Milwaukee is home to plenty of unique things to do and see, but most people know this already. What many people don't know, however, is that the Harley-Davidson Museum has been sitting on a treasure trove of crazy cool stuff, which has been stored away from the public eye for over a century – until now.
The Harley-Davidson Museum is ready to open up the oddities of its archives to the public starting today with the summer exhibit, "Collection X: Weird, Wild Wonders of the Harley-Davidson Museum."
Last week, OnMilwaukee.com took a tour of the exhibit while it was still being built. Curator Kristen Jones offered a peek at some of the more notable oddities that will be included in the show and explained some of the significance of Harley-Davidson opening its archives.
"The exhibit appeals to people on so many levels," said Jones. "It's not only part of industrial history, it's part of Milwaukee history as well."
The Harley-Davidson archives hold around 500 vehicles, 140 of which are on permanent and rotating display in the general museum. "Collection X" is an opportunity for Harley-Davidson to show off some of very cool pieces that wouldn't otherwise fit into the museum.
The exhibit opens with a collection of Harley-Davidson prototypes and concept vehicles from throughout the history of the company. The prototypes are a great way to begin "Collection X" since they're not only great, unusual eye candy, they also show a side of the Harley-Davidson creativity that this exhibit is all about.
Included in the collection are prototypes that eventually made it to production (the original V-Rod prototypes) and some that didn't make it past the prototype phase (a vehicle with two front wheels and one rear wheel from the early 2000s).
If the prototypes represent the industrial history, the next section traces Harley-Davidson's Milwaukee history. Guests are led through the prototype entrance to the factory relics area, which lends a glimpse into factory worker life through Harley-Davidson history from the 1910s (the oldest piece in the exhibit was estimated to be from about 1910), all the way up to the largest piece, an 8,000-pound electrical transformer that powered the factory from the 1940s through the '90s and was used as backup power until just a few months ago.
Also included in the factory relic area is a milk can labeled with what appears to be "HDMCO." Further research proved that the canister was originally used as a beer canister for "beer breaks" that were popular back in the early 1900s. Factory workers would choose between beer and milk for a short break in their day. The canister in the exhibit was dated to 1917.
The exhibit has a wide variety – in both size and age – of pieces on display. Included in the exhibit is the M50, the smallest motorcycle Harley-Davidson has ever produced. Weighing just 103 pounds, it will be presented in contrast with a full-size Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
What "Collection X" is really about, however, is the oddball creations that have come into the Harley-Davidson archives. Many of these oddities have been made by inventive Harley-Davidson users and tinkerers throughout the last century, including a mining cart from California that was fitted with a Harley-Davidson engine and transmission to get in and out of mines faster.
In the same vein as the mining cart is the Harley-Davidson engine-powered ice saw. Before the days of high tech, Twitter-integrated refrigerators, people would purchase ice to preserve food. This saw meant less hard labor, but probably fewer arms and legs on the neighborhood iceman, as well.
One of the gems that Jones was excited to show was "Pop's Trolley,"a motorized canvas sled powered with a Harley-Davidson engine. Popular in the 1930s, these sleds could be made via a kit that sold for $38.50 and included everything except the countershaft, propeller and engine. Many of the engines came from Harley-Davidson motorcycles that weren't being used in the cold winter months.
A major part of "Collection X" is the culture surrounding the Harley-Davidson lifestyle and the donations the archives have received over the years. The folk art section of "Collection X" holds canvas paintings, hand carvings and even homemade rugs from the devoted Harley-Davidson faithful.
The true piece de resistance (which had yet to be brought on site for the preview) is a gigantic eagle sculpture with a 20-foot wingspan made from Harley-Davidson motorcycle parts.
The Harley-Davidson Museum worked with graphic artist and graphic novel designer Jacob Covey to get a "sci-fi" feel to "Collection X," and has capitalized on the exhibit's overall "American Pickers"atmosphere by inviting the co-host of the History Channel series, Frank Fritz, to share his picking adventures during a special meet-and-greet program Saturday, July 23 at 7 p.m.
"Collection X: Weird, Wild Wonders of the Harley-Davidson Museum" runs June 11–August 21. Admission to the exhibit, on display in the museum's 10,000-square-foot exhibition hall, is included with general admission to the museum at large.
"Collection X" is can't-miss entertainment this summer, so set aside one of those hot, humid Milwaukee summer days to enjoy a cool peek into Harley-Davidson's history.