Featured Rider: Fred Tilly

Most of us recall a motorcyclist that lived in our town who stood out for one reason or another. Maybe he was a mentor, helped us “learn the ropes” of motorcycling or was colorful in some other way.
We invite you to share stories on local motorcyclists, male or female for us to share with our readers in upcoming newsletters. Though we reserve the right to edit stories for length, weʼll do our best to present them as sent to to the Museum.
This month we are bringing you a story of Fred Tilly a great motorcyclist from the Suamico, Wisconsin area, north of Milwaukee, not far from Green Bay. Here is the story on Fred, as recalled by family members, grandson and granddaughter-in-law Michael and Julie Tilly: Fred Tilly was born September 25, 1901 to Frank and Lucille Tilly. In 1916, at the age of 15, he started riding motorcycles. He rode many makes and models of bikes through his lifetime, including Thor, Excelsior, Indian, Henderson, Honda and Kawasaki, but spent a lot of time on Harleys.
Fred enjoyed racing of various types and played a bit at the drag strip in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. He did some flat track and hill climb competition as well, even entered some fuel mileage competitions clubs sponsored in years past. When Fred raced it didn’t matter to him what place he took because he just raced for fun.
For the majority of Fredʼs working days, he was employed at Olsonʼs Transportation as a diesel truck mechanic. Fred was very ambitious and during his younger years he attended and graduated from the Harley Davidson Factory School of Motorcycle Mechanics. With the knowledge learned, he utilized his skills and talent by working at home fixing motorcycles. Very often, we would see motorcycles from the Green Bay Police Department in his garage. Fred would work on them to improve their speed and running condition. Once Fred retired from Olsonʼs Transportation as a diesel truck mechanic, he continued working part-time as a mechanic at several motorcycle shops; Jim Arndt Harley Davidson of Green Bay, McCoyʼs Harley Davidson, Green Bay, Kawasaki of Green Bay and Rentmeester Kawasaki of Green Bay.
In the 1960ʼs, Fred considered himself to be an activist in the protest of the Wisconsin Motorcycle Helmet Law. He was one of the many individuals that attended the protest at the State Capitol Building in Madison, Wisconsin. Eventually, as you may know, the law was repealed. He was very proud to have taken part in the process.
For anyone that knew Fred, they knew that anytime they’d see him, he would be enjoying a cigar, might also have a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek. For many years, Fred rode his motorcycle year round. Come sunny skies, rainy days, falling snow or a blizzard, he would always make an attempt to travel here and there. During one particular snowfall, Fredʼs grandson Michael remembers seeing his grandfather come riding down his street to stop in for a visit and this is what he saw:
“…the motorcycle busting through the snow drifts, snow flying everywhere and the tires cutting through the six inches of snow ruts. His cigar would be glowing bright, a wad of Plow Boy Chewing Tobacco in his cheek and his eyes squinting to keep out the blowing ashes. It was so comical to see at that time and today we appreciate all the fond memories.”
Fred was a short man and as motorcycles became larger and taller, he soon found himself unable to reach the ground as needed, so he soon found himself a side car to attach to his bike. The side-car enabled him to ride for many more years to which at age 70, he was able to travel one last long-distance ride to Nashville, Tennessee to see the sights and visit the Grand Ole Opry. Also, due to his height and cigar, many people would comment how he reminded them of the actor/comedian George Burns. When Fredʼs two sons, Robert and John became old enough to ride, they carried out Fredʼs interest of riding motorcycles, too. To date, all of Fredʼs grandsons and one great grandson enjoy riding and touring the countryside on their motorcycles. Fred and his grandson Michael Tilly spent a lot of time together after Fredʼs wife Irene passed away. Michael was the oldest grandson. In July, 1981, when Fred was 79 they rode their bikes to the flat-track motorcycle races in Wausau, Wisconsin. But as Fred led the way to the race track, he got lost and began looking for familiar landmarks. Not concentrating on riding, watching for a landmark, he didn’t notice the approaching S curve in the road and set of railroad tracks running directly through it. At that time, he was traveling a little too fast, the side car wheel rose off the ground several inches and at the age of 79 and 10 months, he still had the presence of mind and skill to know how to get the bike back under control and prevent an accident. This experience happened just six weeks prior to his death.
On August 21, 1981, Fred Tilly was on his motorcycle riding down Shawano Avenue in Green Bay, Wisconsin and was directly in front of the emergency entrance/ exit of St. Maryʼs Hospital. A car driver pulled out in front of him, hit him. He was thrown from his bike and landed in the road. Fred was a tough individual. After the accident happened, Fred not wearing a helmet, ending up with massive head injuries. He rose from the ground, scolded the driver and in moments, passed out at the curbside. He was admitted to St. Maryʼs Hospital for treatment, but the massive head injuries were too much to recover from at his age. He died 12 hours later on August 21, 1981, just a month from his 80th birthday.

5 replies
  1. Daniel Arndt
    Daniel Arndt says:

    WAY TO LIVE FRED! You kept the most important vehicles in this country going. Though I didn’t know you your story beams with the sound of living life to the fullest.

  2. Bonnie Scott
    Bonnie Scott says:

    Sirs I am looking for any info on a racer named Matthew Hauer from Flint Mi. he raced some where between 1900- 1923, any thing you could help me would be appreciated,,, thanks

  3. Kimberly (Tilly) Lapacz
    Kimberly (Tilly) Lapacz says:

    This is my Great Grandpa, I can’t wait to take my husband and my son to see him one day!


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