Harley and the Davidsons: Motorcycle Legends

By Pete Barnes

Paperback: $12.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-380-0

112 pages, 76 b/w photos & illus., 7 x 9"


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This addition to the Badger Biographies series tells the story of four young inventors who shared a dream: to create the best motorized bicycle in America. Their turn of the century aspirations took them from a backyard machine shop to a highly successful business empire - and all in the span of just a few years. With grit, determination, and not a little elbow grease, Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers - Arthur, William, and Walter - used their engineering and machine-shop expertise to continually perfect their designs and present the best possible products to the American public. Along the way they made their mark on the racing circuit and introduced safety measures that continue to this day. After their deaths, their sons and daughters continued this legacy, buying back the company after it changed hands and re-establishing Harley-Davidson as the king of the motorcycle world. From the old Knucklehead, Panhead and Shovelhead motors to the Evolution, Revolution and Twin Cam engines that followed, the story of Harley and the Davidsons remains one of the great success stories of the 20th century.

Fountas and Pinnell Level S

To receive a review copy or press release, to schedule an author event, or for more information contact the WHS Press Marketing Department: whspress@wisconsinhistory.org.

Pete Barnes is a National Board certified teacher who teaches fifth grade social studies, science, and math in New Albany, Ohio. He has written articles for youth audiences in the American history magazine "Cobblestone," for educators in the magazine, "Instructor," and he writes a monthly column called "Life in the Middle" for the magazine "Teaching K-8." Pete has a bachelor's degree from The College of William and Mary and a Masters degree in education from The Ohio State University. His other book in the Badger Biography series is "Richard Bong: World War II Flying Ace." 

Interview 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?

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?

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?

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?

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 was the most interesting? What about him fascinated you?

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?

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?

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?

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.

2013 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards
Best Book Series - Nonfiction, Silver Medal Winner

Praise for Harley & the Davisons

This book feature appeared on Biker News Online on Wednesday, April 18, 2007:
Harley-Davidson Children's Book

Released to the public last January is a new book about the history of Harley-Davidson intended for young readers.

"Harley and the Davidsons" is about Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson, along with Arthur's two brothers William and Walter, and how they created not just a motorcycle company, but a piece of American culture.

Written by Pete Barnes, a 5th Grade history teacher from Ohio, the book was commissioned by the Wisconsin Historial Society as a resource for state-sanctioned Wisconsin history curriculum in elementary schools.

Intended for readers aged 8-12 years old, the 100-page history book puts together a piece of American history that also teaches a lesson in pursuing dreams and persevering in the face of bad times.

View the article online

This book feature by Patti Wenzel appeared in "The Bee" (Phillips, WI) on Wednesday, April 18, 2007:
Motorcycles made them famous

Separately Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson were two young boys with a love for engines.

Together, along with Davidson's brothers William and Walter, Harley-Davidson became the biggest name in American iron—the motorcycle legend everyone would love to own.

Considering the impact Harley and the Davidson's have had on American culture, its surprising that there haven't been more children's books focusing on the history of this great company.

"Harley and the Davidsons: Motorcycle Legends" (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2006) is the perfect book to introduce children to these American dreamers.

Part of the Badget Biographical Series, "Harley and the Davidsons" is a 100-page history book written for children between 8-12 years old. It was commissioned by the WHS as a resource for the state-sanctioned Wisconsin history curriculum in elementary schools.

Author Pete Barnes, a fifth-grade history teacher from Ohio, puts together a compelling story that also teaches a lesson. Not just a history lesson, but a lesson in pursuing dreams and persevering in the face of bad times.

The book opens with 10-year-old Arthur and Bill dreaming of building a motorized bicycle that will make their trips home from the local fishing hole easier and faster.

They tinker and study the remedial engines available in the late 1880s and recruit the older Davidson boys to help with the fabrication of parts. While both have to obtain jobs to fund their quest and help their families survive, all four young men keep at their dream until they have a bike worthy of the Harley-Davidson name.

Barnes discusses the social times surrounding Harley and the Davidsons, how World War I, the depression of the 1920s , the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II forced changes in marketing, manufacturing and how the emergence of Japanese business practices forced the second generation of Harleys and Davidsons to sell the company.

But like any good children's story, "Harley and the Davidsons: Motorcycle Legends" comes with a happy ending. The return of the company to family ownership under grandson Willie Davidson and the full glorious legend these spectacular bikes evoke.

The book is typical of a elementary schoolbook, including vocabulary lists and a bibliography for further study.

There are also a wide selection of historical photographs of the boys, the first Harley-Davidson factory, William Davidson racing and promoting the motorcycles and other Wisconsin sites.

One surprise in the book is the introduction of another childhood friend of Bill Harley's—Ole Evinrude. Yes, the very same Evinrude who created and founded Envinrude Outboard Motors.

This book is essential for anyone who is a fan of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles and Wisconsin history. It is a perfect storybook for any child and I would recommend anyone teaching Wisconsin history at Phillips or elsewhere check out this book for their students.

Praise for the Badger Biography Series

This feature article by Karyn Saemann appeared in "The Capital Times" in 2008:

They changed the face of Wisconsin. Now, their faces are becoming familiar to children around the state.

