Vintage Motorcycle Frames Stuck in Maple Tree

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A close-up shows that the metal of this 1913 Thor frame did not fare so well buried in the tree. The handlebars and support tube were quite chewed up.
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If you can't pass a padlocked garage without wondering if there's a great vintage motorcycle stashed inside, then “The Harley in the Barn” is your book.
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This is the 1911 Thor frame and engine David White discovered while searching for old machines and scrap iron in Illinois. The single-cylinder engine was buried under a winter’s worth of garbage in a barn, while the frame had been captured by a mature maple tree.

Driving
down a country road, a flash of chrome catches your eye as you pass an old
farmstead. Next time you roll by, you slow down and focus on a shed behind the
house. Could that be? Yep, it’s a vintage Triumph Bonneville peering forlornly
from beneath a tattered cover. You’ve just begun the journey that fuels the
dreams of every motorcycle collector: the long-forgotten machine,
re-discovered. 
The Harley in the Barn (Motorbooks, 2012) offers 40-plus tales of lost Nortons, hidden Hondas, dormant
Indians, and busted BSAs, all squirreled away from prying eyes but found by
lucky collectors just like you. Author Tom Cotter is not only a barn-find
master, he’s also master of discovering the collectors with the best stories
and the most outlandish finds. In this excerpt from chapter 2, “Strange
Places,” a picker finds two vintage motorcycle frames entwined with an old
maple tree.

Buy this
book in the
Motorcycle Classics store: The Harley in the Barn.

Collectors like to brag
about the histories–the “provenance”–of their motorcycles. Some were owned by
royalty or movie stars; others were used as engineering mules by their
manufacturers. Mike Terry’s 1911 Thor once belonged to a mature maple tree.

David White is a
self-described picker from Lena,
Illinois, who was searching a
town in the northern part of his state for unwanted treasures in 2010 when he
came across a collection of vintage bike parts with a twist worthy of Robert
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

It was spring, but just
barely. The woods were still nude and the snakes still hidden. White was in the
area for an auction when he ran into a friend whose family farm went back three
generations and was known to have a lot of scrap metal and antique farm
machinery.

The original owner of the
land had served in World War I–a remarkable claim for an area in which 60
native sons fought and only 16 returned. A hard post-war life taught the
veteran to pinch a penny and never discard anything. His descendants continued
the thrifty practice until well into the 21st century, and had just opened the
property to junk men and scroungers when White arrived in town.

It was a bonanza for
pickers.

“They never threw anything
away,” White said. “If something wasn’t being used anymore, someone from the
family hauled it into the woods and left it. There was an old Model T pickup,
farm machinery, and tools everywhere. It was like a rusty museum of
agriculture. I saw a century’s worth of plows and farm implements, most of it
in such bad shape it was only good for scrap.”

White’s first purchase was
two boxes of Native American arrowheads, which he collected whenever possible.
He offered $150, but the seller–his friend–thought that was too much and only
took $100.

He went to a milk shed next,
where he saw a pair of tractors that looked as if they had not been run in
decades. “They were Case SCs, which J.I. Case made in Racine, Wisconsin,
from 1940 to 1955,” he said. “One had belonged to the grandpa; the other, the
dad. He wanted $1,000 for the pair, which I gave him. Cases are not very
collectible, so I ended up scrapping them. I probably paid too much.”

The shed was full from top to
bottom with machinery, including old binders, hayloaders, McCormick-Deering and
Massey-Harris equipment, horse-drawn one- to six-bottom plows, and pull-type
combines–the likes of which no one has used in 60 years. White bought it all.

White learned that two other
junkers had already been over the property and had offered no money but said
they would haul everything away for scrap, making White’s cash on the
barrelhead very attractive. He pulled out another $400 to claim all of the
scrap iron that was scattered around the farm and in the woods. It would be
hard work, but White’s loader and torch would turn the big pieces into
manageable chunks of profit.

He was looking around the
inside of a shed as an old lady pulled bags of winter-stored trash out. Some boys
from the family had already been combing the scrap and selling anything they
could physically lift onto a trailer, but the trash had obscured a small
single-cylinder engine marked “Thor” that was now visible to White. “I was
buying some crock jars from the lady when I noticed the engine,” he said. “All
I had were $20 bills, and I was up to $50 worth of jars, so I said, ‘How about
we call it even at $60 if you throw in that little engine?’

“She agreed and said I could
have the other vintage motorcycle parts around back of the building for free.
She told me one motorcycle had been leaning against a tree back there since
before her father was born.”

A day later, when White
worked his way to the location of the free vintage motorcycles, he was not as
happy as one might expect. “There were two motorcycle frames, although I didn’t
know what brand they were at the time,” he said. “They were not just leaning
against some trees; they had been absorbed into the body of a big maple and
lifted off the ground during years of growth.

“One bike wasn’t in there
too bad. I was able to get it free just by cutting some branches. The other one
was almost entirely encapsulated, though, and the swept-back handlebars were
completely hidden by the trunk. It took me three days to get it free with my
chainsaw. I went through a couple of blades getting it out, but the frame was
intact and in good shape when I finally freed it.”

