Working at Antique Archaeology, we get to meet a lot of incredible people, but it’s not everyday that we hear stories like Viola Stephens. While looking around the old Harley Davidson Knuckleheads we have on display, Viola told us all about her beloved 1949 peacock blue Knucklehead she owned back when she was just 18-years-old. She pulled out a Zippo lighter from her pocket that had an exact illustration of her motorcycle on it (in the same vibrant peacock blue color) and it was obvious that her love for motorcycles ran deep.
It all started back in 1947 when Viola (aka Brownie) was 17. She had her first motorcycle ride with a friend and that’s all it took… she was hooked. After Viola graduated, she worked in Kansas City, Missouri for Commercial Corp. as a cashier and had to walk several blocks to and from the bus station everyday. “I decided that I needed to make some changes, so I walked down to Speed Thomas’ Harley Davidson shop.” There at Speed Thomas she found the bike she wanted, the beautiful 1949 Harley Davidson Knucklehead in peacock blue. “The mechanics drew straws to see which one would have to teach me how to ride,” Viola recounted. “I paid $938.00 for my bike. Everybody said that I could have bought a new Ford cheaper.”
She took her bike home on the 12th of March in 1949 making her the first woman in Kansas City to buy a motorcycle. Just about a week after she purchased her knucklehead, Viola, had heard that there were some motorcyclists in her area so she went out for a ride to go find them. She missed the biker group (which consisted of a few local guys and their girlfriends; Hugh Phillips, Bill Jones, & Eddie Stephens) but she sure caught the attention of Eddie. On his Harley Davidson, Eddie and his fiance, Mary, pulled out and followed her into the next town. Once they stopped her, they asked her to ride with them. To turn around, Eddie made a u-turn in the middle of the street and Viola had her eyes locked on him so closely that she didn’t see a car coming and it knocked her down. She skinned her right leg on the footboard. “The rest of the day he started my bike for me. That was the beginning of the end of the fiancé.” A little spill didn’t scare Viola from riding though. She recalled a trip out to Sabetha, Kansas, “This was before the highway was changed to cut off those little towns. I got it up to 95 mph, not very smart! I went back to Speed’s and told him that something was wrong with my bike. I told him that 95 was all that I could get out of it. He promised me bodily harm if I did that again.” “I told Eddie that I had tried my bike out and he said that he had only hit 90 on his, so he tuned his up so he could out do me.”
She continued to ride with them several more times but one Saturday while at Speed’s shop, Eddie Stephens asked Viola if she would like to ride to where he lived and worked, Longview Farm. At the time, Eddie was working in the green houses, which used steam boilers to sterilize the dirt in the growing benches. “We spent the evening talking and monitoring the steam gauges. When I got home, my Dad asked me where I had been and I told him I had been at Longview Farm, cooking dirt.” “That’s a new one,” her Dad replied.
And just like that, on July 3rd, 1949—Viola “Brownie” Bailey, then 19, and Eddie Stephens, 21, got married. Before you ask, she wore her wedding dress while riding on the back of Eddie’s 1949 metallic green Hydro Glide Harley Davidson. When they went to go tell Viola’s parents about their marriage her Dad said, “I knew cooking dirt was going to lead into something. And it did.”
A courtship short of just 25 days lasted 66 years. They lived on Longview Farm (“With the mice,” adds Viola) and started a family in 1950. Eddie found work as an automatic transmission mechanic at the Nash dealer in Chillicothe, MO. With a new family, they sold their bikes and went without for a few years but continued owning and riding motorcycles well into the 1990s. In April of 1998, Viola had her right hip replaced.
She asked the doctor what she couldn’t do and he responded, “You can’t ride a horse.” “No problem!“ thought Viola. He then added, “You can’t ride your motorcycle either.” “Now, that is a problem!” she replied.
Viola’s motorcycle days may be behind her at the age of 86, but she will always be a biker babe at heart. What started with a love of motorcycles turned into a lifetime of love. Viola and Eddie raised a beautiful family, who then raised their own beautiful families.
Eddie with a gleam in his eye would say to Viola, “Just look what we started.”
In Loving Memory of Eddie Stephens Oct. 11th, 1927-June 8th, 2015
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