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"Getting Up a Successful Fair and Race Meet": Horse and Auto Racing at the Original Fairgrounds

By Cecelia McKeig

Although Bemidji did not host the Beltrami County Fair until 1907, the original fairgrounds were a popular destination as early as 1900. Located a mile north of the downtown area on the site which now houses the Boys and Girls Club and the J.W. Smith School, the fairgrounds were used originally by the Bemidji Driving Park Association. This group was involved with horse racing, always popular in America and a money maker for breeders, promoters, and qualified riders. J. J. Jenkinson headed the group and were slow to lease or sell the area, as they had expended money on the racetrack, a baseball diamond and a few other buildings.

"Getting Up a Successful Fair and Race Meet"

In the summer of 1901, the Beltrami County Agricultural Society met in City Hall with the Driving Park people who were persuaded to sell their interest. The sellers would relinquish their stock and cooperate in “getting up a successful fair and race meet.” The Beltrami County Agricultural Society moved to being an incorporated group in May of 1904. The object of the organization was to secure race horses and harness horses for local summer meets and to organize a fair at harvest time. It was composed of stockholders who purchased stock during the summer of 1904.

Horsemen were dissatisfied with the condition of the race track and voted unanimously in August of 1904 that unless arrangements were made to insure a fair during the coming fall, the buildings erected by them would be torn down. Local horsemen were already taking their horses to meets at Fosston and Park Rapids. Horse trainers threatened to completely desert the muddy field for the better facility in Park Rapids. James Fullerton was a local trainer, and W. P. Duncalf of the Agricultural Association did all he could to convince Fullerton to stay in Bemidji. The Association was not able to pull off a fair that year, and the Old Settler's Association held a fair at Buena Vista instead.

The track was improved and horse racing continued at the Bemidji fairgrounds. In August 1906, a horse race between A. T. Wheelock's "Little Boy" and Ed Leonard's "Curly" consisted of the “best two in three” quarter-mile heats. Thomas Newby wagered $300 on "Little Boy" and Mr. Leonard backed his horse for the same amount. Clyde Bacon held the entire amount in cash ready to turn it over to the winner. Betting was always a major part of Bemidji horse racing. $300 was no small sum in 1906!

In 1906, baseball enthusiasts were delighted when new grounds were provided in the center of the city. Baseball management believed it had been a considerable handicap when they had been compelled to play on the diamond at the fairgrounds.

The second Beltrami County Fair was held in 1907 at Bemidji. The fair included three days of horse races and the track was in excellent condition. Entries included “Bemidji Belle,” owned by James Wonzer, and “Deck H,” owned by Mike Maxwell of Eveleth. The first heat was a grueling contest between “Bemidji Belle” and “Deck H” with the local horse winning by a narrow margin. Two interesting details here: first, that the original “Bemidji Belle” was a horse and not the excursion boat, and second, that the winning horse was owned by Wonzer, the local Black barber.

The Rise of Auto Racing in Bemidji

C.H. Miles brought the first automobile to Bemidji in 1905, but it took until 1909 before Bemidji had enough vehicles for an auto race at the fair. There were some twelve automobiles in the city, and as this race was a free-for-all contest, nearly all of the local autoists participated in the five-mile race. Moberg and Dr. Tuomy’s machines behaved badly, and Mr. Anderson of North Dakota beat them both.

In 1911, two young women automobile drivers, Miss Harriet Cochran and Miss Curtiss competed, with Miss Cochran making the fastest time of the afternoon race, going a mile in forty-two seconds!

In 1911, two young women automobile drivers, Miss Harriet Cochran and Miss Curtiss competed, with Miss Cochran making the fastest time of the afternoon race, going a mile in forty-two seconds! John Moberg in his E. M. F. and Chad Jewett in his Buick racer took prizes in the three mile and the Australian Pursuit auto races.

Moberg leads Jewett in an auto race at the fairgrounds in 1911.

What might have been a fatal accident was narrowly averted at the county fair races in 1914 when the Ford car driven by Louis Eckstrum, the Bemidji plumber, was crowded from the track in the Australian pursuit race. Eckstrum was followed closely by cars driven by George Cochran and A. S. Harland and at the west curve, Cochran attempted to pass. Cochran's front fender caught the side of the light Ford and Eckstrum lost all control of his car, traveling at forty mph, and it was lifted from the track, and turned completely over twice. Eckstrum was thrown from the car when it first “turned turtle.” Winners of the race turned over all the prize money to Eckstrum. The five-mile race, in which three machines were entered, was won by Walter Marcum in his Ford roadster, with Dr. W. K. Dennison coming in second.

