BILLINGS, Mont. — Harley-Davidson motorcycles were still in their infancy in 1929 when 18-year-old Don DeVore took an interest in the machines and landed a job at Montana Cycle and Supply, an early Billings motorcycle and bicycle shop.
“Motorcycles were the fad then, and my dad and his brother were particularly interested in the Harleys and how they operated,” wrote Rick DeVore, Don’s son, in a recent email to the Billings Gazette.
The shop must not have been too profitable, because articles in the Gazette between 1914, when Montana Cycle and Supply was founded, until 1921 show the shop changed ownership three times. Yet advertisements as early as 1915 touted the shop had “everything for the motorcyclist,” including “dimmer goggles” to help cut the glare of oncoming headlights and bright sunshine.
In 1929 — possibly before the stock market crash in October that would send the U.S. economy into the Great Depression for 10 years — an unusual customer showed up at the Billings shop. Jack Haynes, a Yellowstone National Park photographer and businessman whose father’s name was synonymous with park photography, arrived to buy five new Harley-Davidson motorcycles with sidecars.
The first commercial sales of Harleys had started in 1907 when the machines were essentially motorized bicycles. By 1928, an advertisement in the Gazette touted the new bikes had seven major improvements, “including fore (front) wheel brake. First time in America — doubled safety!”
In 1929, the company was producing cycles like the JDH — “the motorcycle that made the 1920s roar” — which could hit 85 mph and get 80 miles to the gallon. The motorcycle had a 74 cubic inch V-twin engine and sold for less than $400. That price is equivalent to almost $6,000 today. So buying five of them was no small investment for Haynes.
Unfortunately for Haynes, the investment would occur just as park visitation began to drop because of the Great Depression, falling from more than 260,000 tourists in 1929 to 157,000 by 1931, according to a history of park concessions written by Mary Shivers Culpin.
“The concessioners suffered losses for three straight years, with 1932 being the worst; business losses were 50 to 60 percent of their 1931 business revenues,” Culpin wrote.
Haynes was likely helped some when the park’s administration allowed him to be “the sole provider of pictures, postal cards, film, Kodaks, and guide books.” But visitors were spending less money overall, cutting all concession providers’ profits.
Haynes wanted drivers of the olive drab painted motorcycles, equipped with sidecars, to pick up tourists’ film and race it to his processing lab where the film would be developed and printed overnight. The next morning, the riders would carry printed photographs back to Haynes’ other Photo Shops so tourists could have their photographs the next day, a quick turnaround in 1929.
“When (the motorcycles) arrived, unassembled and crated, Mr. Haynes returned to Billings, picked up the crated cycles to return to the Park,” Rick wrote. “During conversations, Mr. Haynes ended up hiring my dad to return to the Park with him, assemble the cycles, then train 4-5 guys how to drive them. He then stayed in the park for that summer…”
Rough park roads didn’t seem to bother the elder DeVore, but he did note that the early morning riders would sometimes round a corner to find bears sleeping on the road’s much warmer asphalt surface.
Rick notified the Gazette of his father’s involvement in the overnight photo processing scheme after reading a story about the old Haynes Picture Shop in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo., being remodeled for Xanterra Parks & Resorts’ offices.
After working in the park, Don DeVore returned to Billings and bought his own 45 Twin Harley for about $300. Using the bike, he won the 1930 74-cubic inch event at the Billings Hill Climb. He must have borrowed a bike to also win the 45-cubic inch Novice Event the same year. Rick still has the certificates neatly folded and tucked into one of three binders with historical information and photographs about his family’s history.
“I guess I’ve always liked history and wanted to find out a little more,” he said. “It just took off. Once I got into it I do it all of the time.”
Despite what appeared to be a blooming love for motorcycles, Don DeVore quit riding after a cousin borrowed his brother’s bike and crashed into an automobile, dying later at the hospital from multiple injuries.
“After that, Dad needed to get away from motorcycles,” Rick said. “He sold his to a cop.”
And so ended a unique Billings link to an unusual aspect of Yellowstone National Park’s history. DeVore would go on to have other curious adventures. In 1938, he began overseeing the building of an oil pipeline service road in Venezuela, Rick said. His crew were all Colombians, so he had translators to help communicate instructions.
In one letter to his fiancé, DeVore wrote about the 7-foot-long bushmaster snake he had killed with fangs nearly an inch long.
The job didn’t last too long because the jungle’s secretive natives attacked and killed five of the crew, riddling their bodies with arrows. DeVore, who had contracted malaria, was walking slower back to camp than the workers when the massacre occurred, thereby avoiding harm. After that, he requested a speedy evacuation from the jungle.
His thirst for travel still unquenched, DeVore signed on for surveying work in the Mideast. While traveling via ship to Iran, a German U-Boat torpedoed the transport, sinking it off the coast of Trinidad. The sound of the explosion led to hearing loss in one of DeVore’s ears. He was shipped back to the United States via Cuba, where he added more photos to his album.
When the U.S. entered World War II, DeVore enlisted in the Navy Seabees — the United States Naval Construction Battalions — and was employed building airstrips on Pacific islands like Guam. After returning to the states, he began a 43-year career with the Montana Highway Department, eventually attaining the positon of deputy state highway engineer before retiring.
Don DeVore died in 1997 at the age of 85 while working on his daughter-in-law’s car in the driveway.
“He died doing what he loved,” Rick said.
What a wild ride it was.
French may be reached at email@example.com.