Brother of Ole amazed by community support

Photo by Robert Williams
Tom Barten poses by his 2001 Kawasaki Voyager XII prior to getting Ole’s Ride on the road after his rendition of the National Anthem Saturday, Aug. 26, in downtown Vergas.

By Robert Williams


Tom Barten turns heads whether he’s relaxing on a barstool at Billy’s or walking around Vergas before Ole’s Ride gets underway. People stop, say hello, wave and point.  ¶  Tom is Ole’s brother, one of 14 siblings in the family that grew up in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, a small town 300 miles east of Vergas.  ¶  Tom has been in Vergas for all 14 Ole’s Rides.  ¶  “I’ve been to all of them, in fact, I was at the first one when he rode,” Barten said. “I was just amazed with this community here, how helpful and outgoing they are.”  ¶  The ride community and locals chipped in to help Ole’s by participating in the ride, while also helping Ole participate himself.  ¶  “He couldn’t ride his own bike so the community chipped in and rented him a Harley trike to ride,” Tom said. “That first year was to help raise money for the medical bills that insurance wasn’t covering and after he passed we started doing this ride here and donating to Hospice.”  ¶  Over the decade-and-a-half, Tom has witnessed firsthand how the ride continues to grow in popularity.   ¶  “I think last year was the biggest,” he said. “It’s always been very successful.”

This year’s event had 175 bikes, 318 registered riders. The ride has been averaging over $25,000 raised for Hospice of the Red River Valley the past few years and topped the $200,000 mark last summer in total donations.

The lead groups of 318 registered riders and 174 bikes depart downtown Vergas on the opening leg of the 14th annual Ole’s Ride Saturday, Aug. 26.

Tom and Ole come from a unique family of 14 kids, seven boys and seven girls. 

Tom credited, “Cold winter nights in northern Wisconsin,” as a possible answer to how that happened. Ole was the youngest sibling.

Tom Barten, right, has a big laugh at his brother Ole, left, who is adorned in a helmet his brothers made to celebrate Ole surviving a lightning strike while he was mowing his lawn in Vergas in 2009.

“He was the baby of the family,” said Tom. “One of my grandpas named him caboose because he was the last one.”

That nickname was prophetic as Ole went on to have a successful career working for the railroad, something Tom talked about with pride. He also spoke about the similar nature of all the siblings being genuine.

“None of us were ever artificial; we were us, you either accept us or don’t, you either like us or don’t,” he said.

Two weeks short of his 74th birthday, Tom is still active on his own motorcycles and with larger associations in Wisconsin.

Tom rides his bike from Wisconsin to Vergas each year for Ole’s Ride.

“I used to put on 15-20,000 miles a year and now I put on 10-15,000,” he said.

While some riders come to Vergas to show off their bikes. Tom is there to put on the miles.

“The bike I have here today has over 200,000 miles on it and I bought it when it was new,” he said. 

Tom’s red 2001 Kawasaki Voyager XII, has an inline four cylinder engine, water-cooled, shaft drive, six gallon gas tank and it gets 50 miles to the gallon.

“It takes about two tanks of gas to get to Vergas,” he said. “It’s a 1,000 mile weekend for me. That’s not much.”

His bike has the look of one that is always on the road, unlike some of the shinier, polished counterparts in Vergas Saturday morning. He also owns a 1991 of the same model. Motorcycles were something only a few of the 14 Barten kids got into, two being Tom and Ole.

“Just a few of us brothers; there were four of us total that rode motorcycles,” said Tom. “It just happened. I enjoy riding.”

Barten also spends a lot of time spreading awareness about safety. Tom learned about the Share the Road program while in Minnesota and brought it to Wisconsin. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration program promotes safety when it comes to pedestrian, bicycle and motorcycle traffic, along with distracted driving.

He continues to speak regularly on the topic, something he has done for nearly three decades.

“I go to driver’s ed classes, senior centers, church groups, Rotary clubs, whoever and talk to them about motorcycle safety and awareness,” he said. “One of the key things that I do is I have the class close one eye and hold up one finger. I’ll hold up a pen and ask them if they can cover up that pen with their finger. They can easily. You just covered up a motorcycle at 100 yards. That’s all the bigger it is.”

Barten trained to share the message of safety with the public at the Heartland Seminar to Educate and Motivate (S.T.E.A.M.) in Rochester.

“That’s why I’m here and the majority of the time when there is a motorcycle-vehicle crash, it’s not the biker’s fault,” he said. “People either pull out in front of them or turn left in front of them. Minnesota had the Share the Road program and I asked them if I could bring that back to Wisconsin. So I did and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

During that same timeframe and at each Ole’s Ride, Tom has also shared his ability to sing the National Anthem.

“Just using a God-given talent—use it, don’t abuse it,” he said. “A lot of people say the National Anthem is a hard one to sing. To me, it’s not a problem.”

Barten also sings the anthem each morning of the Wisconsin Governor’s Ride and at many state highway safety conferences, stock car races, and at the memorial service of Summer Twister, a ride put on by the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club.

He mainly sticks to performing the anthem, but will occasionally give the public a different side of his singing talent.

“I do some karaoke every once in a while,” he said.

Tom also has a quick wit, a joke for most occasions and plenty of amusing stories about his brother Ole—one that involves a special motorcycle helmet.

“Ole was here in Vergas and he was mowing lawn,” said Tom. “He had just a little bit more to mow and there was a big, black cloud over him, the only one around. Lightning struck and it hit him, knocked him off the lawnmower. He had a watch on and it burnt his wrist where he was wearing it. He survived and we nicknamed him Thor. That’s why we presented him with a helmet with a lightning rod on it.”

Saturday’s ride was in near perfect conditions, as have nearly all of the 14 Ole’s Rides—something Tom thinks Ole might have a hand in helping. It’s not the first time that thought has crossed his and other’s minds during the ride.

“The second ride and he wasn’t here with us; he had passed,” Tom said. “We were coming back and we got right here by Billy’s, by the railroad tracks, so we could see the bar and a train came through. We had to stop and wait. Everybody was hollering, ‘OLE!’ They knew he had something to do with it.”

During the ride, Tom and his crew have a special spot for his lost brother but also knows it’s also about enjoying time with friends, family and being on his favorite bike every time he comes to Vergas.

“It’s an excuse for another ride and showing loyalty to my brother; I’m thinking of him,” he said. “In fact, a lot of times during the ride we’ll do a formation known to bikers where we get our gaps set and we leave one spot open. That’s where he’s riding…just ahead of me. It’s kind of neat, makes you feel good just remembering him.”