Tote Gotes – a fun ’50s fad
July 29, 2009
Like most 10-year-old boys of the late 1950s, I pored over every issue of Popular Mechanics, enjoying especially the wheeled goods advertisements, reviews and building plans. Limited to traveling by bicycle, I could only dream of the fun I would have with a motorized vehicle. At the time I lived in the Cowenhoven building and my back yard opened out to Clymer’s Welding Service. One day a two-wheeled, fat-tire scooter with a lawn mower engine materialized at Clymer’s shop; my introduction to Tote Gotes.Zeke Clymer served as Aspen’s high priest of popular mechanics. He could build anything. Before moving to Aspen he worked for Cushman, building test equipment and modifying their products, including scooters. While there he built several prototypes. When the first Tote Gotes appeared in 1959, Zeke built his own version. Clymer, now 93 and living in Washington, refers to himself as a “professional tinkerer.”Ralph Bonham is credited with inventing and selling the first Tote Gotes in Provo, Utah. He aimed to build a light, durable scooter that would provide easy access to roadless backcountry. His first Gote weighed 115 pounds, had a top speed of 15 mph, and could carry 400 pounds, meeting his goal of hauling out deer during hunting season. It was a simple machine that employed a three-horsepower, Briggs & Stratton engine with a 42-to-1 gear ratio. He sold his first models for $325.Tote Gotes caught on quickly because there wasn’t anything comparable for backcountry use. Bonham sold many to the Forest Service to access places that trucks and jeeps could not negotiate. Allstate, a company in Denver, manufactured the Sidekick. Soon other companies, including Cushman, got into the market. Clymer built only two for his own use. He modified the angle of the front forks of others to improve steering. At the time Clymer was Aspen’s fire chief and many of his fellow volunteers followed his example, acquiring their own gotes.You may have seen the Fourth of July parade photo that the Aspen Times runs periodically, showing most of the fire department volunteers on their Tote Gotes. A Gote’s slow speed is perfect for a parade. Their fat tires and low gearing propel them over or through any obstacles, slopes and mud. Locals could easily ride to popular fishing holes after work or climb straight up Aspen Mountain. Hunter Creek was a popular Tote Gote destination, especially during hunting season.Kids came up with even better uses. Willard Clapper’s favorite was riding the (then) extensive Smuggler mine dumps. On some steep slopes the Gote was powerful enough to tip him backward and Clapper and Gote would roll to the bottom. He remembers the Gote’s rough ride, as the older ones had no shock absorbers. He also remembers that they broke down easily from the constant vibrations caused by riding over rocks and railroad tracks. Eventually he rode a six-horsepower version that doubled his former top speed to a near-dangerous 30 mph.Sometimes Clapper would haul friends, one on the front handlebars and one behind him. Falling off was part of the ride. Clapper family fun included goting down the old railroad line along the Roaring Fork to Hog Pasture (below the Slaughterhouse bridge) to fish.The Tote Gote fad faded when more powerful and speedy motorcycle dirt bikes became popular. Dirt bikes were more expensive, but a shock-absorbed ride with ever-increasing horsepower became more important than slowly cruising to a destination. A lawn mower motor never achieved the cachet of a Husqvarna dirt bike.This is the 50th year since the invention of the Tote Gote. Collectors and fans still trade parts and stories. A grand celebration has been planned for the end of this month in Payson, Utah.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.