Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sleigh Racing

The onset of winter snow brings with it the refrain, “It’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you”, a reminder of one of the recreational pastimes of town dwellers a hundred years and more ago.

"The Sleigh Race", Currier & Ives,
lithograph, 1859.
For years, the relatively straight stretch of Main Street (both North and South) had formed a more informal race course and continued to do so into the early twentieth century, particularly in winter when hard-packed snow formed an exceptional surface for racing, sleighs replacing sulkies. Sleighing and sleigh-racing was a popular pastime in Middleborough and one frequently reported in the pages of the local newspapers. “Very fair sleighing here now” was a typical notation from the Middleboro Gazette in 1867. “The sleighing continues good in our village and the prospect is that it will be better, as there is snow in the air.”

For South Main Street races, drivers and horses would begin at the Middleborough-Lakeville line before charging the mile back to Middleborough Four Corners. Grace E. Clark writing as Eve Lynn in the Middleboro Gazette in1960, recalled “a day almost sixty years ago”, with “men folk with their snappy turnouts … racing up and down South Main street trying their best to beat each other. I remember Matt Cushing had one of the fastest little pacers on the road and he was so proud of her.” Possibly Clark was recalling December, 1896, when “the sleighing the first week was very good and on Monday and Tuesday afternoons South Main street was the scene of many hot brushes. J. A. Miller, was as usual at the head of the bunch, and the more interesting races were for second place.” Two years later, between Christmas and New Year’s, “sleighing was fair … and lovers of horse flesh were out on the Main street speedway” including “Thomas & Sisson’s Aland, driven by C. W. Morse; John A. Milller’s wonderful little mare Maude Elenah [sic], Thomas Sisson with Grey Ghost and Jennie Wilkes and Fletcher Barrows with Claynette”.

Following the turn of the century, snow racing moved to North Main Street where, during the winters of 1903-04 and 1904-05 near daily racing occurred.

“There was some speeding on North Main st. yesterday afternoon [December 30, 1903] by local horse owners. Among those out were John McNally, Cecil Clark and H. P. Thompson.”

“Yesterday afternoon [December 31, 1903] there was some lively trotting on North Main st. Among the horse owners who were out were Dr. A. C. Wilbur, Samuel Shaw, Norman Smith, H. A. Baker, Thomas Sisson, Bert Flanders, William Horne, John McNally and F. L. Barrows.”

“Snow speeding on Main street has been a popular diversion with owners of fast nags, this week” [December, 1904]

Sleigh racing on North Main Street remained the rage each winter, when local sportsmen were keen to demonstrate the abilities of their trotters, as well as to show off their sleighs and exhibit their driving abilities. North Main Street was favored not only for its relative straightness and central location, but probably more so because it was the location of the Nemasket House hotel.

The Nemasket House stable was the center of racing activity in Middleborough Center in the years around 1900. Owner Thomas G. Sisson had once been a partner in the livery firm of Thomas & Sisson at Middleborough’s “West End”, a position he relinquished in 1895. Nonetheless, Sisson remained a keen horseman, being described as “one of the few surviving old-time horsemen, whose life was identified with the sale and trading of horses, and whose delight was in holding the ribbons over one of his favorite speeders.”

The location of the Nemasket House and the proclivities of its owner made it a natural base for racing during the off season. The late Lyman Butler recalled that the hotel’s stable “was kind of a clubhouse for the jockeys in some of the sleigh races they used to have…”

"Trotters on the Snow", Thomas Worth,
Harper's Weekly, January 23, 1869
Near daily horse racing on North Main Street remained the fashion through the winter of 1906-07, if not into the following season, when wool-clad pedestrians would stand aside, mouths agape, as the horses came thundering down North Main Street, hooves in the air, clods of snow flying and lightly-built sleighs careening hard behind. During Christmas week, 1906, the roadway was described as “Middleboro’s favorite speedway, and many a hot brush has been pulled off on the snow, this week, the trotting being very good.” Among the contenders were Ben H. (driven by Bart Perkins) which “has kept the bunch guessing, Otis Briggs’ Belle Sheldon (2.24) driven by William F. Murphy, Fletcher L. Barrows’ Gamhurst which “showed a steady even gait”, and Ed Lovell’s Impudence which “traveled in good form, and Thursday led Ben H. down the snow path.” North Main Street trotting was again lively during the last week of January, 1907, “the increasing snowfall from day to day adding to the sport.” Prominent among the week’s winners were Ben H. (Thomas G. Sisson), Mountain Mist (William F. Murphy), and Marcus Daly (Bart Perkins). Other noted horses were Cecil B. (George E. Gove), Baby F. (Frank Fields), Gamhurst (Fletcher L. Barrows), Cleo (C. E. LeMunyon), as well as Dr. A. C. Wilbur’s chestnut roadster and Fields’ two-year-old colt.

Eventually, sleigh racing on North Main Street came to an end. The obvious safety issue notwithstanding, the increasing popularity of the automobile ultimately put an end to horse racing.

Click here for historic photographs of sleigh racing.


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