Thousands flock to annual Harley Rendezvous

Kemp O’Connell had grown tired of the violence.

The year was 1979 and the avid motorcycle ri


Kemp O’Connell had grown tired of the violence.

The year was 1979 and the avid motorcycle rider was looking for a place to camp with several hundred friends who felt the same way about the fights that had plagued the larger bike rallies of the Northeast. That June, the motley band of cyclists settled in at the former Alpine Meadows Ski Center in Greenfield.

Several years later, O’Connell moved the growing meet-up — by that time called the Harley Rendezvous and drawing more than 3,000 bikers — to 177 acres of farmland he had acquired off Batter Street. The event irritated town officials, police and even then-New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, who considered prosecuting O’Connell for violating a state Supreme Court order prohibiting the gathering.

Frank Potter had heard of the Rendezvous prior to 1985 but had never bothered to attend. At the time he was active in town politics and was curious about the rampant criticism the gathering had drawn from local officials, who had abruptly changed the town’s zoning ordinance to thwart the event the previous year.

“I said before I can complain about anything or anybody, I have to come see it for myself,” he recalled Thursday as he watched traffic flow into the event. “I wanted to come and see what it was really about.”

And it left a lasting impression. More than two decades later, he is the ringmaster of the late O’Connell’s legendary carnival-on-wheels, which draws more than 6,000 Harley-Davidson aficionados, other bikers and revelers from throughout the Northeast to the farm known as the Indian Lookout Country Club. O’Connell died of cancer in 1994.

Now celebrating its 30th year, the Rendezvous is a landmark event that nearly doubles the size of Duanesburg for four days each June. Though some local residents view the growl of motorcycles and accompanying traffic snarls as a nuisance, many others regard the gathering as a way to fill motel rooms and cash in.

“It’s great for business,” said Dave Pirrone, the owner of the Mariaville Lakeside Country Store, as a slow procession of motorcyclists and campers crept along Batter Street. “It’s good for the whole community.”

Law enforcement officials have also relaxed their attitude over the years. Sheriff Harry Buffardi recalled the angst among police patrols ordered to keep an almost militant watch over the bikers pouring in for the inaugural Rendezvous in Duanesburg.

“We did a lot of road checks with state police, stopping almost every bike that came into town,” he said. “We tried to make it look like a real symbolic show of force.”

At the time, Buffardi said the attitude toward the bikers was much different. He said many feared they might terrorize the community or make the area a haven for unruly behavior.

In actuality, he said the bikers did exactly what they had intended: They rode into the campground, had a party and then left three days later without problems. Since that time, he said the bikers have religiously supported local businesses, packed into the pancake breakfasts hosted by area fire companies and made themselves about as inconspicuous as several thousand motorcyle-bound revelers can in the small lakeside community.

“Now it’s morphed into a situation where it’s like another day for us,” Buffardi said.

It is not to say the Rendezvous is without its issues from time to time. The campers, trucks and bikes this year started showing up just after midnight on Thursday, nearly 18 hours before Potter had intended opening the country club’s gates.

Heavy rains during the week muddied a field near the event entrance and forced organizers to slow the procession of motorcyclists and campers filing through the security check. So while Potter and his staff waited for the fields to dry, a nearly two-mile-long line of traffic formed on Batter Street.

“I know some of my neighbors are upset,” confessed Potter, who opened the event early Thursday morning to help relive the traffic. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do.”

Those waiting to get in remained spirited, even though many had idled for hours. Some drank beer alongside the road, while others grabbed a few minutes of shut-eye on the seats of their rides.

This year, the Rendezvous is also contending with a much larger rally in Laconia, N.H., which is historically scheduled for the last week in June. But in an attempt to draw greater crowds this year, organizers moved the event to coincide with the Rendezvous.

Moose Jensen, a longtime follower of both rallies, speculated the move might backfire on Laconia. The New Hampshire resident attended the Rendezvous instead, citing the many close friends at the event in Duanesburg.

Categories: Schenectady County

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