Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Horse Racing on the Shore: The Keller Fair - Part II

Written by James E. Mears
Submitted to the Shore Line for December 3, 1970
(From the Collection of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society)

George Doughty's Horse from the Keller Fair
(From the ESVHS Collection)
Thursday was always the “big day” at the Old Fair.  Persons who found it inconvenient to attend on other days would go on Thursday, when one would see more old friends.  Any extra features were given on Thursday, and usually the fastest horses raced on that day.

According to this columnist’s recollections, on all of the five days of the fair there were from three to five races, trotters and pacers, usually separate, occasionally both in free-for-all, and for the first money the horse had to take two of the three heats.  When more than one horse took a heat there had to be one or more additional heats to determine the winner.

In those years there was no system of all the racers lining up at the starting point and leaving together.  Horses approached the starting point at a good speed and if the word “GO” came from the judges’ stand proceeded.  In most instances, however, this did not happen quickly and it was not unusual for the horses to be so far apart that the judges sent them back with the hope of a more even get-away.  This was a disadvantage to horses that would tire towards the end of the mile (twice around the half-mile track) as often they had traveled a quarter of a mile, going forward and turning back before the “GO” was given.  I do not remember seeing a race start at the Old Fair in which one or more of the horses wasn’t from 50 to 75 feet behind the other horses that had reached the starting point.  It was not unusual for a horse with the lead to “break into a run”, and before the jockey got the animal back to trotting or racing, the lead had been lost.  Any horse that was too far from the finishing wire when the first horse had passed under it was “distanced” and not permitted to be raced in following heats.

There was no mutual betting or book-making at the Keller Fair though it is said individuals sometimes bet with one another on the outcome of a particular race.

While the race track was not enclosed with a high fence, those in the grandstand, because the elevation of the seats, could see more of the races than those who were elsewhere on the grounds; however, those on the quarter stretch by moving about had a superior view.

All the races were in the afternoon.  Those who went to the grounds early often were able to see the horses being trained on the race course.  Numerous jockeys stabled their horses on the grounds weeks before the fair began.

This writer now remembers but a very few of those who raced at the Keller Fair: Nottingham, James & Floyds of Northampton, and Bulls, Turlington and Parks of Accomack.  There were a number of others.  Most of the horses that were raced were Virginia Eastern Shore owned; however, some who raced at various tracks, following one fair after another, were from other states.  One year there was a stable from Mississippi.  Spring colts were paraded before the grandstand for prizes, usually the first day.

Quite some years after Keller Fair had been such a drawing card fairs were established at Tasley and Pocomoke City, all patterned after Keller, the same types of exhibits, mid-way attractions, horse racing, etc.  Each though “folded up” before Keller.  Realizing how much the Keller Fair meant to thousands of middle-aged and elderly Eastern Shoreman, Officers kept it going long after it was not making money; in fact it has been said that they advanced it money for several years before its “demise.”

For several seasons during its latter years night attractions, including fireworks, were provided, with a second admission fee to day-time attendants who remained or returned.  This, however, did not save it.

After about ten unprofitable years, with the closing of the meet in 1965, the owners of the property
Keller Fair horse races. (From the ESVHS Collection)
decided it could be no longer continued.  It was sold to the late Mr. Carroll Bull, of Onley and Miami, a highly successful produce dealer, and he kept it as a racing stable for his own and other harness horses.

Among those who had been outstanding it is support for years were Messrs, Harry Mears, the secretary, who really was the general manager, J. Milton Mason and Herman Watson , who are said to have provided funds to keep it going in its last years.  Mr. Mears had done such an outstanding job at Keller that the Tasley Fair owners engaged him to manage that fair during its latter years.  This was not a great additional burden, since so many of the same people raced or operated midway attractions at both Keller and Tasley.

As was the case with others, Mr. Watson continued to have a “soft spot” for the Old Fair, and in years after it had closed in his oil business he carried in the local newspapers very large advertisements showing scenes at the Keller Fair in by-gone days.

In the late 1890’s and very early 1900’s the Chesapeake Fair Association operated a fair with races at Cape Charles.  The Central Fair Association, an organization of Negro citizens, in which the Whartons were leaders, for about half a century operate a fair at Tasley.  There were very exciting harness races, often with very speedy horses.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Horse Racing on the Shore: The Keller Fair - Part I

Written by James E. Mears
Submitted to the Shore Line for November 26, 1970
(From the Collection of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society)

The news of the burning of the grandstand of now-gone institution undoubtedly revived pleasant memories of days spent at the Old Fair in thousands of those living on and away from the Eastern Shore.  The ending of no other Eastern Shore institution brought as much regret as did the decision of the operators in 1956 to lower the curtain for the farewell, after an annual "performance" every year in August since 1880 (1877), the oldest continuous agricultural fair in the United States.

