Monday, January 10, 2022

Sylacauga, Alabama's Original Motorcycle Daredevils - Episode 47

June 10, 2012
Updated - January 11, 2022

By: David L. Morrill
Sylacauga, Alabama

We have some great story tellers here in the south, and one of our best local story tellers was my friend Joe M. Duck Jr. Joe's family has lived in Sylacauga, Alabama for generations, and he never missed an opportunity to share stories of his hometown with either friends, and or visitors. When we moved to Sylacauga, some six years ago, Joe befriended my father-in-law, Alton Hollis.  Joe, like Alton, was a proud World War II veteran. Joe knew I had raced motorcycles years ago, and told me a story about his father, J. M. Duck Sr., who was part of an early group of motorcyclists from Sylacauga before World War I.

We recently lost Joe Duck Jr. and his brother in a tragic automobile accident.  They were on their way to the local Veteran's Day observance. but all who knew him, will never forget him. This story is dedicated to my friend Joseph M. Duck Jr.

Now, Joe's story went this way. He told me his father, Joe Duck Sr. and Harry Conn, used to race Indian motorcycles at the Talladega County Fairgrounds in Sylacauga before World War I. He said one of his cousins, had an old photograph of his father, Harry Conn, and another fellow on their early Indian motorcycles. Over the next few years Joe would tell me several times, "I need to find that old picture, and show it to you."

As an old motorcycle racer, this story intrigued me. I've written extensively about these early days of American motorcycle racing, with a focus on the South. That said, I realized running down a 100 plus year old story about local motorcycle races was an impossible task. Local newspapers from this period, in small towns like Sylacauga, are often not archived back 104 years. They also often took little notice of these type of events. Most of what little we know of local racing in the South, is handed down word of mouth. I tucked that story away, hoping someday to find more information about it in the future.

I began checking around town for photos of the Talladega County Fairgrounds racetrack but came up empty handed. What little we know about the Fairgrounds, and the racetrack, comes from a couple of YESTERYEAR newspaper columns written by Marian A. Thurman in the mid 1950s. The Fairgrounds, which was located west of downtown Sylacauga at the corner of 4th Street and Fairgrounds Avenue (now Avondale Avenue). The Fairgrounds had relocated to this site from a smaller downtown site in 1913 or 1914.

Former Site of the Entrance to the Talladega County Fairgrounds
N/W Corner of 4th Street & Avondale Avenue (then Fairgrounds Avenue)

 Sylacauga, AL.

 In his column on September 27, 1956, titled "It's 'Fair" Weather" Mr. Thurman confirmed both the presence of the racetrack, and that it occasionally hosted motorcycle racing. These quotes are from Mr. Thruman's article:

"There was a fine half mile racetrack on the back side, with a huge grandstand."

"We had automobile and motorcycle racing occasionally,"

There was also a grass landing strip in the center of the racetrack which was used by early aviators. At the time Mr. Furman's article was written in 1956, the fairgrounds were long gone, but Now at least I had the confirmation of motorcycle races held at the Fairgrounds before World War I, so I started looking around for more information. 

One evening I was at a reception at the Isabelle Comer Museum Board, here in Sylacauga. I went upstairs to look at the collections of old articles, and photographs kept there. I came across a commemorative publication on Sylacauga's history published in 1959. and there on one of the pages, was a 1910 photograph of Joe Duck Sr., Gary Caudle, and Harry Conn, and on their Indian motorcycles.

Sylacauga, AL. - 1910

There is no other information on the motorcycle races held at the Sylacauga Fairgrounds.  The tracks in Alabama got limited coverage in the national racing press. Race results for Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma tracks do occasionally appear in the weekly magazine, Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, during the early teens. The races in Sylacauga are not mentioned.  This may be because the races in Sylacauga, only involved amateur riders, and not the top professional riders, competing at the other Alabama racetracks.

