Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been around since 1903, when four young men built the first one. It would be 13 years later before the debut of the Harley-Davidson magazine, The Enthusiast, which is still being published today. Vivian Bales was only 7 years old and couldn’t have known the history she would be making when she was 20 years old and decided to write a letter to the editor of The Enthusiast.
Vivian Bales was born in Florida in 1909 and raised in Albany, Georgia. After high school graduation, she earned a living teaching dance and, having saved a tidy sum rather quickly, bought her first bike in 1926, a Harley-Davidson Model B single. The petite Vivian taught herself to ride and made her first “big” trip of 300 miles along with her best friend, Josephine Johnson, travelling from Albany to St. Petersburg, Florida.
A Florida Harley dealer got wind of Bales’ trip and made arrangements for it to be featured in the local St. Petersburg newspaper. The story made its way to the Atlanta Journal; meanwhile Vivian, not content with the one long trip, was planning for more. But first, she was to trade her Model B for a 1929 45 Twin D and wrote to Hap Jameson, then editor of The Enthusiast magazine, telling him about her plans to make a solo trip north on her “real honey” of a motorcycle.
Jameson gave Vivian permission to bill herself as “The Enthusiast Girl,” giving her two sweaters proclaiming her as such. While Harley-Davidson did not finance her journey, Jameson arranged for local Harley dealers to provide accommodations, fuel and bike maintenance when she arrived in their towns. The entire trip, which she started on June 1, 1929, took 78 days and covered about 5,000 miles, taking her from Albany, Georgia to Milwaukee and back. It was not a straight route, however, as Vivian went through South Carolina and up to Washington, DC, where she had the distinct pleasure of meeting President Hoover. An excerpt from her article recalls this meeting:
One of the greatest thrills of my trip was meeting and greeting President Hoover. This meeting was arranged by Mr. H.T. McIntosh, editor of the Albany Herald, and Senator Wm. J. Harris of Georgia. I'll tell you that the president does not wait for anyone, so I had to be Johnnie-on-the-spot. With my heart all aflutter, I prepared my toilet very carefully selecting my favorite white riding breeches, a crisp white shirt, a dazzling white helmet, white oxford, golf socks and a white sweater with The Enthusiast Girl on the chest. Yessir, I was togged to meet the chief executive. I wheeled up to the White House drive at 10:00 a.m. thrilled pink. If the folks at home could only see me now! The gate policeman asked me if I had an appointment with the president. 'Well, I should say so,' was my reply, showing him my certificate of appointment.
I was escorted all through the executive mansion, room to room, hall to hall, up and down stairs. Massive and commanding portraits of our former presidents and their wives hung everywhere. It seemed as though they were gazing at the Enthusiast Girl out of somber antiquity, but I gazed right back at them. It was 12:00 noon before I was ushered into the president's office. I immediately recognized President Hoover standing beside his desk at the far end of the room. With my eyes fixed on his friendly face, I walked right over with my very best Harley-Davidson smile in full force and shook hands with him. Nope, I didn't vamp on him for Mrs. Hoover was present. I was too fussed to remember his exact words to me, but he certainly made me feel welcome. Glancing around the room I saw at least 25 people, his secretaries and body guards I was told. What an experience!
I rode away from the White House the most important person on earth—you know the feeling. Why, I had had the hand of the president of these glorious United States, the hand that had greeted Lindy and other famous world celebrities. *
In all, Vivian’s trip took her though the Carolinas, to Baltimore, through New Jersey and into New York and across Ohio before heading back home from Milwaukee.
Vivian appeared twice on the cover of The Enthusiast in 1929, on the May and November issues, making her the first “cover girl” on a motorcycle magazine. And while she wasn’t the first woman to attempt such an arduous journey, her trip was one of the best documented, even if most people have never heard of her. She kept scrapbooks filled with local newspaper articles, photos and postcards and wrote a two-part article about it for The Enthusiast that appeared in its November and December, 1929 issues, a portion of which appears above.
Following her famous ride, Vivian continued her love of motorcycling, performing stunt riding in Florida. Before her passing in 2001, she had requested a funeral procession of Harleys. Her final wish was granted and organized by Flint River Harley-Davidson in Albany, Georgia.
By Louise Reeves