SIDNEY UNDERWOOD - Remembering The Tote-gotes - A Doddridge County Story


Tote Gote is an off-road motorcycle
that was produced from 1958 to 1970

By Sidney Underwood

In the mid 1960's I was introduced to the sport of tote-gote riding. My cousin, Eddy Cutright, owned the first one that I ever saw. I remember it was a sunny April day in 1967 when he rode across the hill from Israels Fork to our place on Nutters Fork. My dad and I were sitting on the porch when we heard the sound of a small engine and saw a rider approaching. When my cousin pulled up into the yard, we saw him sitting on this strange looking little machine that sounded like a lawn mower. For those of you who have never seen one, a tote-gote type bike is a rather strange looking machine that resembles a motor scooter or miniature motorcycle.

The power source is usually a five HP Briggs & Stratton gasoline engine with a recoil starter just like a lawn mower. Most models have a cleated garden tractor tire in the back with a little fat tire up front. Designed to climb steep grades, they have narrow handlebars that can easily pass through tight places in the woods. I remember Eddy’s model was called a Sherpa named for Himalayan mountain guides. Eddy’s bike was similar to the original tote-gote in that it had a high and low range centrifugal clutch transmission and chain drive to the rear wheel. Top speed in high range was about 12 mph. Hill climbing was best in low range crawling along at 2 mph to 4 mph.

Cousin Eddy let me ride the thing and it took a while for me to master the controls although they seemed simple enough. There was a handlebar throttle on the left and a brake lever on the right connected by cable to the rear wheel. Unlike a motorcycle, there was no front brake. There was a "Kill Switch" located somewhere on the handlebar, but when you needed to quickly find that switch, it was usually too late and you were actually in the process of crashing and hurting yourself.

The weird part was riding down really steep inclines. Because of the centrifugal clutch, the machine had to be given extra spurts throttle in order for the engine to have any braking power and that seemed counterintuitive to me. I will always remember the first time I rode downhill and rolled the throttle back to idle and pulled the brake lever. To my dismay, the machine seemed to be unaffected by my pressure on the brake lever. I considered bailing off the machine. I survived that day by putting both feet down on the ground and steering around the trees. It was quickly learned that the rear brake when vigorously applied would slow the thing down somewhat but had very little stopping power!

After I rode back to the porch, I told Eddy what had happened. He looked at me with that half -grin of his and explained that he expected me to crash a few times as part of the learning process. I told him that it would have been nice to have been given a "heads up" about that centrifugal clutch before I took my first ride. He just grinned again and said that what I learned by experience I would not forget! I should have known, Eddy was like that. I suppose if I had been injured and sent to a hospital, he might have sent flowers, then again, probably not.

The term "Tote-Goat" was actually a brand name just like the word "Jeep." A man from Utah named Ralph Bonham designed and built the first one in his garage in 1957. He wanted something that would transport him through the mountainous areas of the southwest on hunting expeditions and also carry stuff. Pleased with his invention, he soon was building them for his friends. He became so successful that he quit his day job and started building them commercially for shipment into surrounding states. By 1960, over 3700 tote-gotes were sold and the Bonham Corporation had evolved into a major business shipping bikes all over the United States. Many imitators such as Cushman, Sherpa and others started building similar machines slightly different so as not to infringe on Bonham's patent rights. They all sold well for a while, but their success was not to last. A big change was on the horizon that no one anticipated.

Small Japanese dirt bikes started arriving in this country in the early 1960's. They were well engineered, durable and relatively inexpensive and as a result, the demand for the tote-gate type bikes faded away. Today, these scooter type machines can still occasionally be found at flea markets and yard sales, but compared to a modern dirt bike, they appear to be crudely made and dangerous. Recently, I saw one in Parkersburg with a "For-Sale" sign on it. Seeing that old machine jogged my memory and was the basis for this story.

After riding my cousin's Sherpa, I decided that I had to have one. Mine was purchased from a man that Cousin Eddy knew who lived in Clarksburg. I think I paid $350.00 for it. During that summer of 1967, I rode on weekends with Eddy and many of his friends who lived in the Clarksburg area. Eddy worked at the Continental Can plant at the time and several of his fellow workers also had those little machines. They would show up on Saturday mornings to ride the hills of Doddridge County. I remember there were many different types of tote-gotes in faded colors of red, blue and yellow. Some appeared brand new while others had battle scars of being re-welded as a result of numerous crashes.

There were 10 or 12 riders that first Saturday when I rode with them. Cousin Eddy was the leader of the pack because he knew all the trails and pipeline right-of-ways in Doddridge County. I had absolutely no idea of where we were going or what was about to happen. I can tell you it was one of the hardest things I have ever done riding with those guys while desperately hoping that I would not crash. We might have travelled across Jockey Camp into Morgan's Run and rode the ridge back around Englands Run that first Saturday although I was much too busy to notice trying to keep the other riders in sight. The fun I was expecting turned out to be hard work requiring lots of concentration. More times than I like to remember, my feet slipped off the pegs to keep from falling. When that happened my boots got caught on exposed tree roots bending my legs at impossible angles. I could not understand why everyone was in such a hurry. Although I was in pain in my groin area, I was determined not to be left behind.

