published about Carl Goudy racing nationally and winning races.

On September 12, 1915, Carl Goudy won the most prestigious motorcycle race in the United States. Carl won the 300-mile Chicago Maywood race with an average speed of 86 MPH.

A few months later, Will Goudy, younger brother of Carl Goudy, was killed while doing practice laps at the Bakersfield, California, race track. After this accident, Carl Goudy gave up motorcycle racing.

Several factors explain why Fairbury was called the Motorcycle Capital of the World. The number one reason was that Fairbury had two world-class motorcycle racers in Carl Goudy and his brother Will Goudy. A second reason was that Fairbury had two motorcycle dealerships in 1911 for Excelsior and Harley-Davidson. No evidence of an Indian motorcycle dealer in Fairbury was found, but there were dealers nearby in Sibley and Streator.

The first motorcycle races were held in 1911 at the Fairbury Fair. Although there were only six motorcycles in the race, spectators at the Fair probably purchased motorcycles after watching the motorcycle races. Fairbury was also only 100 miles from the Excelsior factory in Chicago. Some Fairbury Excelsior owners took their motorcycles to the Chicago factory for repairs.

A 1913 magazine article reported that Fairbury had the largest motorcycle club in the State of Illinois with 125 members. This claim may have later been exaggerated to say Fairbury was the Motorcycle Capitol of the World. Fairbury's population was 2,500 citizens in 1910. Having at least 125 motorcycle owners in a town with a population of only 2,500 was an extraordinary phenomenon.

(Dale Maley's weekly history column is sponsored by Dr. Charlene Aaron)

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