In 1914, the race track was located between Irvine and Bemidji Avenue, and from about 16th Street to 18th Street, across Irvine Avenue from the Wagner School.

New entrances were built in 1915 and the fence on the north side was removed, the wire fence of the school farm being used instead. The school farm which was just to the north of the track has an important place in the agricultural history of Bemidji.

The Farmers’ Wagon Race of the 1915 County Fair proved to be one of the best entertainments on the track. Winners were Charles Barclay, E. Stora, Gust Bratten, and Martin Moe. Each man was compelled to harness his team, hitch it to the wagon and drive once around the track. First money was $10 and second $5.

The running race by farmers' horses was hotly contested, taking three heats to decide the winner. A. P. Ritchie's horse won first prize, Gust Moe's horse second- prize and Charles Barclay won the third prize.

In 1917, local racer Chad Jewett signed a contract to tour the West with his Ford championship racer "Bigmidj," reputed to be the world's fastest light weight car. He returned home with three of his ribs broken and a spectacular record as a "speed merchant."

In March 1920, an animated discussion was held with county fair officials regarding the establishment of a landing field for North Central Minnesota in Bemidji. The county fairgrounds was considered but the idea was discarded because there was such a heavy growth of trees around it, thereby necessitating too abrupt a descent. Apparently, no one considered the option of cutting the trees. In June, A.C. Townley, a political candidate, flew over the city and made his landing at the fairgrounds.

Novelty Car Competitions Bring Style and Silliness to the Fair

One of the novel competitions during the 1921 fair was a Style Driving contest open to any lady and any make of car. Another was the Novelty Ford race, three times around the track, for five Ford cars. The driver had to make a circle of the track, bring his car to a dead stop within a 200-foot space, kill the motor, get out and crank the car, and drive another lap of the track, stop in the 200-foot space, shut off motor, get out and crank motor, and drive another lap, repeating the same thing for the third lap. The cars were examined by a technical committee and had to be a "thorough-bred flivver," no special carburetor, or any extra attachments whereby one could gain the advantage over the others. In other words, they had to be strictly stock machines.

Another was the Novelty Ford race...The driver had to make a circle of the track, bring his car to a dead stop within a 200-foot space, kill the motor, get out and crank the car, and drive another lap of the track, stop in the 200-foot space, shut off motor, get out and crank motor, and drive another lap, repeating the same thing for the third lap.
A new grandstand was built in the fall of 1921

When the old high school burned and the new high school was built on 15th Street in 1922, there was a swap of public land. The school farm, consisting of 10 acres was sold for $5,000, and the board purchased the eleven acres between the new high school and the grandstand on the fair grounds. The school gained sufficient land for a suitable campus and athletic field, and at the same time, the fair association secured property suitable for fair purposes. Consequently, the fairground was extended north to the school farm property and the property on the southern edge of the fairgrounds became part of the new high school site. The barns were all moved to the old school farm property, where they were as far as possible from the high school buildings. There seemed to be a focus on the pig barns especially!

Aerial view of the track and new high school in 1923.

At some point, horse racing was dropped from the Bemidji fairs, but locals who had horses continued competition at county and state fairs. Cliff Morlan, in his weekly sports column for the Pioneer, frequently lamented that Bemidji did not continue with a horse racing track. Ray Kaliher’s stable of horses made a fine showing at the county fairs in the 1930s. Jack and Elmer Marin raised trotter and pacer horses at their farm, Marin Stables, for many years. Jack did most of the horse training and racing. Elmer Marin’s horses were frequent winners. Two favorites were “Viola Scott” and “Tennessee Joe.”

The Fairgrounds Move Outside of the City

As early as 1938, members of the Bemidji School Board appeared before the County Board, requesting that the county consider selling part of the fairgrounds to them. In November 1941, a group met to consider moving the fair grounds to a new site. One month later, the country went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The proposed sale and platting of the fairgrounds for residential purposes was not considered again until April 1944. The school district needed additional room for vocational buildings, and the city needed room for housing for returning veterans. Bids went out for dismantling of the grandstand in Nov 1944. In 1946, approval went forward for the sale of part of the old fairgrounds to the district. The last parcel of the old fairground property was sold to the city in December 1946.

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