Later that evening, my mom saw me limping around the house. She wanted to know where we had ridden. I told her I was not certain as it had taken all my concentration just trying to keep the other riders in sight and everything was sort of a blur. I told her we never stopped riding unless Eddy did, and when he did stop, he would look around to see if anyone was missing. Satisfied that everyone was present, he would say, "We're Trading Daylight for Dark" and then take off again.

From the way I was hurting that evening at supper, mom said perhaps I should stay home next time. She couldn't understand the "Fun" in riding one of those things unless I was a, "Glutton for Punishment!" I replied that I would get better at riding and hopefully would not be so tired and sore the next time. On subsequent weekends during that summer of 1967, I did get better and later had no trouble keeping up with the other riders.

I learned that even experienced riders had spectacular crashes that seemed outrageously funny to us riders. For example several times we saw riders crash when crossing over fields with unseen deep ditches. The first hint of danger would be when the rear wheel of the machine came off the ground thereby throwing the rider like a bucking bronco. Other times, a rider would accidentally run into a thorny rose bush resulting in numerous wounds requiring someone with a pair of needle nosed pliers to play doctor by pulling the thorns out. Often a rider would stop to relieve himself and we would wait until he was unzipped then run off and leave him standing there. Quite a bit of stuff like that actually happened. That old saying, "Boys will be boys" certainly was true of our group.

I'm sure we surprised and aggravated property owners because we never asked permission when we rode onto their property. I remember someone in our group remarked that all we needed was a full tank of gas and a pair of wire cutters and we could go anywhere we wanted. I think that person was just making a joke. We were lucky that no landowners ever took a shot at us although some probably considered it.

I remember a trip during that summer when my cousin, Gary Stephens, rode with us on a borrowed machine. Gary was 14 years old and the rest of us were in our 20's and in good shape. Gary and I tagged along at the rear of the column as we went up Rock Run Hill. I was trying to be his mentor and help him learn to ride and not make the painful mistakes I had endured. I kept looking over my shoulder for traffic because we were like a slow moving parade on a main highway going up that hill. Anyway, we started down Piggin Run running along at 5 miles per hour. 12 riders can make a lot of noise and dust even running slowly. At the back, Gary and I were getting dust all over us. I remember we travelled past two homesteads without incident. It was when we got to the intersection below the Ashburn place that there was some confusion as to where to go next. If we rode straight ahead, we would enter a back street to West Union. However, Eddy wanted us to turn right and go up the road past a house to a cross-country pipeline right-of-way.

He wanted us to see country we had not seen before. So, we went in that direction. I remember we went past a house, rode up a hill and found the cross-country pipeline right-of-way. The trail was smooth and Eddie shifted into high range running wide open at 12 MPH. So everyone else did the same. It was strange country for me and I did not want to get left behind. In the rush, I forgot about Gary who was riding behind me. A short time later, I realized that he was not with me. I stopped and turned around and started back looking for him. I found him back a ways and he was obviously upset. He was trying to secure his seat with a bungee cord. He said the seat had fallen off twice. He was frustrated and angry. He said his scooter was a worn out piece of crap and everybody had run off and left him in the middle of nowhere! He said he wanted to go home as he was beyond tired! I told him I would stay with him. I acknowledged that his borrowed bike was crappy, but there was nothing to be done about it now. So, together we got the seat back in place and he and I finally caught up with the main group after travelling several miles when we saw them waiting for us under a shade tree.

When we stopped, I heard a strange pumping sound. Perplexed, I asked Eddy what that noise was. He pointed down through a multitude of tree limbs and explained that the sound was coming from Hope Gas's Tonkin Compressor Station that was below us across from State RT. #18 north of West Union.

After we decided to move on, the seat fell off Gary's bike again and rolled down over a steep place finally lodging against a tree. Everyone thought this was funny except Gary. He said he was not about to go after the seat again. He said he would ride the rest of the way standing on the pegs. That was when Eddy explained to him that he was setting a bad example for the man who had loaned him the bike. Peer pressure was exerted and so Gary went way down over the hill and retrieved the seat. We rode on out that ridge finally stopping when we saw the West Union Masonic Cemetery in the distance.

When we returned to Upper Nutters Fork that evening, Gary said he would never ride a tote-gote again and, as far as I know, he never did. But a few years later, he bought a Honda Trail 90 that he rode to high school. I kept my Sherpa until 1970 when I sold it to Tom Gainer for $100.00 He used it to ride up the hill behind his house to "Blow the drip" on his free gas line.

My Cousin and his friends sold their machines a few years later and moved on to Yamaha and Kawasaki 250cc dirt bikes. The dirt bikes proved to be better built, safer and more controllable relegating the tote-goat type machine to history. On weekends, Eddy and his friends rode mountain trails near Alpena Gap, West Virginia. By that time, I had purchased a Harley-Davidson street bike and rode exclusively on paved roads.

Today, the only machine available that is similar to a Tote-Goat is the Rokon. It has two wheel drive and is manufactured somewhere in New England. I understand that the Rokon was formerly used by the U S Forest Service in remote regions of the northwest. Now, four by fours and side by sides are a common sight everywhere even on public roads in West Virginia. If Mr. Bonham were alive today, he would be amazed at the progress made in off-road vehicles since he built his first machine in 1957.