Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Racing at Indiana’s Lake Manitou Fairgrounds

Allen Brown’s comprehensive reference book The History of America's Speedways: Past and Present lists two ½-mile dirt oval tracks from the past located in the vicinity of the north central town Indiana town of Rochester.  

The Rochester Fairgrounds ½-mile track which operated during 1922 was the track where Hall of Fame racer Ira Hall began his racing career, according to an interview with Hall published in the May 21 1958 edition of the Terre Haute Star newspaper.   The second entry in the Brown book is the Rochester Speedway which operated from July 4 1927 to September 9 1934 and was the site of Ted Hartley’s first victory in a ‘big car’ in the inaugural race.

After conducting research which included the use of the resources of the Fulton County (Indiana) Library, specifically the Fulton County Handbook written by Wendell and John Tombaugh, the author is convinced that these two speedways listed in Brown’s book were in fact the same race track operated at different times by different promoters.   

The track was featured part of the eponymous fairgrounds built on the northwestern shore of Lake Manitou, a man-made lake created from three smaller spring-fed lakes with the construction of a dam.  The low dam was built in the eighteen twenties by the United States government to fulfill a treaty with the Potowatomi (alternately spelled Pottawatomie) tribe to build a corn grist mill near the lake outlet.
Local legend holds that the Potowatomi called the one of smaller original lakes “Man-I-Toe” translated as “Lake of Great Spirits” due to the tribe’s belief that a supernatural  serpent monster named ‘Meshekenabek’ lived in the lake.  The basis of the legend may have been uncovered when workers who surveyed the 55-foot deep lake prior to the construction of the grist mill reported their sighting of a 30-foot dark-colored monster fish with a long neck and a horse-like head.   
A historic post card shows the Lake Manitou dam
After the mill was abandoned around the turn of the twentieth century, in the decade of the nineteen twenties, Lake Manitou became a vacation destination. The area featured a number of resort hotels and the Long Beach Amusement Park and billed itself as “Indiana’s Summer Playground.”

In 1924 the Fulton County Agricultural and Mechanical Society, operators of the original fairgrounds encountered some unknown financial setbacks after nearly 50 years of operation and entered receivership.  A January 1925 auction of the rights to the property failed to garner a bid sufficient to “liquidate the indebtedness of the Association.” In February 1925 a group of 98 citizens of Rochester each put up $100 apiece to purchase shares in a new corporation known as the Manitou Fair and Athletic Club which was incorporated later in 1925.

The new corporation paid off the previous debts and took control of the Fairgrounds located on 35 acres of Tim Baker’s farm on the northwest side of the lake.  In April 1925, it was announced that a committee headed by Norman Stoner and Howard DuBois was in charge of construction of a new half-mile race track.
Days later, it was revealed that a second committee led by John McClung and Frank McCarter had been appointed to oversee the construction of a new 1,500 seat grandstand “with concrete steps.”  In July 1922 with the cost of building the track and structures estimated to total $16,000, the Rochester Sentinel reported that “it is expected the race track grandstand and fences will be erected as soon as possible.”

The Fulton County Fair first used the new race track which the Sentinel described as “magnificent” in August 1923, not for automobile racing but for horse harness racing which was sanctioned by the Rochester Driving Club.  During October 1924 Lady Patch, a local yearling brown filly who was the daughter of the famed Dan Patch, set a new American Trotting Association 1- mile record of 2 minutes at 18 ¼ seconds on the Rochester half-mile course.   The Lake Manitou Fairgrounds track was unusual in that was a “true” half-mile track which actually measured 2,640 feet when measured at a distance of four feet from the outer guardrail.

The grounds suffered severe damage from a tornado that struck on the afternoon of March 10 1925 as the storm leveled several stock barns and sheds, destroyed long expanses of fencing and left “the chairs in the big grandstand shattered and plied up.”  Later in March it was announced that during 1925 season the Lake Manitou Fair and Athletic Grounds would host a series of Sunday automobile races. The auto races were just one of several new additions to the 1925 schedule which also included rodeos, gun contests and greyhound races as the Association tried to recoup the storm repair losses.

