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January 17, 2013 10:01 PM

The Indelible Indian

canton, sd

One of motorcycling's oldest and most-storied brand names is being revived. Polaris is once again making Indian motorcycles. But a farmer near Canton is breathing new life into the old vintage styles, one rusty frame at a time.

The Indian was the premier American made motorcycle of the early 1900's. It dominated the racing circuit and its popularity was driven by its reputation for reliability and technology. But that technology and the Indian's iconic name began fading away into American history after the manufacturer filed bankruptcy and stopped production shortly after World War II. But Lenny Block is helping history repeat itself.

"Just tore one apart, read a lot of books," Block said.

He restores rare old Indians inside Lenny's Famous Motorcycle Shop south of Canton, which really isn't that famous. After all, his shop is inside his old hog barn.

"I used to have a lot of hogs and then the hog market went south and the corn went up and I got rid of them and started messing around with these," Block said.

What started out as a hobby has grown into a bit of a side business for Block.

Block meticulously tears each motorcycle apart and puts it back together. From the tanks to the tires to the signature fenders, Block restores and repaints them all.

"That's what sold me on these bikes, those skirted fenders, they look pretty sharp," Block said. "Sand blast all the frames, the fenders, whew, it takes a lot of work, but then all of a sudden I'm ready to fire them up."

Block is currently restoring three old Indians. It's a New York Police Department motorcycle he bought in Kentucky.

They started building Indians back in 1901. They stopped building them in 1953. But believe it or not, Block says they're not that hard to find if you know where to look.

"I think that's the fun part too, digging for stuff, you know finding it, I go to swap meets," Block said.

But turning rust into gold takes a lot of time and money, mostly time which Block doesn't like to think about. 

"If I counted all my time I'd probably quit, but it's fun," Block said.

The Indian motorcycle was the first American made bike, even before the Harley.  And while a HOG is today's most coveted motorcycle, this old hog farmer would stack an Indian against a Harley any day.

"I tell you what these old Indians, they'll stand up against the Harleys. The Harleys had the solid axel and road like a lumber wagon, where these got springs, it really makes a difference," Block said.

That's a difference Block takes pride in taking a part of Americana's past and bringing it into the present.

Block has restored a dozen Indian motorcycles over the past decade. He buys them for around $7,000 and once he finished restoring them re-sells some of them for $24,000.

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