Capitol Retrospective | The motorcycle hill climber who climbed Capitol Hill — Part 1

May 15, 1945. Image: WA State Archives.

On Labor Day weekend of 1929, 300 motorcyclists and their families roared into the sleepy resort town of Long Beach, WA for a motorcycle rally known then as a Gypsy Tour.

Aside from the three days of two-wheeled camaraderie that ensued, one rider raced ahead of the rest. His name was Marion Diederiks, an unknown motorcycle messenger from Portland who became “grand champion” after winning 8 out of 12 races over the weekend.

His victories included various pursuit and get-away races, the two-mile open, and a broad jump. Although a promising start of a career in racing, he curiously never won any other speed races like these hereafter. Instead he later found his true calling in a different form of racing known as the hill climb — a race to the top of rough hills that were so steep they were practically vertical.

Marion’s career negotiating these hills spanned two decades and culminated in the establishment of his own Harley Davidson dealership on a most unique hill — our very own Capitol Hill.

His fortune in cash prizes, his regional fame, and the tightly-knit group of riders he bonded with along the way made it all possible. The result was a dealership with a unique business model that wove standard sales and service and the spectacle of professional racing into the same fabric. And although this fabric abruptly unraveled with the onset of war and personal dramas, Marion kept the dealership going in one form or another for three decades on 12th Ave and later on Broadway.

Marion circa 1939. Image: Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling.

Marion Diederiks: Marion Buckingham Diederiks was born on February 11, 1907 to working-class parents Lillian and Jacob Diederiks of Portland. Marion took an early interest in motorcycles. Shortly after his sixteenth birthday, he placed an ad in the Oregonian classified section offering to sell three motorcycles out of his home for a combined price of $220 (worth $3,200 today). However, this early entrepreneurial foray may have been more so out of necessity to support his family than pure interest. His parents changed jobs and moved the family around fairly often during his youth, an indication of possible financial duress. Also Marion’s father died a year later. The cause of his death is unknown, but perhaps a drawn out illness necessitated Marion to start work early and fill in for his father.

Molly Brethauer circa 1939 Image: Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling

Whatever it as was, Marion continued to work on motorcycles and eventually took up additional work as a messenger for the Oregonian newspaper to continue supporting his family. While doing so, he met Mollie Brethauer the precocious daughter of working-class Germans who’d emigrated to the U.S. from Russia a year before she was born in 1909. The two got married on November 29, 1927 and one detail in particular from that day stands out.

They each wrote “aviator” and “aviatrix” as their occupation on their marriage certificate. However, there is no other evidence to suggest they ever flew planes. Why would they do this?

Motorcycles and planes were closely connected in their pioneering years. They had similar engines and were steered and balanced in remarkably similar ways. And this became particularly apparent when the U.S. Naval Aero Corp started to notice how motorcyclists adapted to flight much quicker than non-motorcyclists. Not only did motorcyclists control planes more effectively, but they also learned how to maintain them more quickly. Thus by 1918, the Aero Corp made a point of asking new applicants if they were motorcyclists. So perhaps as young and idealistic love-birds, Marion and Mollie were both motorcyclists who, remembering the pilots of the Great War they looked up to, imagined they’d naturally become pilots one day.

Whatever the case may be, the two parked their bikes at the Diederiks household with Marion’s mother Lillian and kept a low profile until they attended their first Gypsy Tour in 1929 where Marion made his stunning racing debut. However, the true beginning of his career, that of a hill-climber, came the following year.

Rocky Butte, 1936. Image: Portland Archives.

The location was Rocky Butte, a 612-foot extinct volcanic cinder cone about 7 miles east of downtown Portland. The rugged course ran along the western slope over a distance of 800 feet reaching a staggering 75% grade toward the top. Nationally ranked riders from as far away as Chicago came and competed there. About 6,000 spectators gathered both at the base of the hill and along the edges of the course to watch. The most talented riders summited the hill while riding on a single wheel, while those less talented tipped over and occasionally sent their bikes flying into the crowd. Luckily Marion kept his balance and reached the top in 32 seconds, taking first place in the amateur competition.

Longacres Hill, Renton, WA 1930s . Image: Les Annen Collection, Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling.

From this point forward, Marion almost exclusively participated in hill climbs and his effort paid off. From 1933-1935 he was the All Pacific Northwest Hill Climb champion at Longacres Hill in Renton, WA (140 feet, 72% grade). He first climbed Longacres in 5.4 seconds. His nearest competition, Otto Drager, did so in 8 seconds. Then on July 5, 1936, Marion outdid himself by becoming the only one to ascend the taller and steeper 200 foot (near 80% grade) hill west of Camas without falling off his bike along the way.

With all his victories, Marion amassed a modest fortune in spectator-funded cash prizes and professional contacts. He and Mollie comfortably rode out the Great Depression. However, there was another hill that would prove even more lucrative and challenging for Marion.

This hill of course was Capitol Hill and the challenge was that of starting his own successful Harley Davidson dealership there. He needed someone well-established with enough sales experience to help him do it. This man was Ira Ordwing.

In the next edition of Capitol Retrospective the story continues with Diederiks, Ordwing, and the life and death of the Broadway Harley Davidson dealership.

Special thanks to Thomas Samuelsen, Rob Root, Dave Eady, Donna Shields, Terry Saxlund, John Viljoen, the Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling, and the Seattle Cossacks Stunt and Drill Team.

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About Tom Heuser

I'm a co-founder of the Capitol Hill Historical Society and I occasionally research and write about neighborhood history for my column "The Capitol Retrospective" featured here on Capitol Hill Seattle and on my website tgheuser.co. You can also follow me on Facebook and Instagram where I share additional content.
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