The motorcycles of this period were little more large bicycles, with powerful engines. While the bumpy dirt roads of the time limited the speed of motorcycles to about 35 miles per hour, on a smooth dirt racetrack, these bikes could easily reach 50 to 60 miles per hour. Racing them was not for the faint of heart as racers rarely wore no helmets, and little protective gear could be seriously injured or even killed.

By 1910, the Hendee manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts (builder of Indian Motorcycles) was one of the most successful of the early American motorcycle companies. They offered both single cylinder, and V twin powered motorcycles.

1910 Single Cylinder Indian Motorcycle

Indian Motorcycles were sold in Central Alabama by their local Agent, Robert Stubbs. He was probably the person who sold Joe Duck Sr., Harry Conn, and Gary Caudle their Indian motorcycles.

Robert Stubbs Indian Dealership - 1805 4th Avenue North 
Birmingham, AL - 1912

Indian motorcycles became seriously involved in racing around 1905. Five years later, Indian, had grown to the largest of the American Motorcycle Companies. They were the choice to top racers, as well as riders Duck Sr., Conn, and Caudle.

There was a little more to Joe Ducks story. It seems, his father, and Harry Conn used to ride their Indians up to Birmingham, Alabama to compete at the races at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. There is significantly more information about the motorcycle races held at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in this period.

By the early teens, motorcycle racing had become one of the top spectator sports in country.  The results of major races were reported in the sports pages of newspapers across the country.  The Alabama State Fairgrounds track held its first motorcycle race on the fast one-mile dirt oval in 1906.

Robert Stubbs was billed as the "Southern Champion." in 1909. Stubbs had been handpicked by Indian co-founder Oscar Hedstrom for the Indian Racing team at the Annual Speed Trials in Ormond Beach, FL. Stubbs, and his teammates Walter Goerke, and Arthur Chapple each set new speed records at the trials. Even Hedstrom jumped on a special racer to set a new record.

Indian Co-founder Oscar Hedstrom and his
Indian Racing Team - Ormond Beach Fl. March 1909

Robert Stubbs had also recently broken the American Speed Record for a 100-mile race, making 100 laps of Birmingham's one mile dirt oval in record time. Stubbs, and his sponsored rider Gail Joyce, regularly raced against top riders from around the country, who came to the Birmingham track to train during the winter.

When Joe Duck Sr. and Harry Conn, decided to enter a race at the Alabama State Fairgrounds in Birmingham, they would have found a whole different world from the local motorcycle races in Sylacauga. It would be like a local short track racer entering a NASCAR race at the Talladega Speedway. The amateur riders were known as "Trade" riders, as many of them worked at the local motorcycle shops. Trade Rider races had classes for both production motorcycles, and purpose-built racing bikes. They took place, along with the professional races, on holidays like the 4th of July, and Labor Day. They would be brushing shoulders with the likes of Robert Stubbs, his under studies Gail Joyce, Richard Gayle, and Gene Walker.

Professional Motorcycle Race - Alabama State Fairgrounds Birmingham, AL. ca. 1914
O.V. Hunt - Johnny Whitsett Collection

Even amateur motorcycle races at the Birmingham track, would have been a major step up. Riders like Duck, and Conn, would ride their bikes to the track, strip off the lights, go racing, then put the lights back on, and ride home. The one-mile Birmingham track was twice as long as the Sylacauga track, with wide sweeping turns, which allowed riders to reach much higher speeds. With the higher speeds, came considerably more danger to the riders, who streaked by within inches of the wooden spectator fencing that lined the outside of the track.

Birmingham professional photographer Oscar V. Hunt, who was himself a motorcycle enthusiast, captured the start of one of these Birmingham amateur races in these two rare photographs. The exact date, and the identity are unknown, but all the motorcycles appear to be Indians from the early teens.

