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....

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