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Hollister 1947 & The Birth of the American Biker

The Boozefighters

By Bill Hayes with Booze Fighter Images
9/17/2009 12:11:14 PM


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Author's Note: This past week (mid June, 2007) has been one of meeting a lot of deadlines; one of which was to supply text and photos for the Hall of Fame Museum in Sturgis where the Boozefighters will be one of four clubs to be honored with a special display...the display will be up for one to two years. Just for the heck of it I have attached the piece that I wrote about Hollister '47, the origin of the club and the origin of the patch. Enjoy.

It is almost universally recognized that “the birth of the American biker” occurred during the infamous Gypsy Tour motorcycle event at Hollister, California, over the Fourth of July holiday weekend in 1947.

Hollister ’47 affected not only the motorcycle culture but the entire American society as well.

It still does.

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From that point on, vicarious living, fear, envy, and a myriad of other emotions and reactions set the biker culture well apart from the mainstream.

At the epicenter of the Hollister event were several motorcycle clubs, primarily comprised of World War II veterans: young men who had just returned home from the chaos and horror of war. The youthful vets were trying to assimilate back into the calm-living staid society that was emerging as the ideal of industrial/prosperous post-war America.

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But a staid society wasn’t what these men craved—or needed.

Not after years spent with guns in their hands; crawling in muddy and bloody trenches; diving to the depths of the sea in submarines; spinning and shooting in the ball turrets of B-25 bombers; and all the other things they’d had to do to survive and to preserve freedom for the rest of the citizenry.

These men found their version of a “staid society” in the form of big fast motorcycles; stiff drinks; and the occasional “disagreement” in notorious bars such as Shanghai Red in San Pedro, The All American in Los Angeles, and Johnny’s in Hollister.

Among the clubs in Hollister in ’47 were the Top Hatters (still alive and thriving to this day) and the POBOBs (“Pissed Off Bastards Of Bloomington”). One member of the POBOBs was Otto Friedli. Friedli would go on to be one of the founding members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.

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But the most visible club at Hollister in 1947 was the Boozefighters: a group led by the charismatic “Wino Willie” Forkner. At the time, the Boozefighters consisted of chapters in three cities: Los Angeles, San Pedro, and San Francisco.

The Boozefighters Motorcycle Club— made up almost exclusively of WWII vets—was formed in 1946 at the All American Bar in Los Angeles (near what is now the town of South Gate). When Wino Willie was kicked out of the 13 Rebels Motorcycle Club because of his excessive drinking habits, he decided to start his own club with the likes of men such as Vern Autrey, Jack Lilly, Jim Cameron, J.D. Cameron, George Manker, Bobby Kelton, “Red Dog” Dahlgren, “Dink” Burns, Gil Armas, Johnny Roccio, Johnny Davis, “Fat Boy” Nelson, Lance Tidwell, and C.B. Clausen.

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The club got its name from a suggestion by a man who ironically never became a member: Walt Porter. Porter was a regular at the All American. When he heard Willie and the other guys discussing ideas for a new club and the possibilities of a name, he drunkenly suggested “The Boozefighters,” offering that, “You might as well name it that because all you ever do is to come in here and fight that booze anyway!”

A year after the club’s formation, The Boozefighters as well as the town of Hollister were elevated to legendary society- altering status by a series of occurrences that epitomized the “never a dull moment” essence of the biker lifestyle.

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To begin with, indeed a lot of drinking and wild riding went on in central Hollister while the Gypsy Tour races were being run at the Bolado Racetrack just outside of town. Along San Benito Street—the main drag in Hollister—two Boozefighters in particular: Gil Armas and Jim Cameron, gained quick notoriety for riding their bikes into local bars, notably Johnny’s, still a landmark in Hollister.

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The Barney Peterson shot from Life Magazine.

Barney Peterson, an opportunistic photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle, saw the potential for some vicarious titillation as the bikers enjoyed themselves. He staged an ominous photograph with an unknown drunk (not a club member) on a motorcycle surrounded by broken beer bottles. The photo never ran in the Chronicle but Peterson managed to get it onto page 31 of the July 21, 1947, edition of the popular Life magazine. When the issue hit the stands, the nation was greeted by a disturbing full page photo accompanied by the screaming caption: “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and his friends terrorize a town.”

Mainstream America just met a new beast.

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The concept of bikers, “taking over a town,” was born; a concept that would become a looming fear and thrill—for those both on the “inside” and the “outside” of the lifestyle—forever.

