By David Walters
Thomas Jerome Fugle, Tom Fugle. Is a legend. He deserves more space than I could give him within this write-up. The man deservers his own history book. If you’ve ever heard his voice for any amount of time, you’d also want him to narrate any story about you, kinda like that Morgan Freeman meme.
Tom may not have even liked me, I break pretty much anything I touch, I can’t paint stick figures worth a shit, and as much as I respect the hell out of a gorgeous chopper build, I need a bigger bike or my shot knees are screaming at me. Maybe he would have liked the poetry and beauty I find in the history of this life. The Respect I give those who do it better than I. His motto was “Ride Choppers or Fuck Off”, but he himself said that he was more of an artist than he was a rider. Building bikes just happened to be his creative outlet. A Poet with a canvas. “Riding a Motorcycle doesn’t really matter to me. Anybody can go out and buy a motorcycle, but with a chopper, you build it, it’s you riding it. You’re showing off your artwork everywhere you go”
He was born January 10th, 1941 in Sioux City, Iowa. A place he loved all his life. He said he never really wanted to live anywhere else. He was located about equal distance to both coasts and an easy drive right down the middle to the south. What more did he want he’d say. He passed away December 18th, 2016, and the dash in-between 1941 – 2016 is one hell of a life lived.
In an interview he gave he talks about his first motorcycle experience when he was 14. A neighbor had an old surplus Indian with a driveshaft for use in the desert. The neighbor let Tom get on and ride it in a vacant lot and gave him some pointers. The passion was born. There is a famous story where Tom talks about going with a friend in 1960 to look at a Sportster the friend was going to buy. Next to the Sportster was a 56′ Harley full dresser with 3,000 miles on it. Tom bought it for 800 bucks on a 25 dollar a week payment plan. “This was the most money I ever spent buying a bike”, Tom would say. “I had it chopped within the year”.
Tom Fugle and Harlan “Tiny” Brower would found the El Forastero MC in 1962. Tiny had moved back to Sioux City (where he was born) from California, where he had been a member of the Satan Slaves MC. The story was that their attempt to bring a chapter of the Satan Slaves to Iowa didn’t pan out, so El Forastero was born. Tiny would eventually move back to California in the 70s and become a 20+ year member of the Hells Angels. Dave Mann, among others, was/is another well-known artist, El Forastero member, and someone who deserves his own write-up. Mann and Tom were also great friends. They first met at a swap meet in Kansas City where Tom Fugle asked to share some of Mann’s work with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth who at the time was publishing one of the first custom bike magazines. This born a long and legendary friendship with Mann eventually becoming a founding member of the Kansas City chapter of the El Forastero MC. The rumor goes, that Tom even prodded Mann to concentrate more on bike paintings and less on car scenes and that the two would trade artwork with Tom being quite apt with a paintbrush himself. Tom would deliver the eulogy at David Mann’s funeral in 2004.
Later in life while continuing his world renown chopper builds, Tom would also run a print shop and leather business. He would be featured in TV and Documentary videos with some of the more famous ones being “History of the Chopper” and “21 Days Under the Sun”. If you’ve never seen “21 Days Under the Sun”, please do. It is poetry with bikes, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s a documentary about going back to where things started. About the beauty in the landscapes we ride. The people you meet along the way. Their stories. It looks at what is the American Dream and the fearless few that have the guts to go without a plan. This, to remind us all what an adventure feels like. That was Tom.
He would be a featured builder at countless motorcycle shows and one of his last would be at the Born Free 6 show with the bike he built for it also allowing him to travel to the prestigious Yokohama Hot Rod Custom show in Japan later that year. There is a really great short documentary you can watch on him building the bike and talking about his life and loves. Born Free even did a set of trading cards with Tom Fugle. Born Free is a back to basics bike show. People build and ride in vintage Harleys, Indians, Triumphs and countless others to the show. Within a Born Free show, the builder is the show, what you bring is the show and classics are the spotlight. Unfortunately for born free, law enforcement has tided a no colors policy to their permit for putting on the show, but that of course is a different issue.
You can also rent on Vimeo A 8mm footage documentary from Tom Fugle himself shot on a 8mm camera in the 60s. It is appropriately titled “Fuck Off”…
When Tom passed and countless motorcycle, biker, chopper etc websites passed the news and shared stories, two classics always reappear. ” Tom Fugle, he’s the dude who built a bike in his basement and then blew a hole in the basement wall with dynamite to get it out right?” Yep. A writer from Street Chopper said of an interview he did with Tom ” I asked if he preferred Blondes, Brunettes or Redheads, he answered back I’ve been with them all and I couldn’t see the difference. Eventually they all turn gray”…..
I like to give you guys some history of the life I love. I hope I do honor highlighting these legends from time to time who have done it so much better than I.
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Sand was spat up into the air, accompanied by the sounds of dozens of engines, like the roars of steel beasts.
And they took off, about 40 men on their motorcycles embarking on an annual ride.
On Saturday, Aug. 25, the Mohawk Ramblers Motorcycle Club held its memorial run, a ride commemorating those members and friends who have died.
But while such events by the club are purposeful, often raising money or awareness for a particular cause, they are also symbolic of brotherhood. There is always one constant, the thing that brings these men together: a love of motorcycles.
“We have guys from every trade, from every walk of life,” said John Burek, a Mohawk Rambler for nearly two decades and the club’s president for the last three years.
