42 years and counting: Northwoods Fall Ride set to rumble into Tomahawk once again

By the Tomahawk Leader

TOMAHAWK – It’s almost that time of year!

The bikes will be back in Tomahawk once again for the 42nd iteration of the Northwoods Fall Ride, slated for Thursday, Sept. 14 to Sunday, Sept. 17.

Each year, Northwoods Fall Ride draws tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts and visitors from across the country and around the world to Tomahawk, giving riders the opportunity to take in the scenic Northwoods and all it has to offer.

As the annual rally heads into its 42nd year, attendees can expect to see the return of longstanding traditions, including live music, vendors downtown and at SARA Park, the Thunder Parade on Friday night and more.

The Tomahawk Leader’s 2023 Northwoods Fall Ride Guide is a must-have to be in the know about the rally.

The guide can be found at businesses throughout the Tomahawk area, as well as downtown during Northwoods Fall Ride. Flip through to find info on the history of Fall Ride, live music, events, vendors and more, and be sure to stop by local businesses that have placed advertisements throughout the Guide.

Now, let’s take a look back at rallies of years past, from Fall Ride’s start in the early 1980s to the present day.

History of Fall Ride: A look back through the Leader files

A group of 21 North Country Riders Motorcycle Club members getting together in October 1982 was the official inauguration of Fall Ride. Money raised went to a charity.

Harley-Davidson, Inc. and the Harley Owners’ Group came onboard in 1983 when about 300 riders on 160 motorcycles took part in an Oct. 8 90-mile ride along Lincoln County backroads. Afterwards, they were treated to free beer, brats and door prizes at the Tomahawk Harley-Davidson plant. Some $350.00 was raised for MDA – Harley-Davidson’s charity of choice – through a $2.00 registration fee.

In hope of more favorable motorcycling weather, the event was moved to early September in 1986. About 1,200 people on 676 cycles enjoyed the day, raising $3,200.00 for MDA.

The Fall Ride moved permanently to SARA Park in 1989. Attendance estimates soared to 5,000 people that year and donations to MDA neared $10,000.00.

The popular bike raffle was added a year later. A 1990 Harley-Davidson Sportster was the first cycle given away and was won by a Merrill man.

In its 10th year in 1991, the Thunder Parade rumbled for the first time through the streets of Tomahawk. An estimated 4,000 riders attended, even in pouring rain. Organizers upped the ante on the raffle bike, offering a new Big Twin FLHS Electra Glide Sport. More than $20,000.00 was raised for MDA.

The brand new Tomahawk Harley-Davidson North Plant opened for tours during the 1995 Fall Ride. The crowd was estimated to be about 13,000 strong at its Saturday peak. All 30,000 raffle tickets were sold, and the total donation to MDA topped $80,000.00.

A green and gold raffle bike personally autographed by Green Bay Packers head coach and Harley-Davidson enthusiast Mike Holmgren commemorated the Packers’ Super Bowl championship in 1997. The donation to MDA topped $100,000.00, with more than $67,000.00 raised from the bike raffle alone. Attendance estimates hovered around 30,000 people and 15,000 motorcycles. About 1,600 riders participated in the Fun Runs, and 1,000 rode in the Thunder Parade. A downtown street dance following the parade Friday night was added to the list of weekend activities.

The Fall Ride’s 20th anniversary was observed in 2001. The event helped observe the opening of the U.S. Hwy. 51 four-lane bypass. For the first time, two raffle bikes were featured, with a grand prize Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic and a second place Sportster. An estimated 4,000 bikes rode in the Thunder Parade, which followed the northbound lanes of Hwy. 51, the highway’s first traffic. A candlelight vigil was held as many bikers paused to honor those who died just a few days earlier in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

Harley-Davidson, the parent firm, marked its 100th anniversary in big fashion in Milwaukee in 2003. The celebration also was noted at Tomahawk’s 2003 Fall Ride as Harley-Davidson’s Tomahawk Operations marked its own important milestone – 40 years of being an integral part of the company and the Tomahawk community. A Blind Ride was offered for the first time, during which the Tomahawk Lions Club and Northern Lights Harley Owners Group (HOG) took 14 visually-impaired people on the 18-mile Thunder Parade. Local MDA donations totaled $112,000.00

Perfect motorcycling weather Sept. 16-19, 2004, pulled in an estimated 40,000 people and 20,000 motorcycles. Some $160,000.00 was raised for MDA, including $75,000.00 from raffle bike sales.

