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.

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