Former leader of SLC biker club reflects on life in the fast lane in 1970s.
By Michael McFall – The Salt Lake Tribune
When Ralph Elrod was a kid, he wanted to be a preacher.But by the time his high school’s 10-year reunion rolled around, he was the leader of a Salt Lake City biker club. He got the award for having changed the most.
He rode with his band of “brothers” in The Barons Motorcycle Club, hitting bars, swapping stories and soaking in the beauty of the American west from the back of a chopper. As Elrod saw it, they embraced the individualism that is part of the country’s foundation.
Now 70 years old, Elrod wears names stitched to his leather vest; Barons he has outlived. As the years roll on and times change, fewer veterans of the club’s early days are around to tell their stories. So Elrod, who has held many jobs in his life, got an idea: He’d become an author.
“Kick Start: Memories of an Outlaw Biker,” which Elrod published through Friesen Press, is dedicated to the names of the people on his vest and others who have died before him.
“If we don’t write it down, the only history people will remember of the bikers of the ‘70s, of that era, is going to be all the [bikers] on the west coast, you know, and that’s all they’re going to think about,” Elrod said.
But deadly violence hit close to home for him, though, which Elrod details near the end of his book. On Aug. 20, 1980, his daughter Terry Jackson-Mitchell was at Liberty Park with friends when a sniper gunned down two of them, Ted Fields and David Martin.
Elrod, considered a suspect, was eventually cleared. Investigators later caught the sniper, a serial killer named Joseph Paul Franklin. He was sentenced to two life terms for the Utah slayings, but is currently on Missouri’s death row for a murder there.
But that all would come after Elrod’s time as club president. Elrod — now retired and living in a house he built in Montana — tried writing the book several times, but would get a few dozen pages in and stop. It wasn’t working. Then he read and enjoyed “The Comanche Empire,” a collection of previously lost tribal stories; that’s when it came together easily, Elrod said. He would write down the stories he and his fellow bikers told while sitting around the campfire.
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” said Kent TSchanz of Ken Sanders Rare Books, which has 15 copies of the book on the way — a large order for the independent bookstore in downtown Salt Lake City. Compared to the ink dedicated to west coast motorcycle clubs, the history of bikers in the Intermountain West is a comparatively ignored, but great, subject, Tschanz said.
“Kick Start” isn’t the first go at capturing life as a Baron. KUTV produced a documentary about the club in the 1970s. Though at 12 minutes long, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as Elrod’s 296-page chronicle.
History always interested Elrod. He majored in it at Boise Junior College. But after five years as an elementary school teacher, in the summer of 1970, he walked away from teaching to become a Baron full-time. By 1972, the man known as “Teach” was club president.
It was a looser, laid- back time then, Elrod recalled. They worked through winter to save up money and fix their bikes, then spent as much of the summer as they could riding. “At that time, most of us just had nothing. We were young, we were real young … we made everything up as we went along,” Elrod said.
They also helped repeal the mandatory helmet laws that the federal government pressured the states to adopt during the late 1960s.
The federal government threatened to cut highway funding in the 1960s if a state didn’t adopt stricter helmet laws. By 1969, Utah required anyone driving above 35 mph to wear one.
The Barons and other motorcycle clubs pushed back. Elrod describes in “Kick Start” how he and his fellow bikers organized a Utah chapter of a national motorcyclist rights group and lobbied state lawmakers. They even sponsored and participated with hundreds of other bikers in a protest in Washington D.C.
By 1976, the federal government stopped penalizing states. A year later, Utah repealed the 1969 law.
“That was fun. That was a big project. It gave me faith that … a handful of dedicated people could do something politically in this country,” Elrod said. Today, 28 states no longer have helmet laws.
“We have a good time, we get along with everybody. We try to, as much as possible,” Elrod said, who stepped down as club president at the end of the ‘70s, still makes a lot of trips to Salt Lake City from Montana. “I like the bunch that we have, they’re young, energetic, they have jobs and they care. And we have one guy who makes a lot of homemade ice cream that’s really good at parties.”
Elrod, meanwhile, hopes his book does well. He will have copies to sign at the Harley-Davidson of Salt Lake at 2928 S. State St. on Saturday morning, then at a Harley-Davidson event at 2700 S. 300 West for the day until books run out. He is also working with Ken Sanders Rare Books about a reading and signing later this summer.
He thought he would be a preacher, became a teacher, but wound up a biker — as well as a bricklayer, business owner and chief of a volunteer fire department during his many years.
“And I’m an author now, of all things, which is kind of strange,” Elrod said. “I always wanted to write some of this stuff down, but never really envisioned actually writing a book. [Now it exists and] wow, it’s got my name on it, it’s our story, and that’s pretty cool.”