In April 1925 Bill Wilson and his wife Lois left Brooklyn, New York riding a Harley-Davidson on a journey through the Eastern United States. Wilson was an energetic stock speculator who at age 29 was struggling to develop a method of predicting rises in stock values. He believed the secret was better information about the inner workings of publicly-held corporations. He and Lois, then 34, planned to spend as much as a year visiting factories and home offices of companies that looked promising.

The happy couple starting out on an adventure that would take much longer, and be much harder, than either anticipated. [Lois B. Wilson]
It was a bold idea, madcap and risky. They had only recently acquired the motorcycle – for weekend trips to the beach, Bill said later – but it was well-supplied. Bill had strapped his old Army trunk to the back, and filled it and the sidecar with tent, blankets, kapok-filled mattress, camping gear, food and clothing and a gasoline cooking stove, along with four volumes of Moody’s Manual on public utilities, each as large as a full-sized Webster’s dictionary. Lois wrote in her diary that they looked like travelers “bound for the Arctic with presents for all the Eskimos.” They had all they needed to live on — but only $80 in their wallets. “Our friends thought a lunacy commission should be appointed,” Bill would write later. Lois may have been skeptical about the whole scheme, but she had her own agenda. What she wanted, she said decades afterward, was to help her husband control his excessive drinking. “I wanted to get him away from New York, with bars (saloons they were called then) on many corners, and away from his buddies,” she said. “A year in the open, which we both loved, would give me a chance to straighten him out.”

Lois Wilson on the ‘Hobo’ Harley-Davidson, which she drove as well: the couple took turns at the handlebars on their two years on the road. [Lois B. Wilson]
Their machine was likely a used 1919 Harley-Davidson Model J with a factory sidecar. Powered by a 61-cubic-inch twin, with a three-speed hand-shift transmission, it was one of the first H-Ds to feature a full electric package, featuring a headlight, taillight and horn. It retailed at $370 and was the most expensive bike in the Harley line. The sidecar cost an additional $110. Bill Jackson of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee said the company records show that 9,941 Model Js were produced in 1919, out of a total of 23,279 total motorcycles produced in Milwaukee that year.

Packing the Harley-Davidson Model J with everything needed for two years on the road certainly taxed the outfit, and many repairs were needed. [Lois B. Wilson]
It was an ideal vehicle for trips to the beach. Modified, it looked like the perfect vehicle for a tour of the Eastern Seaboard. But the travelers made it only to Poughkeepsie the first day, having discovered that riding through upstate New York on a motorcycle in April, in the rain, without a windshield, was a chilly business, even in the “homemade waterproof zippered coveralls” they were wearing, Lois wrote in her diary. They also found their overloaded sidecar was rattling to pieces, and stopped at a blacksmith’s shop so it could be reinforced. The smithy’s repair was the first of dozens. As they toured New England and then headed south, camping each night, cooking and dining out of doors, bathing in lakes and streams and hiding from the rain in a tent that Bill had fitted with an electric light and a radio he could run off the Harley’s battery, the Wilsons suffered one breakdown after another. They threw a chain twice, had innumerable punctures and blow-outs – four in one long unlucky day before they realized the tires were worn through — replaced broken spokes and were repeatedly forced to adjust the timing and clean the carburetor. For weeks at a t time the machine that Lois called the “pop-cycle,” “the old bus,” “the old boat” and “the fuzz wagon” refused to run right. On one occasion the carburetor fell off entirely. On another, a short circuit in a rainstorm sidelined them for hours.

Packing and unpacking must have been a time-consuming ritual when they moved from place to place. [Lois B. Wilson]
One afternoon, trying to help motorists whose car had broken down, Bill hitched the Harley to the car’s front bumper and towed it into town – burning out the bike’s clutch. Another day, having failed to adequately secure their camping gear, they spent the whole afternoon retracing miles of roadway, collecting the blankets, sheets, towels and pajamas they had strewn over the countryside. On multiple occasions, as the weather warmed, they found themselves stuck in bogs and mudholes, Lois at the helm while Bill tried to pry the rear wheels loose with boards and branches. They seldom encountered other motorcyclists, except for one hapless Indian owner. He had traveled south from New Jersey on a bike also equipped with a side car – serving as the cockpit for his traveling companion, a dog. But his machine was failing him. Lois reported in her diary that he was offering it for sale at $20.

Bill and Lois Wilson with their Harley-Davidson Model J and sidecar.