Amateur Trade Riders Race - Birmingham, AL.
O.V. Hunt Collection - Birmingham Alabama Public Library Archives

In the next few years, the Birmingham track would see the rise of the career of Birmingham native Gene Walker. With Robert Stubbs help, Walker, who once delivered mail on his motorcycle, would become one of the top professional riders in the country.

John Eugen Walker
O.V. Hunt Collection
During his ten-year career, Walker won nineteen National Championship Races, set the first officially sanctioned Motorcycle Land Speed Record, and shattered track records across the country. He returned home to Birmingham each winter to take care of his widowed mother and serve as a Motorcycle Officer with the Birmingham Police Department.

He was tragically killed while practicing for a race in 1924, when a grounds keeper pulled a tractor onto the track in front of him at East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. His fellow Birmingham Motorcycle Officers provided an escort for his funeral procession.  He was buried in Birmingham's historic Elmwood Cemetery, just a mile from the track, where he started his racing career. He was eulogized on the Birmingham News Sports page by sportswriter Zipp Newman.

Birmingham News - June 1924

With the advent of World War I, Alabama's place in early motorcycle racing came to an end. Racing was curtailed around the country, as many young men went into the service.  Most of the motorcycle production, tires, and spare parts went to the war effort. This caused motorcycle dealerships around the country to close their doors. In 1917, the Sylacauga Fairgrounds was heavily damaged by the tornado, which struck downtown. It was eventually rebuilt but closed in the early 1930s.

This was the end of the early glory days of motorcycle racing in Alabama. But, local riders Joe Duck Sr., and Harry Conn, were there not just as spectators, they got to take part. To even compete in an amateur race at one of the South's most famous racetracks, and walk among the stars of the sport, would have been something they would never forget.

I've done my best to pass down Joe's story, as he told me. Rest in peace my friend!

Mr. Joseph M. Duck Jr.   1921 - 2011
Sylacauga, Alabama 


Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review 

Birmingham News

Birmingham Alabama Public Library Archives

Jody Lee - Sylacauga, AL.

Joseph M. Duck, Jr. - Sylacauga, AL.

Oscar V. Hunt Collection

YESTERYEAR - Marion A. Thurman - 1984

Monday, June 21, 2021

Motorcycles Come to the Brick City - Ocala, Florida - Episode #46

By: David L. Morrill

@Mototique Racing

Updated: July 31, 2021

In the late 1800s, a bicycle craze swept the United States. Bicycle shops sprung up around the Country, and bicycle races became a common occurrence at State & County Fairs.  Champion bicycle racers became well known sports stars, and their exploits were reported in newspapers nationwide. A local example of this is Jay Eaton, who founded the Eaton Beach Complex on Lake Weir in Weirsdale, Florida. 

The Tennessean - August 4, 1896

Eaton was a champion bicycle racer, who retired to Central Florida and purchased the Eaton Beach property in 1924.

In the early days of motorcycling, motorcycle companies would advertise in local papers to find local Agents to handle their products. Because many of these companies, had also produced bicycles, it was common for local bicycle shops to become the agents for Indian, Harley-Davidson, etc., and this was the case in Ocala. Local bicycle dealer R. E. Yonge sold his business to Benjamin Franklin Condon in 1907. Yonge's son Walter went on to become a prominent Ocala motorcyclist.

Ocala Banner - December 13, 1907

Condon probably became the Marion County Agent for Indian Motocycles of Springfield, Massachusetts some time in 1907. 

FYI: Indian referred to their bikes as "Motocycles" to stand out from other brands, until the early 1930s. 

The Condon Bicycle Emporium was located in the "Ocala House Block" in downtown. The Indian Motocycle Agent, Condon was probably the first motorcyclist in Ocala, and Walter Yonge soon joined in purchasing one of the new Indians. 