The Interstate Racing Association (IRA) a group led by racer Herbert Marrow of South Bend Indiana had leased the grounds for the 1925 season of motorcycle and automobile racing programs at a cost of $1,200.   The IRA which reportedly had operated a track in Benton Harbor Michigan the previous season and claimed to operate tracks at LaPorte, Elkhart and Valparaiso Indiana installed ‘Doc’ Essex as the Rochester track manager.

The IRA’s first scheduled race on the Manitou Fairgrounds track was set to begin at noon on Sunday May 17, 1925 with time trials followed by three races - a three-mile race, a ten- mile race and the 25-mile feature.  A week before the races, noted Hoosier dirt track racer Chauncey “Chance” Kinsley visited the facility and after he saw the “high-banked “ half-mile track Kinsley the track record holder at Hoosier Motor Speedway boldly predicted to the Logansport Morning Press that he would establish a new record with his Frontenac racer. 

Besides Kinsley, the May 17 entry list which IRA promised would top twenty cars included entries from Indianapolis based racers Arthur “Fuzzy” Davidson and future Indianapolis 500-miles race competitors  Joe Huff and Charles “Dutch” Bauman. The City of Chicago was represented by drivers Harry Nichols and Jay Brook, while Harold ‘Hal’ Morine, Bill Platner and Charles Valenski came from South Bend. Defending the honor of Rochester was local garage man Harold “Bill” Masterson with his race car powered by a Ford engine fitted with a Frontenac head.

Race day May 17th dawned chilly and breezy, but the 2,000 hardy fans that showed up watched as Kinsley partially back up his published boast as he posted the fastest qualifying time of the 14 entries but his fastest lap was completed in 32 seconds flat, far off the existing half-mile track record.  The day’s first racing event was the three-car three-mile “match race” for the three fastest cars driven by Kinsley, second qualifier Howard Wilcox (II) who had timed in at 32.1 seconds and Wilbur Shaw, whose qualifying time was recorded at 32.3 seconds. Wilcox won the short six-lap race trailed by Shaw and Kinsley as the three Frontenacs finished the three-mile dash in just over three a half minutes. 

In the day’s second racing event, the 10-mile race for the nine fastest cars, Wilcox again emerged victorious, this time winning over Charles “Dutch” Baumann with Kinsley in third place, after Shaw failed to finish after spun out as he tried to pass Wilcox for the lead. Wilcox then swept the racing program with his victory in the 25-mile (50 laps) finale which featured fourteen starters with Kinsley in second place as once again Shaw spun himself out of contention when he tried to pass Wilcox for the lead.

The next scheduled race at the Lake Manitou Fairgrounds was held June 14, 1925, with featured entries from Floyd Shawhan and Clarence ‘Curley’ Young, as well as Wilcox, Shaw, Platner, Davidson, and Huff.  We do not yet know the results of the three races which were 5, 10 and 20 miles in length, but an article indicated that ‘Howdy’ Wilcox set the new track record at 30 and 2/5 seconds in time trials.  More significantly this event was touched by two fatalities unrelated to the racing program. 

Harlan Thompson, a Rochester stationary engine fireman reportedly felt ill for a few days prior but he still attended the races with a group of six friends. The group parked their automobile on the north side of the race track and used the car as their vantage point for the races. At approximately 5:30 PM just before the start of the last race of the afternoon, the 20-mile feature, Thompson suddenly collapsed. 
His friends administered first aid while they sped towards the Woodlawn Hospital in Rochester where doctors attempted to revive Thompson “with a hypodermic,” but were unsuccessful. Following an autopsy Thompson’s official cause of death was listed as “sudden and acute dilation of the heart brought about by the dust and heat.”

The grand finale of the day’s program, held after the last race of the day was a double parachute drop from a balloon which was tethered at an altitude of 2,200 feet above the fairgrounds. After the men set off bombs to preface their exciting leap, at around 6:30 PM the first parachutist, Jack Trumbell from South Bend left the basket and began his descent trailing smoke.

Perhaps three seconds later, the second jumper James M Stewart leapt from his perch, also trailing smoke, but his parachute failed to open. Stewart a 26-year old World War I veteran with 19 months of service overseas had previously performed similar jumps at the Long Beach Amusement Park, plummeted past his partner at a dizzying speed and struck the ground while Trumbell was still an estimated  200 feet aloft.

