Will progress claim Gary “Bronson” Lawrence’s 1967 Honda 90 motorcycle mailbox, an Alexandria landmark that’s been perched on the side of Highway 70 for the past 26 years?
Lawrence, 65, has been led to believe the black bike will be spared as the road is being widened to four lanes between Liberty and Alexandria, a village of 1,024 in the northwest corner of DeKalb County.
“I put that motorcycle mailbox up in 1983 at our house on Lower Helton Road three miles out of Alexandra. I had always wanted a ’67 Honda 90 but never rode it,” recalled Lawrence about the 54-year old bike that sits next to the highway about 500 yards northwest of the Alexandria Café, another an icon of the small town.
“My real name’s Gary, but everybody calls me Bronson, a nickname that has kind of stuck with me. I have loved biking all my life,” said the motorcycle enthusiast, who retired in 2016 after working 27 years for DTC Communications, which has its headquarters directly across the road from his home and his two-wheeled mailbox that for now appears to not be on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s endangered list.
Shared Lawrence, “When I talked to the state inspector I had questions about moving my water line, and we talked about my mailbox. According to him, the four lane ends at the intersection of Highway 53, but we do have four lanes going down to two lanes. That’s probably a quarter to a half a mile, and, by the time they get it down to two lanes, it is supposed to go right to my driveway. The inspector right now said I probably would not have to move my mailbox.
“They do have the right of way bought all the way to the Wilson County line. He also told me they might go ahead and press it (the four lanes) to the Wilson County line. I will definitely have to move it when the time comes, probably 40 or 50 foot down my driveway, but I hope to leave it here as long as I can.
“Over the years, I bet there’s been over a thousand people take picture of this. Four or five people a week stop in the summertime. One time I got home and there were three or four girls straddling it. I told them, ‘I don’t mind you taking pictures but be careful.’ One of them said, ‘We’re sorry. We’re cheerleaders from Hendersonville High School, and we wanted to take pictures to put in our yearbook.’”
Lawrence said his father gave him his first motorcycle, a Yamaha 90, in 1969 when he was 13 years old.
“That’s when the TV show, ‘Then Came Bronson,’ came out. My next-door neighbor, Mike Prichard, gave me that nickname, probably when I was in the eighth grade. I did dirt biking, hill climbing. I wanted to be a stunt rider. When I got that dirt bike, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do. I’ve probably had 25 or 30 motorcycles over the years and still got five right now. The oldest is a 1962 Sears Allstate,” said Lawrence.
(Note: The NBC-TV series “Then Came Bronson” debuted in September 1969 and starred Michael Parks as a disillusioned newspaper man who quits his job and takes to the open road on a Harley-Davidson Sportster motorcycle.)
Lawrence purchased the 1967 Honda 90 in Rhea County near the Watts Barr Nuclear Generating Station. He believes he paid $60 for it. He first put the motorcycle mailbox up at his home on Lower Helton Road in 1983 but when he moved into town, the mailbox came with him.
“It was not running. I bought it and took it home. It had some internal engine trouble. I never did know for sure what was wrong with it. I put rings in it, points in it and plugs. I did about everything to my knowledge that I knew to do. I worked on it and worked on it and finally got it to fire but never could get it to start,” he recollected
“I got frustrated and told my wife, ‘I’m gonna load it up and throw it in the dump.’ I went to bed that night and dreamed I was working on it and all of a sudden I made the motorcycle into a mailbox stand. The next morning I went to my shop and got to welding on it. I took the seat off of it because it would rot. I found an old oil pan off a ’60s-something model and welded it to the frame, and I put six or seven quarts of dirt in the oil pan.
“Then I bought a strawberry plant and put it in that dirt. I was watering the mailbox every day because I had the strawberry plant, and the vine survived and grew up to my handlebars and when the mail carrier came by, if a strawberry was hanging there, he could pick it off and eat it.”
Over the years, Lawrence has decorated his immobilized mailbox for the holidays.
“I’ve got a little snowman made out of sheet metal that I bought at a flea market. I usually put some Christmas lights on it. I probably will put it on sometime this month,” he said.
“I decorated it for Halloween with a headless man probably close to 15 years, and then a woman came by and asked if I wouldn’t do that because she had a grandson that got killed and supposedly got decapitated, so I haven’t done it since.”
As for his myriad adventures on a bike, Lawrence and his brother-in-law, Junior Agee, related a funny story about the time Lawrence entered a motorcycle rodeo in Gallatin in the mid-1970s.
“I had an old dirt bike, a Suzuki 250. This dirt bike would run, but it was a piece of crap. The back fender was gone and it had a piece of carpet hanging off the back frame. The front fender was half tore off. The handlebars were bent. The tires were bald and the muffler had a big hole in it. The carburetor was wired on,” began Lawrence.
“I go to the rodeo, and all the guys that were there had real nice brand new dirt bikes. I was registering and the lady says, ‘There are five different races.’ And all of them kids had a different bike for each race. She asked me, ‘How many bikes do you have?’ I told her, ‘I don’t have but one.’
“The old bike would run pretty good. I entered all those races and did real good in all of ’em, but the last one was the obstacle course. You had to go over a big old log, then up and down a v-shaped piece of plywood and up and over a seesaw and across some mud. I rode a wheelie across the log and pipe and went up the seesaw so fast that I jumped across the mud, but I hit the pipe, and it knocked me off and unconscious. The motorcycle went across the finish line. They disqualified me but the motorcycle won,” said Lawrence.
Agee, an eyewitness, elaborated on the incident, saying, “What made it even funnier, they had Team Yamaha and Team Honda and Team Suzuki. They all had fancy riding uniforms and crash helmets and trailers. Bronson come in on something it looks like the Beverly Hillbillies would ride, and he didn’t have crash helmet and had to borrow one.
“Near the finish line, he jumped the pipe box, and his helmet was too big so it dropped over his eyes, and he hit the post and pipe bar going full speed, and it left him standing up. His motorcycle crossed the finish line. He stood there 20 to 30 seconds and then fell over backward.
“They rushed the ambulance crew over, and he comes too and jumps up, and they give him a standing ovation. It was something. It was taking these other guys three, four or five minute to get through the course. He went through this whole course in just a little over a minute. His fenders were flopping through the whole thing. It looked like Jed Clampett on a motorcycle,” laughed Agee.
Lawrence tells one more tale on himself.
“One day I told my buddies I got a place for us to ride. We went over to Beech Log Road in Watertown and unloaded our bikes and drove all day. The next Sunday we went right back up there, and we unloaded our bikes. Here come a guy walking down street, and he had a pistol in his overalls. My buddies thought of me as the leader and said, ‘You go talk to him.’
“The man said, ‘Well, I don’t know where you all are from, and I don’t care. The best thing y’all can do is load up and go back to where you come from because since you were here last time, I ain’t seen my goats since.’ We loaded up and went somewhere else.”
Noting that many of his friends still do not know his real first name, Lawrence said, “I rode a motorcycle from 13 to 64, and last year I had a wreck and broke a bone. I’ve had several wrecks but that was the first time I had a bone broken.
“I’ve always been a daredevil. One of my other nicknames is Evel Killawrence (an homage to the late, great Evel Knievel). That’s from doing stunts, popping wheelies, riding in the creek and up hills. I even hung a dirt bike up in a tree before,” said the man, known in these parts as Bronson, about a feat that not even stuntman Knievel likely ever performed.