Media sensationalism translated the riding and drinking that went on in Hollister into a frightening show of brute force and power—characteristics always attributed to bikers—running roughshod over the innocent.

The runaway train was gathering speed.

In 1951, Harper’s magazine published a story called “Cyclist’s Raid” by a writer named Frank Rooney. Rooney was inspired by the Hollister incident and the Life magazine spread. And, yes, in his story a motorcycle “gang” takes over a town.

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The real serious stuff hit the fan shortly thereafter when Stanley Kramer—then a young, ambitious film producer/director —also felt the inspiration of Hollister, and of Rooney’s short story. Kramer’s classic motion picture, The Wild One, debuted in New York City on the last day of 1953. The roles of “Johnny” and “Chino”—played by Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin respectively— helped launch the careers of both of these cinematic giants; but more important was the social impact of the film.

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The leather; the attitudes; the motorcycles; and the ever- present strength, power, and volatility of the bikers became a paradoxical fear/envy attraction for nearly every American. Not everyone could become a “wild one,” but it seemed that, deep down, everyone wanted to.

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Marvin’s character of Chino was loosely based on Wino Willie Forkner. But Willie—although asked by filmmakers for input—detached himself from the production, displeased with the negative media twists on what really occurred in Hollister.

As the media continued to exploit the fear/envy element of the biker world throughout the ’50s and ’60s in the form of absurd movies like The Born Losers, The Savage Seven, and She Devils on Wheels, bikers continued to enjoy the true camaraderie-driven lifestyle that had emerged in the post-war years.

The main focus that holds any motorcycle club together is the concept of, “love and respect.” This concept comes right from the trenches of war when, “love and respect,” for those fighting beside you means survival—on physical and mental levels. It also means a true brotherhood, in which common feelings and emotions become something so much more than just socializing: they become a shared way of life.

Wino Willie Forkner knew this to the core of his soul. That’s why the club he founded has lasted for over six decades. The Boozefighters Motorcycle Club is one of the truly elite organizations in the motorcycle community, with proven longevity and a serious passion for this way of life.

The famous Boozefighters green and white patch—the bottle with three stars—is a legend in itself. Over the years, a great deal of speculation ensued as to the bottle’s origin; finally, shortly before her death, Wino’s widow, Teri, explained that the design was based on the vintage Hennessy’s cognac bottle label. “Willie liked the looks of those three stars so much that he put them across the barrel of the bottle.” The use of the bottle in the patch speaks for itself: he wasn’t called Wino for nothing!

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Here's the author's tribute bike fender, held up by Arizona Thumper the builder.

Today the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club boasts a worldwide membership. A great reverence for history permeates the club—not just for the specific history of the organization, but for the history of the entire lifestyle. This universal respect has made the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club one of the most unique and most honored in the entire biker community.

By Bill Hayes
National Press & Publicity Officer, Boozefighters Motorcycle Club
Author of The Original Wild Ones: Tales of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club

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Bill Hayes, the author of this feature, wrote a MotorBooks best seller on the history of the Booze Fighters. You can buy this book by simply clicking on this fucking banner.

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Little something for Bill and the Boozefighters, from Hawaii.

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Reader Comments


I know this is a long shot but my grandfather and great uncle were at the Hollister riot in 1947 and years after.
Over years there's been a story about how they put my uncle's bike on top of a bar as a prank and I am hoping to find that picture.

Have any of you seen this picture?


Nikki lusk
Copperopolis , CA
Saturday, August 29, 2015
Editor Response Hey Nikki,

We are on the search and I reached out to Bill, the master of all the green history.
--Bandit
Great story, OWOF !!

Hans Roeters
Balen, Belgium
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Great article. I am trying to absorb everything I can get my hands on, on Hollister. I have been an historical artist for about 40 years.

I am getting ready to do some major pieces on Hollister or at least that is my plan. At present my work can be seen on FB under sidecar gallery. I mention this so you can see I am a serious artist and any help as to ifo, pics, etc... would be very helpful. Thanks, Jeff

Jeff Nobles
Cottonwood, Az.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Editor Response Hey Jeff,

Send me an example of your art for the news. We look forward to following your progress with the Hollister project.
--Bandit
This is an amazing story into the origin of the notorious bike clubs that started the whole biker lifestyle. Well written and presented.
Respects
--Goblin

Paul Goblin Parkinson
Raceview, Queensland, Australia
Monday, October 15, 2012
Editor Response I'll let Bill Hayes know. Thanks!
--Bandit

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