For a moment, travel back in time to Rush County during the thirty-five years after the Civil War. NASCAR didn’t exist, but Circuit Harness Racing did. Rush County was known for its fast horses. The local “horse boom” in large part was credited to James Wilson and his family. James was the owner of Blue Bull 75 (Old Sam). Blue Bull was a successful sire of fast Standard bred trotters. He had more sub 2:30 standard performers than the famous Hambletonian 10.
By the early 1890’s there were three competition harness tracks on the edge of Rushville; north, south, and east. Every township had at least one training track, and there were reportedly a total of 25 tracks in Rush County. Many horse racing related businesses flourished here: blacksmiths, harness makers, cart makers, liveries, hotels, and saloons.
In the midst of this “horse boom” was William A. Jones and his son Harrie. In 1890, William and Harrie built and equipped the Riverside Driving Park in the Flatrock River bottom south of Rushville. The park was just two blocks south of the public square and a block and a half from the Windsor Hotel that William Jones owned. Harrie Jones was the office manager. (The Windsor had been the Carr House, and then the Capp Hotel. After it was the Windsor, it was called the Lollis Hotel, and then it became the Durbin Hotel.)
William A. Jones was among the pioneer horsemen in Rush County. He first gained notoriety as a half-owner of Hoosier Tom, 2:16 1/4, but one of his greatest horses was Florence M., 2:22 1/4, a daughter of Blue Bull 75. Florence M. won forty-two out of fifty-two races.
Harrie Jones was an outstanding trainer and nationally known driver. Harrie had several horses that bettered the “standard” of 2:20. Among them was Woodland Boy with a time of 2:09 1/4.
The Riverside Driving Park opened in grand style on July 4, 1890. They held a pony race for boys and they had a balloon ascension scheduled, but the balloon caught fire and never got off the ground. The horses that raced that day were valued collectively at over $1,000,000. They came from several states, and they were brought in by train on special cars. Over 5,000 people paid to see the races. Races purses were from five hundred to six hundred dollars.
Riverside Driving Park was a regulation mile track with a sixty-foot width. The judge’s stand was an especially ornate structure. Shedrow stables with 160 stalls surrounded a paddock area with a speed office and blacksmith shop. There was a grandstand at the end of the main stretch at the southeast corner of the track. A footbridge (swinging bridge) was built across the Flatrock River to make access easier from the hotels and saloons. The river south of Rushville was originally not a straight shot east to west. It made a horseshoe curve to the north behind the current BP gas station. The mill race (Water Street) ran adjacent to the river.
By 1892, Rushville was included on the exclusive Indiana Circuit. The Circuit boasted “Liberal Purses over the Best and only Mile Tracks in the State.” Included on this circuit were Terre Haute, Kokomo, Peru, Elkhart, Fort Wayne, Cambridge City, Rushville, Richmond, and Columbus. Some of the more well-known local trainers and drivers included the Wilson brothers, William Dagler, Jack Curry, CharlesKohlheier, and the Johnson brothers.
In 1895, Rushville was left off the Circuit but promoted independent races at Riverside. On July 4, 2895, Rushville put on a big race promotion during the depths of a national recession. Patriotic speeches were made. To increase attendance, there were swings and a merry-go-round for children. There were bicycle races, pony races, a lady’s novelty race, and an “industrial parade.”
Baseball games and circuses were also held at Riverside Park’s infield. Traveling circuses came to Rushville by railroad. The Cincinnati Reds visited Riverside and defeated Rushville’s baseball club 23-4. Indianapolis played here too, and won 28-10.
On September 16, 1899, the races at Riverside Driving Park were not held because of inclement weather. Somehow a “bogus record” of races to be held that day was signed and submitted to the American Trotting Association (ATA). When theATA found the discrepancy, several local horsemen and officials were issued an “edict of expulsion.” The horse boom in Rush County was over. After “one of the most extraordinary turf frauds ever perpetuated,” the reputation and credibility of Rush County horses and horsemen suffered and local horse business began to decline.
Still, in March of 1907, fifty horses were training at the local track. Clell Maple of The Daily Jacksonian on March 29, 1907 lamented, “Is there any reason why an industry that will bring twenty-five thousand dollars a year to a city of six thousand people, should not have the support of every merchant and businessman?”
Then came the automobile. Dirt track automobile races were contested at Riverside’s oval. During the 1920’s and until World War II, one-hundred-mile dirt track races were held. Some of the more famous local drivers were Bob Hayden, Arnie Knecht, Charles Morris, and “”Wild Bill” Cummings from Milroy. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wilber Shaw raced at Riverside; driving his race car here from Shelbyville and then driving it home after the race.
Flooding was always a big threat. The 1913 Flood inundated most of downtown Rushville, including Riverside. Horses stabled there were moved to higher ground south of town. Now we are protected by a flood-control levee. And today, we continue to be entertained at Riverside Park. As you sit on the grass or in your favorite deck chair and listen to the music, don’t forget the ghosts ofthe past. When the music stops, you may still hear the thunder of trotters headed down the stretch, “Wild Bill’s” engine whining flat-out, the roar of a circus lion, the crack of a baseball bat, or the joyful sounds of children spinning on a merry-go-round.
John D. Wilson
“Old Sam”, Blue Bill 75 by Dorothy Rose
“Horse Racing In Rush County” by James Scott
The Promoter (1899) edited by Johnson and Campbell
The Rushville Republican
The Daily Jacksonian
The Horseman and Fair World, January 31, 1945
Clarks Horse Review, January 5, 1892
Rush County Sesquicentennial History edited by Eleanor Arnold
History of Rush County, Illustrated, 1888
Rush County Retrospect, Volume I, 1984
Priscilla Winkler, Rush County Historical Society
Brian Sheehan, Rush County Historical Society