Racetrack Four Miles Long
Americans have always felt the urge to gamble. Ive heard that in my old home town of Richwood, Ohio, many 19th-century bets were placed on fast horses. Ill wager my fine stallion can outpace that sorry nag of yours. Lets 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.
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.
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 Pittsburghs 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, Ill 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 Fosters 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-TVs 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. Ive rearranged the order of the verses to better tell an interwoven story, while adding a few italics and dropping most of the doo-dahs.
gals all sing this song:
I laid down a dollar on Birmingham.
Bound to run all night;
Old bay hoss is ripping and pull.
Den fly along, like a railroad car
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 hadnt provided him with a lot to write about that year. There doesnt 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 didnt 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 didnt hear who the winners were.
Betting on elections is such uncertain business that men never ought to risk any amount theyre not willing to lose.
I say amen. Nowadays, being out $150 would mean losing $5,000. That's no mere pocketful of tin.