Nilus (and where did this name come from?), claimed owner of a ‘barn find’ 1909 Curtiss, was straight out of Central Casting; the director of our TV project had joked the night prior that it would be best if the owner of the Curtiss showed up in suspenders, and Nilus obliged, being a quintessential Iowa farmer. The family homestead, and that’s literally what it was, had been left behind in North Dakota many years ago, but family members still live on the property. That original building was described as having been of rough construction, as when the family arrived in the 1800s, North Dakota was still a very rough and basic territory – Nilus mentioned that regular electricity only arrived in the 1950’s! Thus, his Uncle Tom, the original owner of the Curtiss, would have been left basically to his own devices regarding maintenance and repairs to his motorcycle. During its 8 years of active duty, quite a few miles went under those tires, and the motorcycle certainly showed a hard life; both fenders having been repaired multiple times with rivets and patches, and the petrol tank having plenty of dents for character. The grey/white paint was still in good shape though, with a lot of chips from rocks and spills. Spills aplenty there must have been, as the first paved road in North Dakota came many decades after the Curtiss was laid up.

Paul d’Orléans, Nilus, and the 1909 Curtiss he pulled out of the family junkpile. Maybe without permission! [Paul d’Orléans]
Family lore claimed that the bike was used for courtship; Tom would ride into an adjacent town to visit his sweetheart on two wheels, quite a time saver over a horse as the Curtiss was about the most reliable motorcycle on the market in 1909. I imagine him rushing to court his love in 1917 (having been granted an exemption from the WW1 draft no doubt as necessary to his farm), and having a mighty spill on the slippery mud roads of Spring that year. The left bicycle pedal (the Curtiss is a moped, in common with most others in ’09) broke off, and Tom broke his leg. His relationship with the girl AND the motorcycle ended that day, as he wanted nothing further to do with either. Tom’s brother took the bike and stored it away in the only available storage space on the homestead; the attic.

Setting up the star of the show at the MidAmerica St. Paul auction: Ron Christenson gets to work! MidAmerica has since been absorbed my Mecum Auctions. The 1909 Curtiss V-twin was in remarkably complete and original condition. [Paul d’Orléans]
Almost a half-century later, Nilus’ other uncle, let’s call him Bob (he didn’t want his name used), began to teach his 13 year old nephew the rudiments of mechanicing, as he already had a driver’s license and wanted a vehicle! The first project was to rebuild a small washing machine motor; this was a little four-stroke single-cylinder affair, which they managed to rebuild successfully. Uncle Bob suggested they tackle ‘that old Curtiss’ next, and they poked around at it a little, most significantly removing the spark plugs for a look. Which is unfortunate, as Glenn H. Curtiss, in typical fashion, made his own spark plugs, which are now rarer than hen’s teeth; they were lost forever when Uncle Bob took ill shortly after their initial foray at motorcycling, and young Nilus’ attention went elsewhere; significantly, away from motorcycles, as he never explored two wheels again.

At the time, Paul d’Orléans was the star of a proposed TV series about old motorcycles, which never got off the ground. [Paul d’Orléans]
Another 50 years passed, and Nilus found the existence of the Glenn H. Curtiss Motorcycle and Aviation Museum on the internet (he has a son of around 23 years – who must have alerted him to computers). The light went ‘ding’, and Nilus contacted the museum to inquire as to the possible value of a Curtiss motorcycle he happened to recall…. ‘A lot of money’ was the response Being in Iowa, other hands had to confirm the existence of the bike in the attic, which was a bit difficult, as the house had not only been abandoned a few years prior when Uncle Bob finally died, but had been used as a garbage dump for some time, and was surrounded and filled with rubbish. The state of the family property is a source of deep shame to Nilus… Sitting atop the garbage pile was a Rembrandt, or a pile of cash, however one chooses to look at it, and Nilus found MidAmerica Auctions to help him sell the machine.

Auctioneer attire! Neither the auctioneering style nor the tie were particularly subtle. [Paul d’Orleans]
The machine was the star attraction at St. Paul, as there was speculation that the Curtiss name and rarity might bring a record price. It was lot #51, and went on the block at around 1pm, when presumably the crowd was warmed up [above, one of the auctioneers – the tie was blinding]. I spoke to a silent crowd for 8 minutes about the machine and its history, and about Glenn Curtiss himself; his bicycle and motorcycle racing exploits, his later fame as a founder of American aviation industry, and the inventor of the seaplane. Bidding started in house with a few hands raised at $100k, but quickly died down inside the room as telephone and internet bidders took over from the locals.

Ron Christensen, CEO of MidAmerica Auctions, talks Nilus and his son off the ledge as bidding stalls. [Paul d’Orléans]
Tension mounted as the bike stalled at $185,000 for what seemed like an eternity – I spoke again about the unlikelihood of finding a Rembrandt in a garbage dump! Ron Christensen persuaded one of the phone bidders to meet the reserve of $200,000; then it was his task to negotiate with Nilus! As you can see from the photos, it was quite a decision for him [see Ron making his case], but eventually he decided that being $200k richer than he started the morning sounded good, and so the Curtiss will move to a sunny retirement in San Diego.

He’d hoped for a $Million, but Nilus was convinced to settle for $200k. [Paul d’Orléans]
As a coda, Nilus’ son got excited by a 2003 Ducati 999 which came up later at the auction, and part of the family winnings went towards the purchase of this hyperbike. The son was clearly very excited, and I asked him if he had experience with such a powerful, built-for-the-track bike… ‘I have a Quad on the farm!’….. when the tale of the newbie 999 owner spread, odds were being laid as to his likely longevity. I spoke with him in the most urgent terms regarding his health being connected directly to how far he twisted the throttle, that wide open was certain and rapid death, he looked at me with clear blue eyes wide, and I knew renewing of the family cycle would not end well… let’s hope he gets off as easily as his great uncle Tom. Godspeed, boy, and good luck.


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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