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Essex Racetrack Four Miles Long
Written February 18, 2014


Americans have always felt the urge to gamble.  I’ve heard that in my old home town of Richwood, Ohio, many 19th-century bets were placed on fast horses.  “I’ll wager my fine stallion can outpace that sorry nag of yours.  Let’s find out.  Hitch ’em up, and we shall have a competition!”

Below we see three horsemen hanging out at the blacksmith shop.  An equine client steps up to the anvil, evidently inquiring whether its new shoes are ready.  Nathan W. Spratt was a blacksmith in Richwood from 1863 until 1942; in the 20th century, his shop was on East Ottawa Street, and at the age of 90 he was honored as the oldest practicing blacksmith in the Midwest.  Local residents Sparks and Shimmer swapped horse stories on the Liars Bench.

This diorama was constructed in the 1930s by P.R. Adams, a local jeweler and watch repairman.  On Antiques Roadshow in 2013, it was valued at $5,000 to $10,000.

Pat Eby remarked on Facebook, “I well remember the shop and the diorama.  P.R. Adams displayed several of these in his jewelry shop window.

“The blacksmith shop was where the back of the library now stands.  Sadie and Oscar Woodard lived next door and Dr. Kiever on the corner, circa 1942.”

Contests between horses sometimes were impromptu affairs on unpaved streets.

(This Philadelphia scene was drawn by August Kollner in 1847.) 

Some clippings from the Gazette, 1881-1904:

The owners of good horse flesh have been having a good time since the snow fell, speeding their horses on Ottawa Street.  Some exciting races have taken place on that thoroughfare which has, for years, been the recognized winter race course in Richwood.

The race between Abdallah and the "Milk Maid" on Saturday was a thin affair, thinner than watered milk, notwithstanding the intense interest awakened and the large amount of money risked.  Abdallah distanced the mare on the first heat, making the mile at an easy gait in 3:04.  This should settle the idea that a common plug can compete with fine blood.

A horse race for a $25 purse and side bets amounting to $300 was called between Doc Moore’s spotted Tom and Pocahontas, a handsome brown mare owned by Harvey Johnson of LaRue.  Bets stood 100 to 65 in favor of the LaRue mare which won two straight heats without half trying.  No fights occurred on the track and all bets were promptly paid.  Our best people, including Sunday School teachers and scholars, were out in force.

Instead of racing on a street or a track, folks could race over a longer course, for example from Essex into town.  Essex is a little village four miles north of Richwood.  Perhaps rival horsemen stirred up the dust on the dirt road that would later become Ohio Route 37.

Over in the next state, they might race from Camptown to Wyalusing.  Camptown is a little village five miles north of Wyalusing, Pennsylvania.  According to a popular minstrel song by Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster, the Camptown racetrack was indeed five miles long.

Was the song set in Camptown, PA?  There are a couple of problems with that idea.  Foster describes his racetrack as “round,” not a point-to-point chase between two steeples five miles apart.  (On the other hand, if he's describing a huge five-mile loop, that would be twice as big as the modern ovals at Daytona and Indianapolis.)  And Camptown might not have been an actual town; it could refer to a "camp town" — a place where tramps and transient workers gathered.

When “Camptown Races” was published in 1850, the residents of Camptown, New Jersey, were mortified.  Perhaps someone taunted them, “I’ll bet you think this song is about you.  I hear you went up to Saratoga, and your horse naturally won.”  —Well, no, Carly Simon had nothing to do with it.  But the residents did want to disavow any connection to the undignified ditty about gambling, popular though the song may have been.  Therefore, in 1852 they changed the name of their village to Irvington.

Now I learn that there's an alternate version of “Camptown Races” in which the racetrack is not five miles long, but ten!  Has Foster’s hyperbole been further exaggerated?  Is nothing sacred?

Here are two sets of lyrics, one from 1859 or so and the other from a century later, when Johnny Cash presented the song on NBC-TV’s prestigious musical showcase, the Bell Telephone Hour.  The old “five-mile” version is antique brown to differentiate it from the “ten-mile” version of the man in black.  I’ve rearranged the order of the verses to better tell an interwoven story, while adding a few italics and dropping most of the doo-dahs.

De Camptown ladies sing dis song:
     Doo-dah! doo-dah!
De Camp-town race-track five miles long.
     Oh! doo-dah day!

I come down dah wid my hat caved in,
     Doo-dah! doo-dah!
I go back home wid a pocket full of tin.
     Oh! doo-dah day!

     Gwine to run all night;
     Gwine to run all day. 
I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag—
Somebody, bet on de bay.

Camptown gals all sing this song:
     Doo-da, doo-da!
Camptown racetrack's ten miles long.
     Oh, de doo-da day!

Well, I laid down a dollar on Birmingham.
     Doo-da, doo-da!
Lost my dollar to a tilly tan.
     Doo-da, doo-da!

     Bound to run all night;
     Bound to run all day.
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag.
Somebody!  Bet on the bay!


     Old bay hoss is ripping and pull.
     Slick him down with a curry comb.
     Fifteen men on the Camptown track
     Trying to hold that bay hoss back.

     Den fly along, like a railroad car
     Runnin’ a race wid a shootin’ star!
     See dem flyin’ on a ten-mile heat
     Round de race track, den repeat!

Well, a blind hoss fell in a big mud hole;
Fish him out with a whalin' pole.
De blind hoss sticken in a big mud hole;
Can’t touch bottom wid a ten-foot pole. 

Well, the long-tailed filly was a laggin' hoss,
Couldn't catch up, so she cut across!
De long-tail filly and de big black hoss,
Dey fly de track and dey both cut across! 

Well, a muley cow jumped on the track.
She stopped the race 'til they get her back.
Old muley cow come onto de track. 
De bob-tail fling her ober his back.

I laid it all on the bob-tail nag;
I win my money on de bob-tail nag!
I took my money home in a tater bag.
I keep my money in an old tow-bag.
Oh, de doo-da day!


Besides horse racing, other opportunities for wagering were limited in the 19th century.  The National Football League had not yet been organized.  But politics always attracted much interest.

You remember the Presidential election of 1888, of course.  The Republican, Benjamin Harrison, unseated the Democratic incumbent, Grover Cleveland.  Although the Democrat narrowly won the meaningless popular vote, the Republican carried almost all the Northern states (including Ohio) for a majority in the Electoral College.  Anyone who had bet on President Cleveland being re-elected was a loser.

In the aftermath, the editor of the Gazette reported with some disappointment that local gamblers hadn’t provided him with a lot to write about that year. “There doesn’t seem to have been much betting on the election in Richwood, and what wagers were made were for small amounts.  A few five dollar bills changed hands, and in two or three cases, tens were transferred from Democratic to Republican pockets.  One of our barbers owns an overcoat he didn’t have before the election.

“Ouside of town, some larger bets were made.  Gene Hazen won over $150.  John Hudson, near Pharisburg, won a horse.  The Broadway postmaster is out $150, but we didn’t hear who the winners were.

“Betting on elections is such uncertain business that men never ought to risk any amount they’re not willing to lose.”

I say amen.  Nowadays, being out $150 would mean losing $5,000.  That's no mere pocketful of tin.



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