Condon Ad 
Ocala Evening Star 1908

The new motorcycles soon attracted the attention of the City Fathers, as a notice appeared in the Ocala Evening Star of an ordinance, requiring all Bicycles, Motorcycles and Automobiles operated within Ocala City Limits to be equipped with lights. This was followed by a notice in the Evening Star on September 23, 1908 from City Marshall W.C. Bull warning automobile drivers, and motorcycle riders, that the City Speed Limit was 10 miles per hour. 

Ocala Evening Star - September 23, 1908

With the new attention from the City Marshall, the young men who now owned motorcycles sought another place to test the speed of their machines and their ridding skills. This was the Golden Age of early motorcycle racing. Steeply banked circular wooden tracks known as Motordromes were being built around the country. The numerous dirt oval horse racing tracks were also used for motorcycle racing. The top motorcycle manufactures like Indian, Excelsior, Cyclone, etc. hired teams of professional riders to promote their brand, and drive sales of their motorcycle to the public, however Harley-Davidson did not form a factory racing team until 1914.  Many of the riders also took part in the the Annual Daytona Beach Speed Carnival held on Ormond Beach, Florida beginning in the early teens. Numerous "World Records" were set on the sands of the beach at low tide and were reported in newspapers around the County. 

Buffalo Evening News - December 20, 1906

There's an old adage in motorcycling that the first motorcycle race took place, when the second motorcycle hit the street. That certainly seems to have been the case in Ocala, as a Motorcycle Race was included in the July 4, 1908, Festivities at the Marion County Fair Grounds off West Emporium Street, which today is close to the intersection of Hwy 40 and Martin Luther King Blvd. 

Marion County Fair Arch - 1913
Mark Hammer Collection

There was a half mile oval dirt horse track there, with a large grandstand, that hosted automobile & motorcycle races, along with the horse races.

Automobile Race @ the Marion County Fairgrounds - ca. 1912
Marion County Court Clerk's Office Collection

The scheduled motorcycle race was included in the articles detailing the 4th of July activities in the Evening Star on June 18, 1908. 

Ocala Evening Star - June 12, 1908

Despite the anticipation of a motorcycle race, the Ocala Banner reported "for some reason the motorcycle race did not materialize.", while the Evening Star reported a motorcycle exhibition was run, but gave no details. It would be more than a year before the first actual motorcycle race in Ocala would take place. Ocala would continue to be an Indian town. 

1908 Indian 3.5 H.P. V Twin
Kip Kolter @ Old School Biker Site

Ben Condon was the only Motorcycle Agent in town. He would continue to build his bicycle business in Ocala.

Ocala Evening Star - March 15, 1909.

 As the 1909 Marion County Fair rolled around, a motorcycle race was scheduled on November 24.

Ocala Evening Star - November 18-1909

 The Sunday before the race, the Evening Star reported that motorcycles entertained early Fair Grounds patrons.

Ocala Evening Star - November 22, 1909

Ocala's first documented motorcycle race took place at the Fair Grounds on Wednesday November 24, 1909. This type of race was referred to as a Tradesman Race, as they often involved riders who worked in the motorcycle trade. Two riders, Ben Condon and Ed Bennet competed, with Condon coming out on top with an average speed of 35.2 miles per hour. It appears both rode Indians. This was the first of two 5 Mile Heat Races.

Ocala Evening Star - November 24, 1909

The races packed the grandstands with Fair Patrons.

Ocala Banner - November 26-1909

The second race held on Friday November 26th, featured Ben Condon ridding an Indian, and Walter Yonge riding a Reading Standard. It appears, despite the fact that the Walter's family were prominent members of the Ocala Business Community, the Ocala Evening Star miss-spelled his last name in their article that gave the details of the race.

Ocala Banner - November 26, 1909

After the race, Ben Condon, who owned both of the motorcycles in the race, ran a Motorcycles For Sale Ad for them in the Star Banner.

