It’s finished. The Track (and if you’re a local, it’s just “The Track”) is closed. After 65 years, the spectacle of nighttime harness racing on the local half-mile track will happen no more.
This is not a western tale. Today we visit my home town, a couple thousand miles east of here.
No matter the local track is closed, you say. One can still watch harness racing at something like thirty tracks in the U.S. and Canada, and many other places around the world. One can also check in at any of thousands of locations that offer video feeds to watch and wager on races from multiple tracks simultaneously.
That’s not my point. It’s not about the racing, or even the wagering (although they have their appeal). It’s about the place: The Track.
The County Fair
My hometown is the county seat. 99 acres in the middle of town are occupied by the county fairgrounds, which includes a half-mile racetrack. Just after WWII, horse racing became a regular fixture there. Harness racing, that is, although they flirted with that weird thoroughbred racing of which, as Professor Harold Hill says, “Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no! But a race where they set down right on the horse! (makes your blood boil!)”
Racing (and pari-mutual betting) boomed. The grandstand was enlarged several times and eventually even glass-enclosed (big time!). Some of the work was done by my family’s construction company, although before I was old enough to work with them.
And, friends, that place has been an iconic location in my life. I spent a lot of time at The Track, although only a small part of it had to do directly with observing or speculating upon the outcome of those equine contests. I will tell.
Pig Pens and Hogwash
The fairgrounds isn’t all about racing. A a lot of the property is devoted to typical county fair infrastructure: livestock barns, exhibit halls and so forth. Here’s a barn as it stands today, decades later.
Consider the livestock barns. For one week during the county fair, they’re occupied by hundreds of animals displayed by proud farmers, breeders and 4-H members, all vying for prizes. Once the fair’s over, they’re filled with horses associated with the track. Years before I first picked up a broom in the family business (my first — and still my most advanced — skill), the fair commission hired my grandfather to build a lot of removable wooden pens to hold cows, sheep, hogs and the other livestock for the summer county fair. These pens had to be temporary, so they could make way for horses during the racing meet. He built rectangular wooden fence panels which bolted together to form pens about 5 feet by 6 feet (they varied), about four feet tall. Then, when the fair ended, they’d be taken down and stacked in one of the barns until next year.
As the Fair Board added pens over the years, the construction of the panels varied, and the numbering system for assembling them was arcane, to say the least. The simplest thing for them to do each July was to hire us to install the pens for the fair, because we knew the numbering system. I spent 15 summers of my life putting them together and became a Jedi Master of the system. Right now, fifty years after I first worked on that job, I can still tell you where the dreaded Pen #120 went: the heaviest and farthest-to-carry unit in the lot.
Heed me; assembling the pens on a hot, humid July day was work: lifting down the heavy panels off the tall stack — maybe 6 or 7 feet tall — dragging them to the right parts of the barns, and then assembling them with nuts, bolts and wrenches.
Taking down those pens, though? Um, imagine a pen full of straw that has been home to an extremely large, well-fed prize hog for five days: Five days in which said hog has eaten slept and done … other things there. Multiply by 200. Did I mention that this was in July with the temperature in the 90s? Oh yes, friends, those conditions were ripe.
We assembled one special set of panels outside the main barn to be used for washing livestock. These panels were labeled: “Hog Wash.”
A really big barn like that, a hundred feet long, is a compelling space. Here’s the interior of the barn shown above, now equipped with modern steel pens for the same purpose:
My brothers and I couldn’t resist the temptation to view that long line of pigpen stalls as a kind of obstacle course. 15, 16 years old, we raced the length of the barn, hurdling over the long run of stalls in our own proprietary race. No matter who won, the joy was in the doing.
The Horse Barns
As racing became more successful, the organizers needed more horse barns. We got the job to build them. Look at this aerial shot (click on photo for larger image).
The grandstand is at the bottom of the photo. The livestock barns were to the left. The barns I described above are gone, destroyed in a terrible fire in 2009 that killed two people and 43 horses.
At the top of the picture is a line of long rectangles. Those are the horse barns we built, simple structures: concrete block walls and wooden truss roofs covered with corrugated metal sheathing. Here’s how they looked some time around 2015, about 40 years later:
My job was the simplest: mix mortar and carry it to the masons, and carry concrete blocks and stack them ahead of the masons so they never had to pause. Ever. At ground level, one level of difficulty. As the walls mounted and the masons moved up onto scaffolding, it took more effort. I have a string of memories associated with the years over which this project stretched: blistering summer days with the Cincinnati Reds baseball game on Uncle Bodie’s radio; bitter cold days during school Christmas break before I knew how to dress for being outdoors for eight hours, almost unable to leave the little fire we built in an old trash barrel; a halcyon September when all work stopped for two and a half minutes while we gathered ’round Bodie’s radio to listen to the broadcast of the call from the big trotting race, the Little Brown Jug, on the half-mile track up in Delaware, Ohio (everyone on the Nixon Builders crew was a harness racing fan of some stripe).
Widening the Track
Look again at that photo. In 1966 the racing company decided to widen the homestretch. The idea was to move all the inside rails six feet to the north, widening the homestretch and narrowing the backstretch. We spent weeks on the project and, at 15, I got a chance to drive my grandfather’s ’51 Chevy pickup. As Uncle Bodie said, “No better place to learn to drive than on a racetrack.” By that he meant, “There’s nothing to crash in to.” I knew how to steer and press the accelerator and brake pedals, but the part that buffaloed me was STARTING the darned thing. I didn’t know that the old Chevy was so antique that you turned the key on and started it by pressing down a foot pedal. Everyone had a good laugh at young Brad’s expense that day.
Part of the job of relocating the track was easy: Dig a lot of post holes and relocate all the rails. Pure manual labor.
The challenge was how relocate the curve, preserving the same arc. It turned out to be a momentous day for me. It was the day in which algebra and geometry morphed from an obscure and hopelessly daunting obstacle into brilliant reality. Standing in that grassy infield on a blazing August day I listened as my father and grandfather discussed how they’d do it. My grandfather — veteran of numerous civil engineering projects during the depression — proposed a logarithmic solution. Dad, trained architect, had a more direct geometric approach in mind, based on drawing a radius for the new curve. This was a revelation. Here was math — my bete noire in school — made physically tangible. Dad and Papa revealed the beauty of math: it solves real things! There were the two men I most respected using math in a real way.
I’ll never forget it. I wish their grandchildren and great-grandchildren — now adults themselves — could have been there to appreciate one of the many reasons I hold those guys in such regard: two smart men who understood the power that math and geometry provided to solve the problem they faced. On that day, my grandfather was the same age I am today, and Dad still a young man. Look at that track in the photo now. I can point to where they stood, somewhere inside the curving arc on the right: two men engaged in a simple workday conversation in the middle of a field of grass under the summer sun, a long time ago.
Next, on to the racing part of this tale of the racetrack and Doc B. CLICK HERE to read it.
© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017. Contemporary photos from the fairgrounds © Mark Nixon 2017, used by kind permission.