Motorcycle royalty tells company’s history

Jean Davidson, granddaughter of Walter Davidson, one of four co-founders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, speaks about books she has written on growing up in the family. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

Jean Davidson, granddaughter of Harley-Davidson co-founder Walter Davidson, spoke Saturday at Clovis Community College about the humble beginnings of Harley-Davidson, the financial ups and downs and the dramatic buy out at the end of the 1960s that left some family members bitter.

Davidson recently retired from the Milwaukee Area Technical College where she taught a variety of subjects. Now she travels the country, selling her books and using the family picture album to illustrate the history of the Harley-Davidson company.

The founders — mostly immigrant rail workers and mechanics — built their first motorcycles to get out to the lake to fish, she said.

“They (the founders) were kids, and when they were out of school, they wanted to go fishing,” she said. “And it was a long way out to the lake where you could go fishing. Most inventions come from someone not wanting to do work.”

Davidson said she is used to speaking to crowds of 300 or 400, but on Saturday she spoke to only a handful of motorcycle enthusiasts, telling stories about how the family struggled through the difficult decisions during the sell out to American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) in the late 1960s.

She was in the board room in 1968 when family members vied on both sides of the sell out issue, a debate that drove a wedge between two factions in the family. When the decision was made to sell the company, many of her family members in the room were reduced to tears, she recalled.

After the merger with AMF, all of the family members were removed from the company, a fact that embitters some of her cousins even today, she said.

“It’s tough to be fired from a company with your name on it,” she said.

To several listeners at the event, it was surprising to hear personal details about when the company changed hands.
“We know the history of the AMF years,” said Sarah Zufelt, general manager of High Plains Harley-Davidson. “One thing I had never considered was the family members and how they thought about the buy out.”

Danny Lewis, an Amarillo man and lifelong Harley rider, was also surprised to hear about the family members ousted from the company after the merger.

“Finding out from Jean that there were a whole slew of relatives that had to get kicked out, that was pretty disheartening to hear,” he said. “When one company takes over another, whether it’s family run or not, the people are usually ousted. But it was just sad to hear.”

Lewis, who describes himself a “real hard-core Harley rider,” rode into town just to hear Davidson speak.

“When I was a kid, I just believed one day I would have one (a Harley),” he said. “I enjoy the thump and the roar and the rumble of the Harley.”

The small crowd was a disappointment to Zufelt, who brought Davidson in to speak to the community. She said there was a better turnout Friday night, when about 60 motorcycle enthusiasts showed up.