Ocala Evening Star - December 7, 1909

1910 was a relatively quiet year for motorcycling in Ocala. On July 20th, the Star Banner reported that the City Father's had adopted a new ordinance setting the speed limit for Bicycles, Motorcycles, and Automobiles at 10 on straight roads in the city, and 6 miles per hour on curves. The Motorcycle Races were mentioned as being scheduled during the Marion County Fair in November, but there is no mention of the races being run, or the results.

By early 1911, a new player had entered the motorcycle business in Ocala. Hampton Smith Chambers, who was Ocala's Fire Chief at the time, became the Marion County Agent for Harley-Davidson and Excelsior Motorcycles. 

Ocala Fire Chief Hampton S. Chambers ca. 1915
 (Passenger) in the Fire Department's First  Automobile
Ocala Fire Department Collection

Chambers owned the Ocala Bicycle Shop, which was located on SE Osceola Avenue between the back of the Old Baptist Witness Building and the City Fire Station at Osceola Street and Broadway Street.

H. S. Chambers Ocala Bicycle - SE Osceola Avenue
(Cropped Photo ca. 1915)
Kent Sperring Collection

Ocala Bicycle Ad
Ocala Banner - October 24, 1911

In August 1911, Chambers launched a new package delivery business out of his Bicycle/Motorcycle Shop. As Ocala expanded, motorcycles would be the obvious choice for delivering parcels, as they had been used for this purpose in many other cities.

Ocala Evening Star - August 25, 1911

On September 11th, the Evening Star reported that George Chambers, and Laurie Yonge, made a round trip to Gainesville on their motorcycles. They reported that the "bad" roads in Alachua County slowed them down and it took  two hours each way.

Ocala Evening Star - September 11, 1911

It appears riding a motorcycle in Ocala has always been a dangerous affair. On October 20th the Star Banner reported the details of a bizarre accident involving a Horse drawn fire truck and motorcyclist Frank Gates.

Ocala Evening Star - October 20, 1911

Despite the extensive damage to Gate's motorcycle in the accident, Chamber's mechanics had it repaired "good as ever' by November 1st.

Ocala Evening Star - November 1, 1911

On November 8th, the Evening Stat reported Mr. Gates had submitted a bill for damages caused to his motorcycle in October 20th accident.

Ocala Evening Star - November 8, 1911

Business, went well for the new Harley-Davidson Dealer, and in November, the Star Banner reported H.S. Chambers was expanding his shop on NE. Osceola Avenue.

Ocala Evening Star - November 11, 1911

With two motorcycle dealers in town, the annual motorcycle races on the half mile track Marion County Fair in November took on new interest. Surely Indian and Harley-Davidson would duke it out for dominance on the track, as well as sales of motorcycles to local enthusiasts. A $100. cash prize was announced by the Fair, which was a princely sum for an amateur motorcycle race at a time when the largest professional motorcycle races generally offered $500. in gold as their first prize. Mr. Chamber's son George was already preparing for the races in mid-October.

Ocala Evening Star - October 16, 1911

Ocala Evening Star - November 1, 1911

On November 13th, The Evening Star reported that racers were already taking practice laps at the Fair Grounds for the much anticipated upcoming motorcycle races.

Ocala Evening Star - November 13, 1911

Meanwhile on the streets of Ocala, motorcycles were gaining a bad reputation for causing mayhem with the horse and buggy folks!

Ocala Evening Star - November 11, 1911

Motorcycle racing is not without casualties, and on November 17th, Harry Cole learned that lesson. Cole and Frank Gates were taking practice laps at the Fair Grounds Racetrack for the upcoming Marion County Fair Race when Cole hit a hole in the track, causing him to crash.

Ocala Evening Star - November 17, 1911

The Fair's first motorcycle heat race race took place on Tuesday November 21. H. S. Chamber's son, George Chambers claimed the $25 First Prize riding an Excelsior motorcycle, with Laurie Yonge finishing second on a Harley-Davidson. George Chambers, like his father, was now an Ocala Fireman.

