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Historic Porterville Attack

The 50-Year Labor Day Anniversary

--Rick Elkins is interim publisher of the Porterville Recorder.

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It has become something of lore, something to talk about, something that still today is remembered by many. It was the day the Hells Angels came to Porterville.

But, it is not that the Hells Angels converged on the town of only 8,000 residents at the time. It is that Porterville stood up to the notorious motorcycle riders and ran them out of town.

It was Aug. 31, 1963, the outlaw bikers began arriving in town, and on Sept. 3, 1963, the headline in the Porterville Evening Recorder read: “200 Motorcycles Converge On City.”
The story that day, with a subhead of “Rowdy Riders Rousted By Police, Dogs, Fire Hose,” told of the riders coming into town and with every passing hour becoming more of a problem until police and city officials took action.

Hunter S. Thompson, one of the more infamous writers of our time, discussed details of that day in his book on the Angels. Sonny Barger, the famous leader of the Hells Angels, devoted part of his book “Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barker and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club” to the day, calling it the “first really big semi-organized outlaw motorcycle get-togethers in California.”

The standoff made most major newspapers, was covered by Newsweek and made more famous by Thompson in his book.

Many have liked to tell the story of that day, and over the years the story changed a bit, became a little more embellished. However, even today it is still talked about. The late Bill Rodgers, who was mayor at the time, loved to tell the story of how he and police chief of the time, Fran Torigian, stared down the notorious bikers and ran them out of town.

The lure of free beer

One story of that day 50 years ago said the biker gangs — there were others besides Hells Angels — were attracted to Porterville because of a rumor free beer was going to be offered on Labor Day. In his book, Barger said it was simply a gathering and a meeting of bike clubs from Northern and Southern California. Barger said other gangs represented include the Satan’s Slaves, Gallopin’ Gooses and the Cavaliers.

“In fact, anyone in the motorcycle world came to Porterville,” Barger wrote.

Accompanying the bikers were several car loads of women and children.

The bikers began to showing up on Saturday, and as Porterville police had knowledge they might be arriving “all available men were called in.” Thompson wrote: “By late afternoon there were riders beginning to congregate at Main and Olive, with the Eagle Club as their drinking center. A few riders were in Murry Park.”

At that time, Main Street was also Highway 65 through town.

By that evening, things began to get rowdy, with as many as 200 of the club members, including women, becoming boisterous and unruly.

Barger wrote in his book what Newsweek wrote in March of 1965 of the standoff in Porterville: “... They rampaged through local bars shouting obscenities. They halted cars, opening their doors, trying to paw female passengers. Some of their booted girlfriends lay down in the middle of the streets and undulated suggestively.”

Of course, Barger saw it differently, writing that a fight involving a resident inside a tavern on East Date started the events that led police to action.

The Recorder’s account on Sept. 2, 1963, said “the unwashed, unkempt riders” began to break the law Saturday evening. It said they assembled at Main and Olive and many local residents taunted them throughout their stay.

Stories differ as to what happened at the tavern. The Recorder said a biker drank a citizen’s beer, and when the person protested, the biker slugged him. “A patron was knocked from his stool and needed five stitches,” said The Recorder.

The Farm Tribune — the city’s weekly paper at the time, owned and published by Rodgers — reported, “Just when authorities thought the bikers might be leaving town, one of the gang members was injured in a fight and taken to Sierra View Hospital. A few minutes later a half dozen of the motorcycle boys had swept through Sierra View hospital apparently looking for a man with whom they had had the fight earlier.”

Barger saw it differently, saying the man who got slugged, came back with a gun and was beaten by several bikers. At the hospital, four bikers who had an accident were being treated and when the man saw them, “he freaked out and yelled for the police.”

That is when Rodgers, acting as mayor, declared marshal law and a plan was forged to drive the bikers out of town.

City takes action

Armed with a city fire engine and four police dogs, and aided by officers from the Porterville Police Department, Tulare County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol, city officials began preparing for the confrontation.

Ted Ensslin, former mayor and who was in his 30s at the time, recalled how brave Police Chief Torigian was confronting the dangerous looking bikers. Jeff Edwards, local photographer and historian, was called out that night to take photos for both The Recorder and The Fresno Bee.

Unfortunately, said Edwards, he loaned out film negatives so many times, his pictures from that night have disappeared.

He said he was a little nervous until he saw a local person who was with the motorcyclists and that put him at ease.

The first decision that night 50 years ago was to close Murry Park. That was about 7 p.m. At 8 p.m., according to Thompson’s account, word came the bikers may be leaving, but then there was an accident and the fight at the tavern.

It was after the incident at the hospital that it was decided to force the bikers out of town.
“Traffic was bumper to bumper on Main Street; 1,500 local people stood around at Main and Olive to see what would happen. The motorcycle clan, perhaps 300 strong at this point, was living it up drinking, tying up traffic, breaking bottles in the street, using profane and insulting language, putting on what they considered a show,” wrote Thompson.

At just after 9:30 p.m., Torigian asked the bikers to leave and when one biker tried to go north, he was hit with a blast of water from the fire hose, knocking him to the pavement. Officers were in riot gear with nightsticks and shotguns.

The riders were given five minutes to leave.

The officers worked Main Street north to south, forcing the bikers across the Main Street Bridge.

The bikers went south and amassed at the old Sports Center. Then, they were allowed back into town, but just five at a time with police escort, to get gas at Main and Olive. It was noted a large crowd of local residents heckled them as they got gas.

The Recorder reported that they tried to return about 2 a.m. Sunday, but were turned away at the bridge.

In all, no one was seriously injured, damage was limited and only about a half of dozen arrests were made.

Fifty years later, the lore continues.

Bikernet reaches one of the club members on the scene:
You bet I was there. It was the 1st time the northern charters all came down to Fresno and came to my place overnight.

We headed to Porterville in the morning. I got four tickets that day.

Got evicted by the Landlord when I got back. DA pushed him to it, he said. “The cops no longer liked me in Fresno, They wanted me gone...”

There is a picture of Little Dee on the Front page of the Porterville paper. He went to jail & Indian from Oakland. Cops hosed him off his bike and started a Fight with the Heat... FUN, FUN, FUN.  

Lots of good times...

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Reader Comments

My sister was scandalized to see a biker and his girlfriend go into the same bathroom at a gas station in town. Quite shocking for the time period.

Brian Hackleman
Terra Bella, CA
Friday, July 30, 2021
Editor Response And now? Hang on!

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