Riding the Wall of Death

Margaret Coffman, riding the wall of death in the 1950s.

They call it “The Wall of Death,” a throwback to the old carnival thrill shows when motorcyclists ran along a circular wooden, vertical wall that looks like the inside of a barrel.

Also known as “motordrome,” the Wall of Death is kept alive nowadays by The American Motor Drome Company, The Wall of Death came to Blue Ridge Bike Fest in Roanoke this weekend and easily drew the largest crowds of any feature in the annual gathering of bikers at the Roanoke Civic Center.

My mom and dad dabbled in motordrome riding in the 1940s right after World War II.  My dad was from Gibstonton, Florida — winter home of carnival workers — and some set up their “wall of death” rides in their yards to practice and perfect.  My parents would practice with the carney regulars but never went on the road with the show, choosing instead to appear sometimes in local shows in and around Tampa.  Sometimes, mom would ride with my dad. Other times she would ride herself.

My mother took a break from motordrome riding when I came along in 1947 but rode in the shows for a few more years after my dad died in an industrial accident in 1948.

In 1950, she met 18-year-old Margaret Coffman, the daughter of motorcyclists from Sarasota.  Coffman was interested in motordrome riding and later became Cookie Crum, the “Queen of the Daredevils” on the stunt show circuit for several years.  Margaret Gast, known as the “mile-a-minute girl” on bikes, also rode the circuit for a while.

Mom stopped motor drome riding after we moved from Florida back to her home in Floyd County in 1953.

© 2004-2022 Blue Ridge Muse

© 2021 Blue Ridge Muse