1911 Excelsior - Bonham's Auction

Ocala Evening Star - November 22, 1911

The second race took place on Wednesday November 22, with Walter Younge claiming the $25. First Prize on an Indian Motocycle.

1911 Indian Motocycle - J & P Cycles

Ocala Evening Star - November 22, 1911

When the Friday night Final Race rolled off, George Chambers on the Excelsior Motorcycle claimed the big $100. First Prize, finishing a sixth of a mile ahead of Walter Yonge on his Indian Motocycle.

Ocala Evening Star - November 24, 1911

In early 1912, H. S. Chambers formed the Ocala Motorcycle Brigade. The purpose of the new squad is not explained, but it appeared to be connected with the Ocala Fire Department. A photo of the new squad appeared in the June 20th, 1912, edition of the Evening Star. This appears to be the first motorcycle photograph the Evening Star published.

Ocala Evening Star - June 20, 1912

The riders in the Motorcycle Brigade were identified in two editions of the Evening Star.


The motorcycle races at the Fairgrounds continued through 1912. Both Chamber's Harley-Davidson and Condon's Indian dealerships were prospering confirming the old "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" adage. 

Ocala Evening Star - September 16, 1912

The Evening Star continued to report motorcycle accidents in the city, some of which appear to be the result of dangerous riding practices by local motorcyclists. Riding passengers on the handlebars like a bicycle???

Ocala Evening Star - April 23, 1913

For 1913 the Fairgrounds featured a new Motordrome Motorcycle Thrill Show, which appears to have replaced the motorcycle races.

Ocala Evening Star - September 11, 1913

These Motordrome Thrill Shows featured motorcycles lapping around steeply banked circular wooden tracks, similar to the modern-day Wall of Death Shows.

Early Motordrome Thrill Show
S. E. Rochelle Collection -Durham County Library

For 1916, the Fair's Motordrome Show featured female rider Hazel Russell, who was billed as the "Society Girl". Hazel, and her husband Ira Watkins preformed death-defying stunts, while riding motorcycles on the 90-degree wooden wall.

Ocala Evening Star -November 30, 1916

By 1917, the early motorcycle shops had changed hands, and were passed down to the younger generation. H. S. Chambers Harley-Davidson Shop, and B. F. Condon's Indian Shop, were now combined on the ground floor of the old Baptist Witness Building and were owned by Laurie Yonge. B.F. Condon had moved on selling automobiles.

Ocala Evening Star - December 20, 1917

 At the end of 1917, the Motordrome Show at the Fairgrounds closed it's gates, and the motorcycles were sold off in Evening Star Ads.

Ocala Evening Star - November 28, 1917

As America's involvement in World War One approached, motorcycle dealers were hit with a double whammy. First the supplies of new motorcycles, gasoline, spare parts, and tires, went to the military. Then their primary customers, young men, were drafted, sent off to training, and to service in Europe. This put an end to the first decade of motorcycling, and many local motorcycle dealers across the country, either switched to automobile sales, or closed their doors.

In June 1919, the City Fathers passed a new traffic Law, which raised the speed limit for Automobiles & Motorcycles to 15 Miles per hour on straight roads. The limit remained at 6 mph on curves. They also banned the use of exhaust cut out valves on motorcycles in the city, due to the increased noise they provided. No loud pipes in the city!


Today, the location of the original Ocala Fire House is marked by the Fire House Bell, which is located on the corner of NE Osceola Avenue and Broadway Street. Ocala's original motorcycle shops were located south of that location.

Ocala Fire House Bell
Osceola Avenue & Broadway Street


Bonham's Auction

Buffalo Evening News

Durham County Library

J&P Cycles Collection

Kent Sperring Collection

Kip Kolter's Old School Bike Site

Marion County Clerk's Collection

Mark Hammer Collection

Ocala Evening Star

Ocala Fire Department Collection

Ocala Fire Rescue on Facebook

S. E. Rochelle Collection

The Tennessean