The Seattle Cossacks were formed in 1938. We’re coming up on our 80th anniversary. It was a group of early Seattle hill climbers who were looking for ways to entertain themselves in between riding the hill. They started to create stunts like low-speed pyramids—that sort of thing—and then they found that people really wanted to watch.
The term “Cossacks” was not really a regional or ethnic reference. They used that term to describe anybody who was a skilled rider. It started with Ukrainian Cossacks who were recognized worldwide as being renowned horsemen. The press in the early days would talk about motorcycle Cossacks, so it made sense that when the team was formed we were the Seattle Motorcycle Cossacks and then just the Seattle Cossacks.
We’ve had about 135 members in 80 years. We have fathers and sons, we have brothers on the team, and we even have some third-generation Cossacks. The sense of history is pretty amazing. Right after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all the cities up and down the West Coast of the United States were worried that they were going to get hit next. The Cossacks actually volunteered to perform blackout duty on their motorcycles. They patrolled downtown Seattle, and if they saw open windows or lights on that weren’t supposed to be, they would report those. We have actual police logs from the time.
The motorcycles we ride are all hand-shift, foot-clutch Harleys with springer front ends. The oldest bike we have on the team is a 1931 VC, and the newest we have is a 1954 G Motor. We have flatheads, both 45s and big twins, we have 61- and 74-inch knuckleheads. The bikes we ride are basically stock. There are several elements of the old Harleys that are particularly good for what we do. The throttle has no return spring. That’s the way Harley built them. The other thing is the rocker foot clutch. You can put that foot clutch in a middle position and it slips a little bit. That makes it really easy to ride in close formation with other riders. They have a very low CG. They’re way overbuilt, so they’ll tolerate all kinds of weight.