Many in the crowd appeared unaware of the tragedy, as they perhaps believed that the second jumper’s fast plunge was a part of the act but of course this was not the case.  Stewart’s father was the first rescuer to reach the stricken man who was found lying on his back deep in the mud at the edge of Lake Manitou. A group of men dragged Stewart’s body out of the mud and loaded him into an automobile which rushed towards Woodlawn Hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival.  
In the parking lot of the hospital, Stewart’s distraught youngest brother, Arthur, drew a pistol and threatened suicide before the other surviving Stewart brother, Fred, disarmed him.   In a post mortem examination the Cass County Coroner C B Hiatt found the right side of James Stewart’s chest crushed and that he had suffered a shattered left leg and broken neck.
The car and driver shown in the photo with
 this advertisement is Chance Kinsley
photographed during May 1925.
Unfortunately when this ad appeared,
Kinsley had been killed in an accident
at Roby Speedway June 7 1925

Prior the races scheduled for Saturday July 4 and Sunday July 5 promoter Herbert Marrow predicted to a local newspaper that records would fall as he had received entries from “Speed” Crouch, Shaw, Wilcox and Valenski as well as two entries from Green Engineering of Dayton, Ohio one of which was supercharged. Interestingly the article in the July 3 edition of the Kokomo Tribune noted that “to insure the minimum of dust workmen have been employed to heavily coat the surface with salt before the sprinkling process.”

A 100-mile race with a massive $2,500 purse scheduled for the Lake Manitou fairgrounds track on Sunday August 9 1925 was cancelled on August 3 by Horace Reed, President of the Lake Manitou Fairgrounds Association.   This action came after Indiana Governor Edward L. Jackson stopped Sunday auto racing at Winchester and Kokomo after he received petitions from citizens of those communities and Reed learned of a similar drive in Rochester.  At the time, the Indiana “blue law” prohibited the staging of professional sporting events on Sunday, but the law had been frequently overlooked as far as automobile racing was concerned.  Reed stated that in the future racing at the Lake Manitou Fairgrounds would only be held on holidays through the week.  

Advance publicity for the next on race Labor Day Monday September 7 1925 touted the appearance of ‘Howdy’ Wilcox and the promotor’s invitation to Indiana Governor Edward Jackson to act as the race’s honorary referee. The race itself was a fiasco, as the following day’s Peru Tribune described the event as “a farce which was advertised as an auto race.”  The Huntington Herald reported that “Edward Speer of Roanoke who paid $2 Monday to see ‘forty-four sporting automobiles for 100 miles’ actually saw four alleged speed machines take the track was so disgusted that he has filed charges of obtaining money under false pretenses against Herbert Marrow promoter of the races.”  

The track’s new promoter for the 1926 season Harold “Hal” Morine from South Bend Indiana scheduled the first of a series of races sponsored by the Fair Association for Monday May 31 with twenty-five “guaranteed” cars entered according to Morine. Two of the featured entries listed in the article in the Logansport Morning Press included Morine himself, who it was (falsely) reported “raced Stutz cars at Indianapolis five years ago” and Bill Broadbeck, reported as “fully recovered from a broken neck suffered last season.”  The article noted that among the five events was “a five-lap dual event, each car taking opposite courses on the track. In this event, each car passes the other twice a lap.” 

Both the 10- and 50-mile 1926 July 5th holiday races promoted by the Lake Manitou Fair Association were captured by racer “Happy” Edwards from the tiny town of Windfall Indiana near Kokomo. Edwards won $460 of the overall $1000 purse posted for the nine-car program. Edwards finished the 10 mile distance in twelve minutes and two seconds (just less than 50 miles per hour (MPH) average speed), and took the checkered flag for the fifty mile race at an average speed just short of 45 MPH.  The program with an admission price of $1.10 also featured a musical performance by Martin’s Pirates from the Colonial Terrace Gardens Hotel.

“Happy,” the son of Windfall Buick garage owner Thomas Edwards had raced previously but he became much more successful after he purchased the Orr & Wolford Chevrolet Special in late May 1926 after the car’s regular driver Guy Orr was injured in a crash at Kokomo on May 10 and briefly retired. Edwards followed up his Rochester successes with wins in five and fifteen-mile races at Fairmount Speedway on Labor Day 1926. Edwards closed the 1926 season in October as one of five cars at his hometown Kleyla Speedway but blew up the engine during the feature which apparently ended his racing career.  Edwards whom newspaper later reported as “resembling a stratosphere balloon,” briefly owned a Ford ‘V-8 60’ midget race car but sold it at an auction during 1946.