Celebrating its 25th milestone in 2006, the Tomahawk Fall Ride saw a record 45,000 visitors to the city with about $141,000.00 raised for MDA. A ceremony commemorated the quarter century milestone of the Ride at the Tomahawk Post Office with the unveiling of the first day cancellation of the 25-year anniversary Tomahawk Fall Ride cancel.

The Tomahawk Downtown Business Council, Tomahawk Post Office and Tomahawk Leader teamed up to present one-of-a-kind 2007 Tomahawk Fall Ride collector items: two postcards, a limited-edition Fall Ride stamp and a special one-day motorcycle pictorial cancellation dated Sept. 14, 2007.

The hosting community was in a bit of a funk in 2010 despite the excitement over welcoming our motorcycle friends. Our local Harley-Davidson plant had just finished a union vote that would help keep the company in Tomahawk and Wisconsin, and we were only weeks away from the closure of Veterans Memorial Bridge for removal and total reconstruction. The latter proved to be a financial burden on the community, as well as an inconvenience for the next nine months.

The bridge reopened and additional roadwork on N. 4th St. was timed for completion just before the 2011 Fall Ride. The rumble was back in the air and spirits were high as Tomahawk’s Fall Ride’s 30th anniversary was celebrated.

Dairyland Cycle Insurance became the official event sponsor in 2014, committing a $12,000.00 donation each of three years, plus promoting the Tomahawk event through billboards in large market areas around the state and mailings to Dairyland policy-holders, as well as additional support and subsequent large donations to MDA.

Wurl-Feind-Ingman VFW Post 2687 declared 2016 the Year of the Veteran, taking over the downtown Tomahawk portion of event planning during the 35th anniversary observance. A MASH theme from the TV series was the focus of added enthusiasm, with a “Command Center” tent, and MASH look-alike, trivia and business window decorating contests, along with an emphasis on involving veterans in an even bigger Thunder Parade. Those proceeds supported veterans’ causes, including the Never Forgotten Honor Flight and Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation, with MDA the continued focus at SARA Park through the bike raffle and by other supporters.

A VFW MASH blood drive was added in 2017. And, the “Big Party” lived on at Nokomis Community Park in memory of founder Bubba Troutman, who passed away in April of that year at age 63.

The tradition of honoring veterans continued in 2018, featuring Breakfast with a Vet at the VFW hall in downtown Tomahawk.

Over $101,000.00 was raised for MDA in 2019. Nine-year-old Evan Petersen, MDA State Ambassador, rode in a side car during the Friday Night Thunder Parade with Ben Powell of Harley-Davidson-Tomahawk Operations, and an Appleton man won a 2019 Harley-Davidson Vivid Black FLHTK Ultra Limited motorcycle raffled off at SARA Park.

2020 was a year unlike any that had come before it. Fall Ride was among countless events affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With Fall Ride events downtown and at SARA Park cancelled, local festivities throughout the weekend were limited to those put on by private businesses.

2021 marked Fall Ride’s 40th anniversary. Following a year in which most events were called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, riders were eager to return to Tomahawk to celebrate the rally’s four-decade milestone.

2022’s Fall Ride saw longstanding traditions carried on, including the Chamber’s Bonfire and Brat Fry, the Thunder Parade and downtown street dances. Harley-Davidson again offered demo fleets, providing the opportunity a ride any one of the 2022 Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and the Northwoods Fall Ride Bike Show was held at SARA Park.

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