January 26, 2010

Harley-Davidson Museum Visit By Arthur H. Davidson

I picked up on this story and thought it would be good to share here on Classic American Iron.

Talk about history!  The blog over at the Harley Davidson Museum has a short story about the son of  Arther Davidson taking tour around the facility.

Shortly before the Museum opened in the summer of 2008, I received a call from Arthur H. Davidson (the H stands for Harley). I recognized his name as the sole surviving son of one of the original founders of Harley-Davidson, Arthur Davidson. He said he had some “junk” to donate to the Museum. I drove out to his house on a beautiful summer day and met him and his wife Gertrude. The “junk” turned out to be the original passports his father used in the 1910s and 20s to travel overseas and build the foreign dealer network. Had he not recruited so many dealers around the world, Harley-Davidson is not the company it is today… if it’s here at all.

Since then, he and I kept in contact about getting him here to the Museum. Just over a week ago, it finally happened. Arthur is now 95 years old and an absolute joy to talk to. During his visit, he shared knowledge of company history and items on exhibit that weren’t recorded anywhere. For example, the company disbursed its first stock in 1907, and William S. Harley received fewer shares than the Davidson brothers by a noticeable amount. But this was only because Bill Harley needed cash to fund his remaining time as an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin.

Members of Arthur’s extended family were along for the Museum tour, including Willie G. and his wife Nancy Davidson as well as their son Michael and many others. We were also fortunate enough to get a 90 minute video interview with Arthur. His eloquence and humor are gifts that are best captured on film… sometimes paper records only get you so far.

He shared other first hand knowledge, such as accounts of the deep respect that those early dealers had for his father. The elder Arthur and the co-founders of the Motor Company were also men of incredibly good humor and literacy. Sometimes, written history tends to reduce men like Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers to two-dimensional businessmen who were merely smart and hardworking people. But in fact, they truly come to life when you have the good fortune of talking to someone who knew them well. I have always believed that no one’s history is complete without knowing more about their full humanity.

The visit was a privilege and treat for us. And if I may, it was not merely because of Mr. Davidson’s name and genealogy. It was getting to show the Museum to a funny, engaging and kind gentleman… and someone who lived the first chapters of a larger story that we’re all a part of.

-Bill Jackson Archives Manager
Photos courtesy of Michael Davidson.

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