When this columnist was a youth it was always spoken of as the Granger Fair.  It was organized in 1880 as an outgrowth of the exhibit of some farm products a few years earlier at Turlington Camp Grounds by the Grangers, a farmers' society, sponsored by Messrs, George Adams, Henry Sattaile, Leonard H. Ames Sr., Judson Kellam, William T. Kilmon, William T. Mason , Wesley Phillipe, Benjamin W. Mears and others, all of whom lived in the southern end of Accomack County.  As some of the Methodists who conducted the camp meeting, ...objected to the parading of colts on the camp grounds, ... the Grangers obtained land not far from the camp grounds, put up Grange Hall and laid out a half-mile race track.  The legal title was the Eastern Shore Agricultural Fair.

My first visit to the fair, as I know recall was in 1896 and I attended every year through 1903, and every year thereafter that I was on the Shore at Fair time.  My recollection of the fair in the late 1890s:  The admission to the Fair grounds was 25 cents per person and if the vehicle was driven the same amount was collected.  Admission to the grandstand (not so large as the one that lately burned) and to the quarter stretch each was a quarter.

Under the grandstand was a concession hall, and among the exhibitions was the Charles M. Steiff piano people of Baltimore; also some farm implements, etc. etc.  In later years automobile dealers exhibited new cars.  On another building there were exhibits of farm products, many kinds of needle work as well as cakes, breads, countless jars of preserves, pickles, canned fruit and other foods. .......

On the midway were numerous "side shows" and other attractions for both adults and those younger, including a "merry go round".  To attract ticket purchasers the concessionaires usually gave a brief "free show" in advance of the performance.  An exhibit of snakes included a boa constrictor.  In the earlier years of the Fair an attraction (daily I now think) was a balloon ascension.  The balloon usually went up until he appeared to the viewers no larger than five-cent-piece, before he cut loose and began the descent.  He never landed on the fair grounds, some times miles away, occasionally in a tree.......

In the earlier years of the 20th century there was a baseball game, played in the quarter stretch, between Eastern Shore teams.  The 20th century was not very old before the Fair provided music by a band from Baltimore.  On a kind of platform extending out from the northeast corner of the grandstand the band played before the races start and between the races.

Horse racing was the major feature of the Keller Fair.  It is believed not an exaggeration to say the
Keller Fair Circa 1920s.  From the Bell Collection of the
 Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society.
"horse racing" was "bred in the bone" on the Eastern Shore in the 19th and first decade or so of the 20th.  This writer remembers that in the 1890s and until there were hard surfaced roads and the automobile was in universal use, any stretch of hard road was a race course for those driving any vehicle from a humble cart to a carriage.  Any attempt of a vehicle approaching .. to pass the latter was an invitation for a contest of speed.  It was the ambition of almost every young man in the foregoing period to own a fast trotter or pacer and the latest in a buggy or harness.  In most instances indulgent parents provided name, often raising colts sired by stallions which had done well on the tracks.

It is assumed that there were running races on beaches at Assateague and the few other islands having wild ponies, but it is believed the few race courses on the Eastern Shore were used almost exclusively for harness racing.  The earliest record of a race track on the Eastern Shore found by this columnist was in 1835, when one was laid out in or very near Pungoteague.  This may have been what in the last two decades of the 19th century was the very popular McConnell track on a large farm between the present roads leading to Belle Haven (on the south side) and Painter-Keller (on the north side) from Pungoteague, between the village and Trader's Branch.  In 1856 a Baltimore newspaper carried an advertisement of steamer services to Pungoteague Creek, and conveyances would take passengers to Belle Haven for the races. (Then the only steamboat wharf on Pungoteague Creek was Dock Point, the present pulp wood loading pier of the Chesapeake Corporation, in Harborton).

Around the turn of the century well known and fast horses (for that period)  owned on the Eastern Shore were Gray Eagle, White Tips, Sport, Goldiur, Little Guy, Durry, a large black stallion , and Lamp Girl, a small bay mare.  In 1902 she was sold to a non-Eastern Shoreman, who successfully raced her in the Grand Circuit, and was the first Eastern Shore bred horse to make a mile under 2 minutes 10 seconds, before she was sold and shipped to Europe for breeding purposes.

Eastern Shore owned horses (some of which were bred and or fold) which raced at the Keller Fair
and in the Grand Circuit in the second quarter of this century included:  Hail Worthy (trotter)2:05 3/4; My Nan (pacer) 2:03 3/4; Sallie D. (pacer) 2:03, the Keller Fair track record: Morgan Hanover (pacer) 2:00; the only Eastern Shore horse ever to make the mile in two minutes, made when three years old.  Jane Azoff (pacer) 1:59 3/4; the only two minute horse ever bred on the Eastern Shore but not Shore owned during her racing career.

An attraction, which cost the Fair management nothing, that was hardly second to the racing as a "drawing card", was the meeting of old friends, really numerous miniature "reunions" of old acquaintance living on and off the Shore.  Many former residents planned their visits "back home" to correspond with the Keller fair dates.

To be Continued....