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Custom motorcycle groups to fly into Mitchell

The Hamsters motorcycle group gathers during a previous ride in Phoenix, Ariz. (Courtesy photo)

More than 100 members of the legendary motorcycle group Hamsters USA will be riding to town this week to kick off its 40th anniversary celebration before continuing west to attend the 78th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

In all, at least 600 bikers are expected to be in Mitchell for Thursday's Palace City Pre-Sturgis Party, which will run from 5 to 10 p.m. on Main Street in front of the Corn Palace. This will be the 12th year of the party in Mitchell, which is been put on by Klock Werks' Owner Brian Klock. With a large crowd expected, the event is taking place downtown for the first time and almost all of the bikers will be riding custom motorcycles.

That includes the Hamsters, who are a group of who's who members of motorcycle industry leaders and enthusiasts celebrating their 40th year. The founding members of the Hamsters include Arlen Ness, Dave Perewitz, Donnie Smith, Ed Kerr, Barry Cooney, Steve Allington and the late Jim "Jimmy" Leahy.

The founding of the Hamsters began in 1978 during Daytona Bike Week. The story goes that Leahy, Perewitz and his then-girlfriend were taking a nap and when they woke up nobody was around. Smith had taken the only van to town for some bar hopping.

Left without transportation, money or food, Leahy started calling them "Hamsters" thinking it would aggravate the group but the name stuck and so did the rodent as a mascot on their bright yellow shirts.

"We are more a group of friends and that's how we keep it. We don't even want to call it a club. We are more like a Harley owners group. We don't have patches, especially not on our back," said Smith.

Giving back to the community and children, in particular, is a big part of what the Hamsters do. It started with a silent auction raising about $40,000 and donating the funds to the Kids in Chrome Foundation.

Bob Illingworth, a late Hamster member, suggested soon after this first philanthropic endeavor that the Hamsters start their own fundraiser and made the introduction between the LifeScape Foundation and the Hamsters.

Now 14 years into their relationship with South Dakota's LifeScape, the Hamsters have donated close to $3 million for children in South Dakota to receive speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy in Rapid City and in the western part of the state. The Hamsters have more than 300 members around the world.

"The generosity of the Hamsters helps in a very specialized way. Insurance doesn't always cover this. So these donations open doors for children who cannot afford therapy sessions," said Jessica Wells, LifeScape Foundation President.

This year some of the funds raised will go towards children with autism, mainly in the western part of the state. Currently, there is a three-to-four-months-long waiting list for autism evaluations in that region.

"Thanks to the big hearts of the Hamsters this can be shortened soon," said Wells.

Besides riding their motorcycles, the riders await another honor this year. The group is being inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame.

The Hamsters will gather for its annual dinner and silent auction event on Aug. 6 in Spearfish.

Members of the Hamsters generally own custom bikes, ride it to Sturgis at least more than once and be a friend of a member. From there, it can be a lengthy wait to join the group, with some members waiting as long as seven years before being officially welcomed.