Forced occasionally by bad weather to pay for food or shelter, despite their best efforts to camp wherever possible and feed themselves by fishing and foraging, the Wilsons were soon out of funds. In July, they found a farmer who was willing to take them on as summer help – Lois cooking and cleaning, Bill repairing farm equipment and doing general labor. Through the fall and winter they were back on the road, fighting the falling temperatures with a newly-acquired windshield for the motorcycle and a mattress and hot water bottle for the sidecar. Bill continued to visit cement factories, electric power plants and other companies – even getting invited to a private display of the new cinema development known as “talking pictures” – while sending reports back to his friends on Wall Street. One was sufficiently impressed to send the Wilsons some much-needed money.

Bill Wilson the clever business analyst in the 1930s. [Lois B. Wilson]
Including time off for visiting with friends and family, Bill and Lois stayed on the road for almost two years, clocking uncounted miles and investigating dozens of companies. They might have ridden longer, too, but for an accident. In Eastern Tennessee, hurrying home to attend a wedding, Lois failed to negotiate a sharp turn while piloting the Harley down a sandy road. The motorcycle went end over end, launching Bill and the contents of the sidecar over Lois’ head. He suffered a broken collarbone, and she badly damaged her knee. For the next week they were under a doctor’s care in a small hotel – there being no hospital in the small town – before returning by train to Brooklyn, and having their Harley shipped back home after them.

Lois’ plan to keep Bill sober was only moderately successful. She managed to keep Bill away from the bottle for weeks at a time. But whenever alcohol was present, and he took a drink, extreme drunkenness followed. One time he stepped away from Lois saying he needed cigarettes, and did not return. Left alone on the street, with no money, in a strange town, Lois waited for hours until, well after dark, she began to search from one barroom to the next. “At last I found him, hardly able to navigate–and the money practically gone!” she wrote. Bill’s plan proved more effective. By the time he’d finished his tour of the east coast, he had convinced backers on Wall Street to invest in his companies and bankroll his own investments. Soon he and Lois were back in New York, living like royalty. “For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way,” Bill said later. “I had arrived.”

Lois B. Wilson in her wedding dress, circa 1921. [Lois B. Wilson]
It didn’t last. Bill’s drinking problem grew with his bank account. By the time of the Wall Street crash of 1929, he was almost a full-time drunk. After the crash, the descent was even steeper. He lost his job, his friends, his home and his health. The Wilsons moved in with Lois’ parents, and Lois took a job working in a department store. Bill was hospitalized multiple times as his family and his doctors tried to interrupt his alcoholism. He knew he had to quit drinking and stay quit, but he couldn’t. Lois was told her husband was at risk of sudden death or permanent insanity. “(Lois) was informed that it would all end with heart failure during delirium tremens, or I would develop a wet brain, perhaps within a year,” Bill wrote. “She would have to give me over to the undertaker or the asylum.”

Lois and Bill Wilson in later life, after founding Al-Anon (Lois) and Alcoholics Anonymous (Bill). [Lois B. Wilson]
But an old drinking buddy had recently gotten sober. He visited Bill, and told him how that had happened, and encouraged Bill to give it a try. A short time later, Bill took his last drink. He then commenced to help other men get sober, using some techniques passed on to him by his friend and others that he developed on his own. In June of 1935, at the end of a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, he met a disgraced proctologist named Bob Smith, and helped him get sober. The two formed a partnership, and slowly refined Bill’s ideas about sobriety. Those ideas became the basis for the program of recovery that became known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill lived another 35 years, dying in 1971 at the age of 75, after overseeing the growth of AA from two recovering drunks in Akron to several million worldwide. Lois survived him by 17 years, dying in 1988 at age 97, having turned her frustrated inability make her husband stop drinking into the program known as Al-Anon.

Lois Wilson wrote ‘Diary of Two Motorcycle Hobos’ in 1973, and initially distributed it to A.A. and Al-Anon centers around the world, as with this self-published early copy. Today the book is in print and available. [PBA Auctions]
There is no evidence that either of them ever owned or rode a motorcycle again. It is not known what became of their Harley-Davidson.  Lois did write about their motorcycle adventure in her 1973 book ‘Diary of Two Motorcycle Hobos’, which was initially self-published and sent personally by her to various A.A. and Al-Anon centers around the world, but has since been continuously in print, and is available here.

 

Charles Fleming is a Vintagent Contributor and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He is also author of “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” “My Lobotomy,” “Secret Stairs, A Walking Guide to the Historic Staircases of Los Angeles” and its sequel, “Secret Walks: A Walking Guide to the Hidden Trails of Los Angeles.” Follow him on Instagram and Facebook.
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