“It’s like a fraternal organization,” he said. “You share good times and make memories.”
A mission of service
The Mohawk Ramblers have a long history, celebrating their 60th anniversary this summer, making the motorcycle club one of the oldest in western Massachusetts, Burek said. With around 45 members, the club is also one of the area’s largest.
“People see on our vests ‘1958,’ and that impresses a lot of people,” he said.
There have been bumps in the road of the Mohawk Ramblers’ history at times, including the threat of eviction at its longtime clubhouse and dwindling membership.
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“Those guys who stayed in during those years without many members built it back up, and they saved a piece of history,” Burek said.
Now, however, the club is on sturdy ground — quite literally, with a new clubhouse that opened this year.
“You could just see the relief in people (after getting a new building),” Burek said. “We can focus on our mission: helping relations between the community and people that ride motorcycles.”
The club, which is also a registered nonprofit, meets at its Montague clubhouse on Sundays and strives to protect the reputation of bikers, who are often smeared in movies or the media.
“You see things like ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and the way Hollywood depicts us,” Burek said. “That’s all just fantasy.”
The club first became a nonprofit organization in 1981, and has run various charities since, including yearly scholarships for the Franklin County Technical School.
In February 2016, two Millers Falls residents, Anthony Darling and Brittney Wheeler, died in a car crash on Route 63 in Montague Center, leaving three children ages 1 through 5 orphaned.
The accident prompted an outpouring of support for the children from the community, including local firefighters who donated new car seats for the children.
The Mohawk Ramblers also stepped in to help, and raised $3,000 for the family and children.
“We try to help out anyone who needs help,” Burek said.
A love for bikes, or something more?
The reason people initially join motorcycle clubs is quite simple in Burek’s eyes.
“Like anyone else, if you grow up with motorcycles, you later want to be around them and the clubs,” Burek said.
But oftentimes, members stay for more than just the bikes, but for the sense of fraternity. Founding member Francis “Chick” Ahearn recounted how the club’s members have grown closer over its 60 years.
“It was just to get together (when it started),” Ahearn said. “Just to get together and ride.”
At age 83, Ahearn is the club’s oldest member and still attends meetings and functions. The focus on charity gives the bikers a common cause in addition to their common hobby.
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“We were all friends before, we were always friends, but today we donate so much,” Ahearn said. “We have two scholarships for the school every year, we’ve got a benefit meal this weekend for a member who has cancer, and we do that a lot.”
Ahearn said the fraternal aspect of the club comes from the fact that its members are not only charitable to others, but to each other.
“And we don’t really get the acknowledgement for it,” Ahearn said. “But maybe that’s a good thing.”
According to Ahearn, the club doesn’t need acknowledgement. It does what it does for the good of the community and its members, and that’s it.
The Mohawk Ramblers Motorcycle Club, he said, was originally known as the Ramblers, and had meetings in members’ cellars for several years until a clubhouse was established.
It’s also always remained a “legitimate” club, as Ahearn describes it. The Mohawk Ramblers don’t associate with “outlaw” biker groups that do more harm than good when it comes to the biker image, he said.
“Those clubs, those guys — we don’t have them at our meetings and we don’t want them there,” Ahearn said. “We are about giving, and I don’t think they give anything but to themselves.”
Ahearn said he’s glad that many of the Mohawk Ramblers’ events are not advertised, and are really only known within the community — and sometimes not even that well known.
“We’ve been here for so long, and a lot of people don’t even know about us,” Ahearn said.
The Mohawk Ramblers grow and organize by word of mouth, he said — if events were widely advertised then they might draw the type of people the club doesn’t want around.
According to Burek, there are other groups, like BACA — Bikers Against Child Abuse — that are nonprofit motorcycle clubs. Overall, however the notion is rare.
What isn’t rare, however, is the kindhearted biker, Burek said, and that’s obvious whenever the Mohawk Ramblers host a charity ride.
“A lot of people come who grew up in the area but are not necessarily in the club. Just in general, just people who bike, if people care, they will go to these and we arrange them,” Burek said.
Burek added that Franklin County and area businesses often support or promote their charities, adding to the club’s sense of place in the community.
“People in general just like to help other people,” Burek said. “We need to. We need to lift each other up as a society.”
For the first time, the club will have members at the Great Falls Festival in Turners Falls on Oct. 20 — formerly known as Pumpkinfest — selling koozies, pins and more, but also just to have a presence.
“Anyone who wants to come up and talk to us, find out about the club can,” Burek said. “Sometimes these types of things are where we meet people who eventually become members.”
However, there is no sign-up sheet to become a member of the Mohawk Ramblers. The club members are close, a fraternity, and one doesn’t simply decide to join.
“There’s a sense of community and brotherhood in the whole thing,” Burek said.
People who do become members, and eventually wear the shining blue and gold patch on their backs, have to be sponsored by a current member, have to go through a period of time as a prospect and ultimately have to be voted in and accepted by the other members of the brotherhood.
But that process itself is valuable, Burek said. It weeds out the bad and the undedicated, and finds the motivated.
“You try to be a better man tomorrow than I am today,” Burek said. “You’ve got to be able to roll with the punches.”
Staff reporter David McLellan started working at the Greenfield Recorder this year. He covers Orange, New Salem and Wendell. He can be reached at: [email protected] or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.