Q & A with Pete Barnes
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: You've done a great deal of research on Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers to write both a general audience and a biography for young readers. What about the subject intrigued you?
Pete Barnes: I have never owned a motorcycle, but I have always been fascinated by them. To many Americans, Harley-Davidson is the only motorcycle company that really counts. I knew it would be fun researching and writing about how Harley-Davidson began and developed into the successful company it is today.
WHS Press: What aspect of the Harley Davidson story was the most interesting to relate?
PB: The tales of Harley-Davidson's earliest days are colorful and I think relevant to both kids and adults. There is not a lot of information out there about how Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first motorcycles, so it was challenging and fun to piece the story together from different resources. I also enjoyed writing about some of the early races and how they helped Harley-Davidson build its name recognition.
WHS Press: What about Harley Davidson history did you find most surprising?
PB: I was surprised to learn how little knowledge Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson had about motorcycles when they started creating their first machine in the Davidson's basement. Not many people have the patience and persistence these two boys demonstrated during the long process of building a motorcycle from scratch.
WHS Press: What was the most difficult part of telling the story to young readers?
PB: Relating the technical aspects of motorcycles in a clear and meaningful manner for kids was challenging. Understanding the meaning of terms like horsepower and crankshaft is fairly easy, but making these terms accessible to a fourth or fifth grader is difficult.
WHS Press: Which of the brothers or Harley was the most interesting? What about him fascinated you?
PB: Walter Davidson is a fascinating person because of his determination and the power of his personality. Walter was competitive and purposeful in everything he did. He was the first one to test drive a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the winner of many of Harley-Davidson's earliest races, and company president until the day he died. It is said he even determined which sons would carry on the highest company offices from his hospital death bed.
WHS Press: Which family traits helped the venture succeed?
PB: The amazing thing about Harley and the Davidsons is that each of the four founders had unique gifts that together formed a powerful leadership team. Bill Harley was the creative designer, Arthur the personable salesman, Walter the shrewd president, and William Davidson the steady floor manager. One trait all four shared was an unshakeable work ethic. Walter Davidson's wife said it was a special treat if the founders came home early at 8 pm on Christmas Eve. That work ethic helped them keep ahead of their competition.
WHS Press: Why is it important that young people learn about Harley and the Davidsons?
PB: Many young people hope they will one day be rich and famous. Harley and the Davidsons found fame and fortune the old fashioned way, by finding something they believed in and working hard to make their vision reality. The founders did not invent the motorcycle or drastically change its design. They beat the competition by creating quality products and listening to their customers. This simple formula for success is an important one for young people to consider.
WHS Press: How does their story help us understand more about the culture of Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest?
PB: Milwaukee and towns like it in the Midwest developed rapidly during the early 20th century as industry increased and new technologies emerged. Harley-Davidson was a model company during this period because it was built around quality products and a reputation for reliability. Harley and the Davidsons were not intimidated by east coast companies like Indian motorcycles or foreign competitors like Triumph and later Honda. They survived many challenges and continually proved their ability to build great motorcycles. The story of Harley-Davidson's development from a tiny backyard operation into an international corporation parallels the successes of many Midwestern companies during this time period.