The annual Lake Manitou (Fulton County) Fair held annually in August continued to be a “losing proposition” and the Manitou Fair and Athletic Club Incorporated was unable to recover from the losses incurred from the 1925 tornado damage.  In May 1927, Tim Baker, the owner of the fair property claimed the group was two years in arrears on rent.  Through the years the Fair group had invested over $30,000 in improvements which included over 100 stables, pig and poultry sheds, and wells and pumps in addition to race track, judges stand, grandstand and 1,000 seat bleachers.  Baker offered to sell the group the property for $7,000 but when that deal failed to materialize, he leased the property for 1927 to a “South Bend man” (Hal Morine) for automobile races.

“Square Shooting” Hal Morine promoted the races at the Rochester oval during the 1927 season under the banner of his Northern Indiana and Southern Michigan Racing Association (NISMRA).  A newspaper advertisement in the Kokomo Tribune prior to the Sunday July 31 1927 race stated that a “Morine promoted race means satisfaction,” and challenged readers to “ask those who saw events at Manitou July 3 and 4.” The ad also stated “Track is oiled- no more dust” and that “Morine cut admission to 75 cents with autos parked free.” 

After he had presented a single race at the Lake Manitou Fairgrounds in September 1927 Harry Bricker of Fort Wayne Indiana who operated the Bricker Auto Racing Association Inc. leased the grounds for the 1928 season. Bricker who ran the company together with his wife and son Harry Junior promised to present “at least” five racing programs during the summer which was kicked off by a race scheduled for June 10 1928.  

There were published reports of races at Rochester held on Decoration Day in May 1929 and 1930, but thus far the author has been unable to uncover the entry lists or the results of those races, the identity of the promoter or the schedule for those seasons.  

In the spring of 1931, Harry Bricker purchased the fairgrounds property outright from Baker and named it the Lake Manitou Speedway. Bricker’s first race as the owner was scheduled for July 19 1931 after “men and tractors reconditioned the track” and “several thousand gallons of oil” was placed on the track surface.  Bricker relocated to Rochester where he was “well and favorably known for the past five year, having had supervision of racing at the local speedway for the past five years except for the two years when his services were centered on the management of racing at Fort Wayne. “

The five-race season 1931 opener on May 17 featured wins recorded by Emil Andres, Beuford ‘Doc’ Shanebrook and Sherman ‘Red’ Campbell, while four drivers were injured in crashes – Charles William, Fred Little, and Wesley Gail were slightly hurt, but Ed Lewis a driver from Indianapolis reportedly received critical injuries after his race car hit the fence and overturned in front of the grandstand. Research revealed that the May 24 1931 program drew 2000 fans, and that Bricker staged at least five other races during the 1931 season which included Sunday events on July 19, August 23, September 6 and October 25.

The Manitou Speedway 1932 season opened under new management by American Speedway Attractions on Sunday May 15 with a “banner event” run on an elimination format. Time trials were scheduled for 10 AM with cars that timed slower than 33 seconds for a lap around the half-mile track eliminated. The program consisted of five preliminary races to further pare down the field for the 25-mile feature race.  As later reported in the Culver (Indiana) Citizen, it was a “sensational meet that ended with five bad accidents.”  The “National Dirt Track Auto Championship” race at the Manitou Speedway was scheduled for Sunday May 29 and Monday May 30 1932 with two days of “auto and air races” which included parachute jumps with the tragic event of seven years earlier apparently forgotten. 

When the track known as ‘Rochester Speedway’ closed after the September 9 1934 race won by local driver Don Donaldson, ownership of the property eventually reverted back to its original owner.  Farmer Tim Baker later converted the grandstand into a barn to store hay for his livestock until it was destroyed by an arson fire several years later. Baker sold the property south of Indiana Highway 14 west of Lake Manitou to a contractor/developer in 1945 and today the site of the former Lake Manitou race track site is a residential housing tract known as Manitou Heights.  

The author encourages any readers who have additional information regarding early automobile racing on the Lake Manitou Fairgrounds half-mile track to contact him at kevracerhistory@aol.com

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