White now had one Thor
engine and two frames. He asked if anyone knew where the other engine was, and
if there might be more vintage motorcycle parts. “It turns out the other engine
had been outside, so the kids grabbed it and scrapped it. They also found an
Indian motorcycle, pried the emblem off as a keepsake, and sent the rest to the
junkyard for crushing.

“The only reason I had an
engine at all was because it was buried under trash, and the frames were saved
because the tree was claiming them. I also found a Schwinn bicycle that the
boys had missed.” Scouring the grounds turned up a few Thor tools in a pouch, a
sprocket, and a pedal assembly.

At home with his finds,
White did some research on the Thor products. He found that the Thor Moto Cycle
and Bicycle Co. was founded in Aurora,
Illinois, in 1903 for the purpose
of building parts for the growing motorcycle industry. Its parent, the Aurora
Machine and Tool Co., was the main supplier of Indian parts in 1902. Thor
primarily produced engines and frames for Indian, but the 1903 Thor catalog
indicated it had every component needed to construct a motorcycle. By 1908,
Indian had taken its foundry work in-house, and Thor was advertising complete
motorcycles for sale through a dealer network.

The 1911 model engine White
found marked the first Thor produced with a free-moving engine clutch on the
single-cylinder bikes. Thor’s end is a subject of some confusion, but it is
safe to say the company stopped motorcycle production at some point during the
years of 1918-1920.

“Thors weren’t out for a
long time,” White said, “but they were part of that first Big Three, along with
Indian and Harley. I didn’t realize how historic they might be when I was
cutting them out of the tree. Since they were built in Aurora, it looks like these two Thors got no
more than an hour and a half away before the trees got them.”

White could identify one of
the frames as a Thor, but the other had no markings and was a mystery. “I put
the engine and frames on eBay,” he said. “Since I couldn’t say for sure what it
was, I just said the second frame was for ‘an old motorcycle.'”

That’s when collector Mike
Terry of Toms River, New Jersey, first heard of White’s discovery. “I was never
really interested in Thors,” Terry said. “I’ve had Flying Merkels, Popes, and
Yales. I thought they were more interesting at the time.”

His stable of 25 bikes
includes some unusual barn finds, although he was not personally responsible
for their discovery.

His 1913 Harley-Davidson
twin was found disassembled in a collapsed building by a great-nephew of the
property’s owner. He had been cleaning up the wood to resell it when he found
the engine and what he thought was a bicycle frame. Figuring anything that old
with the name Harley-Davidson stamped on it was worth some good money, he
posted it on Craigslist, where it was bought by Terry’s friend Todd Bertrang,
whom Terry describes as “a motorcycle guru who has had a lot of great bikes in
the last 30 years.” Terry traded Bertrang a ’54 Harley Panhead with original
paint for the ’13 basket case.

Terry’s 1913 Harley
single-cylinder bike was found in a porch in Iowa in 2011. Terry thinks the bike lay on
its side for years, because water got into the engine, and one side of the
cylinder was very rusty. The owner, whose family had it in the porch, bought it
used in 1920, an event that was captured in an old photo.

Terry’s 1914 Henderson was missing its engine when it was found in a
landfill in Wyoming
on a 20,000-acre estate. A tractor had run over it, but after he acquired it
around 1995 (in exchange for a ’47 Harley springer front fork), Terry had a
fabricator straighten the tubes. It has since been restored.

Terry knew a lot about bikes
from that era, but had no idea what bid to place on David White’s Thor lots on
eBay. “I saw the Thor engine was up to $500 already,” Terry said. “I just
figured out how bad I wanted everything and made my bids. I won all three, but
I was surprised that the unmarked frame went for as high as it did.”

White gave Terry a bonus for
buying all three lots–two of the Thor wrenches he discovered near the bikes.

After receiving and
investigating his wins, Terry verified that the engine and the frame that had
been freed from the tree were from 1911. The second, unidentified frame was
either a 1913 or 1914 model–the two years were identical. One Thor enthusiast
told Terry it was definitely a ’14 because of the way the handlebars are bent.

Terry has developed a
fascination with Thors, and plans to do more research on the subject. He
recently bought two Thor engines, a 1914 twin and a 1913 single, for his
barn-find projects. “I’ll probably install the single into the tree frame,” he
said, “because I like the way the singles drive.”

As for White, the picker has
expanded his scope of items to look for at estate sales and in old barns. “I’ve
found some old motorcycles in the past, but didn’t really know what they were worth,”
he said. “Those Thors really opened my eyes. I’ve seen frames go through
auction that brought $160 or $200. Looking back, I probably should have bought
them.”

More from The Harley in the Barn:

Vintage Bike Bug Cured by Triumph Trophy

This excerpt has been
reprinted with permission from
The Harley in the
Barn: More Great Tales of Motorcycle Archaelogy by Tom Cotter and published by Motorbooks, 2012. Buy this book in our
store:
The Harley in the Barn.

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