Since 2005, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press has tapped a diverse well of authors to write children's biographies of notable state figures.

Notable doesn't have to mean famous. Some "Badger Biographies Series" subjects, like Green Bay Packers founder Curly Lambeau, are household names. But others, like immigrant Swiss cheese maker Casper Jaggi, are little known yet accomplished extraordinary things.

"We want to have a balance of well-known and not," said Bobbie Malone, director of the society's Office of School Services, whose job is to cultivate potential titles and authors. So far, eight books are out, and more are coming.

"I do love what I do," said Malone, a former first-grade teacher who, when not editing the latest biography or some other society publication, travels around the state showing teachers how to bring Wisconsin history alive.


"What's not to fall in love with? There are so many interesting stories," mused Malone from her tiny office overlooking UW-Madison's Library Mall.

The authors, too, say they've found inspiration in the stories that, in addition to Lambeau and Jaggi, have so far included Hmong refugee Mai Ya Xiong; escaped African-American slave and Underground Railroad user Caroline Quarlls; the founders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles; Mountain Wolf Woman, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation; the Ringling Brothers of circus fame; and Milwaukee Jew Lizzie Kander, whose "Settlement Cook Book" taught American homemaking to immigrant women and raised money for social causes.

"I think it's fascinating to see how people lived their lives," said Diane Young Holliday, an archaeologist who authored "Mountain Wolf Woman: A Ho-Chunk Girlhood."

Ultimately, "we want people to fall in love with the past so they value it and connect it to their own lives," Malone said.

Bob Kann, who inked Lizzie Kander's story and is himself a Jew whose mother owned a "Settlement Cook Book," said readers will relate to the tales of hard work and determination.

"It's important to expose kids to people who are exemplary, to show how people accomplished what they accomplished, how they dealt with defeat and to show their resilience in how they bounced back," Kann said.

Of Milwaukee's Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th Century, Kann said he hoped to show "how difficult their lives were, and how courageous it was for them to come to this country with very few resources."

"There weren't any social service agencies," Kann said. "They were very fortunate to have people like Lizzie Kander who were filling that gap."


Writing for children isn't easy.

Jerry Apps, a veteran writer who with the exception of two titles has spent 35 years crafting adult books, called writing for children "extremely difficult."

Apps adapted both of his Badger Biographies titles, on the Ringling family and Jaggi, from adult books he previously wrote on the same subjects.

"It's boiling down the material in such a way that you get to the essence of it, in a way that communicates to young readers yet doesn't compromise the history," Apps said.

"I wasn't sure if I could explain things at a fourth-grade level," admitted Young Holliday, recalling reservations she had when collaborating with Malone on a publication previous to "Mountain Wolf Woman."

In some cases, it's weighing how to appropriately present the tainted personal lives of memorable people to a target audience of fourth- through eighth-graders, without whitewashing too much truth.

For all his legendary professional success, Curly Lambeau treated people badly and had serious character flaws that included infidelity, said Stuart Stotts, a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and author of "Curly Lambeau: Building the Green Bay Packers."

"Curly was a philanderer, but that is not really dealt with in the book," Stotts said. "We didn't feel that was appropriate for 10-year-olds. You say a little bit about how he was divorced three times, and something about his inability to get along with people, but don't go into the details of extramarital affairs."

However, "I think 7- to 10-year-olds are quite capable of understanding that people are complex," Stotts said. "I think at this age they are quite able to recognize that people may have good qualities and bad qualities at the same time. The subtleties of behavior are not at all beyond what they are dealing with in their own social situations."

"I think as a biographer it's our job to make people's character flaws clear if we are aware of them, but not to dwell on them. The purpose of the book is not to bring down Curly Lambeau, but we have to be realistic about who he was."

Similarly tricky adult situations led to Mountain Wolf Woman's story focusing not on her grown-up years, but on her childhood, Malone said.

"You want to make it real but you can't overwhelm young readers with details or information they can't handle," Malone said.


The series is not done. In fact, it's just getting started.

In the pipeline are potential books on "Fighting Bob" and Belle Case La Follette, Govs. Lucius Fairchild and Gaylord Nelson, rural doctor Kate Newcomb, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Cindy Bentley, a disabled Special Olympics athlete.

In addition to representing subjects of divergent backgrounds, Malone said she hopes to focus on people from various geographical corners of the state.

All of the books include an abundance of illustrations and break-out boxes that help readers further explore the topic and historical era. All also have a glossary, supplemental reading list and group discussion questions.

If she could find an interested author, Malone said she would love to produce a biography on naturalist and engineer Increase Lapham. Fur trader Soloman Juneau is also on her list.

And she would like to do a bilingual biography about migrant workers from Mexico. "We haven't gotten there yet, but that's definitely a direction I would like to go. There definitely are stories" about such workers and the people who brought them here, Malone said.

Malone said going back beyond the 19th century, to those who first populated the state, would be challenging in a biography format.

In historical fiction you can set a made-up person in a chosen era. But with biography you need factual details about an actual being. The difficulty, Malone said, is unearthing the documents that chronicle a particular life.