Harness racing will once again return to The Meigs County Fair on Thursday, August 16 and Friday, August 17. The track at the fairgrounds bears the nickname “The Rock” paying homage to the sandstone cliffs jutting into the homestretch of the track, as well as the “Indian watering hole” nearby which gives the community and fairgrounds its name: Rocksprings. If you ask any jockey of the Southern Valley Colt Circuit, they will tell you, The Rock is the toughest track on the circuit, due to the layout of the track resembling a safety pin where one turn is much smaller than the other. The turn opposite the grandstand is said to be the tightest turns on a horse racetrack in the state of Ohio.
As I mentioned in last week’s article, there were no fairs held from 1861-1864. According to The Meigs County Telegraph in 1865, horse racing was added to the fair’s program and was considered “the highlight of the annual event;” this is the earliest record of racing at The Meigs County Fair. Three years later, in March of 1868, the Meigs County Agricultural Society purchased 10.25 acres from Leonard and Jane Carleton at a price of $1,500. This was the Agricultural Society’s first purchase of land at the current Rocksprings fairgrounds and consisted of most of the land at the “bottom of the hill.”
1889 was a big year for growth at the Rocksprings fairgrounds. A tract of land from the Salisbury School Board became available and was acquired by the Agricultural Society. The land in this purchase is now the “top of the hill” where the midway, vendor booths, and all livestock (except horses) are housed. During the time this land was purchased, the upper portion was an apple orchard. Several of these trees existed until the 1930s. Additionally in 1889, the fairgrounds expanded the racetrack from a 1/3 mile track to a 1/2 mile track; this is the track length today.
The next year, the curved grandstand was designed by Lore Davis and built over the summer using horses and various pulley systems to lift the wood into place. Funds were donated from county locals to pay for the cost of the wood and construction. The half-moon grandstand was first known as an amphitheater as reported by the Meigs County Tribune. “[The amphitheater] easily seats one thousand persons and commands an entire view of the race course. A back view of the grandstand is as attractive as the front. It consists of hash stalls whose counters bristle with ham sandwiches, gingerbread and birch beer . . . .” The grandstand also features windows on both ends that are said to have existed so race winners could be announced to spectators and gamblers not in the grandstand.
As the years have passed, deterioration set in and to preserve safety, the grandstand underwent extensive renovations. The structure was raised to allow a concrete platform to be poured under it. The seating was redone and handrails added, reinforcement braces were put in place for additional stability, and a new roof and drainage system were included. Additionally, electricity and lights were installed into the structure and protective cables were placed along the front of the structure to prevent horses from coming across the barrier and into the grandstand in the event of an accident.
The Rock has a rich history, including having several locally owned and trained horses supposedly buried along the back stretch of the racetrack. One of those purported to having been buried there was pacer horse PETER S. DIRECT who won 19 races and was named Ohio’s Leading Pacer in 1954. Within the next two years, the colt won 21 additional races. He went on to end his career after 98 races. Of those 98 races, PETER S. DIRECT won 53 of them and retired after setting track speed records at Proctorville, McConnelsville, and The Rock.
The Spencer family name has an association with horseracing at The Rock, beginning with J.M. Spencer of Racine who owned harness racing horses. In the early 1900s, Spencer’s 10 year old son, Harry W. Spencer mounted a sulky (what harness racing jockeys ride) and launched a nearly 60 year racing career. According to a copy of The Daily Sentinel, “[Harry Spencer] drove one of his father’s horses that day and later drove for the late Leroy Eichinger and Sidney Spencer, prominent in racing circles for many years. A notable Spencer family horse was LADY MILLER who eventually won at the Ohio State Fair and was trained and developed by John Batey.” Batey trained horses for 66 years at The Rock.
Don Spencer keeps the tradition alive in the 21st century; according to his biography on the Southern Valley Colt Circuit website, “Don is a popular veteran of the circuit. He has a tremendous ability to rate a mile to his advantage. If he gets on the front end, he is difficult to beat. He also is excellent with trotters. Don’s father Sid was a legend on the Ohio fair circuits.”
In more recent history, Brooks Sayre began training horses in 1976 and driving the following year. He won his first race driving SALEM SPOOK at the Proctorville, Ohio fair on July 27, 1977. He continued training and driving until his retirement in 2007. As a driver, he had 967 lifetime starts with 152 wins and $234,171 in purses. His best year came in 1982 with a summary of 86-38-13-13 (placing 1st-2nd-3rd-4th) and earnings of $68,271. Sayre passed away in April of 2013.
The 155th edition of The Meigs County Fair will once again feature two days of harness racing. Drivers like “Flyin’” Ryan Holton, “Choo-Choo” Charlie Schoonover, Jonas Hershberger, Ty VanRhoden, and Christopher Shaw, among others, will attempt to break track records while looking for wins at The Rock. Current track records are held by trotter VICTORY TAX with a time of 2:04, set in 2009, and PRINCE OF ART holds the pacer record time of 2:01.1, set last year in 2017. Both days at 1 o’clock I will be along the back row of the grandstand as announcer Chris Patterson belts out his infamous “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere they come,” and history comes to life at The Rock at the 155th Meigs County Fair.
As the old Ohio flows….