REPRINTS


Trotting at Woodland Park
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society

Manchester had its own race track off Woodland Street back in the “Gay Nineties,” and it was a popular spot for harness races, using sulkies. The sulky, a light two-wheeled carriage in which a single driver sat behind the horse, was popular in the United States before the American Revolution as a mode of fast transportation, especially for doctors traveling light.

Although today we tend to think of Kentucky Derby horseracing – with jockeys sitting on top of thoroughbreds running flat out – in the 1890s horse-races weren’t saddle races, but sulky races, run by trotters and pacers, referring to the horses’ gait, also sometimes referred to as hackneys. Sulkies were usually made by carriage builders as a sideline.

Woodland Park, Manchester’s own race park, with a half-mile “ring” track, was constructed about 1888 on the south side of Woodland Street in the northern part of town, sandwiched in between the Cheney railroad, the New York-New England railroad, and the interurban trolley.

The park hosted local and regional races, and by the second year of operation had a 500-seat covered grandstand, judge’s stand, and stables.

On October 19, 1889, a Hartford Courant brief announced, “Ho! For Manchester. Sports at Woodland Park This Afternoon. With a pleasant afternoon, a large party will go out from this City [Hartford] to Manchester to enjoy the fine programme of sports offered by the Gentleman’s Driving Club of that place. About two hundred bushels of oats will be distributed among contestants, and it is expected that a bag or two will be captured by Hartford horses.” Prizes for winners were bags of oats – how practical – with the most bushels for first prize, fewer bushels for second prize, etc.

The “state of the track” was a topic of interest to jockeys and newspapers – the track needed to be used to get better speeds. In early May, 1890, The Courant reported, “Shortly after noon local horses in sulkies could be seen going to the track. Several of the town’s best horses reported, but nothing but scrub races were indulged in and no time made. When the track is used a little it will be better than last season, and experienced jockeys say it could be no better for the first year in use.”

July 4, 1892 was a big racing day at the park, and other events also attracted the public – bicycle and foot races, a balloon launch, and parachute jump. The park was used for baseball games, agricultural exhibitions, and “game days,” including Highland Games. Read about a high school sports meet held at the park in 1896.

In September 1894, cash prizes were available, and entries came from nearby towns as well as from Hamden, Connecticut, and Bridgeton, N.J. The Saturday afternoon races had three classes, based on winning times around the track: 2:30, 2:28, and 2:40.

In 1895, running water came to the park. In June of that year, the directors of the Woodland Park Driving and Agricultural Corporation met at the Cowles Hotel, in the North End, and voted to “extend a pipe from the Manchester Water Company’s main in Woodland so that running water can be had at the track. W.W. Allen and W.W. Cowles were appointed a committee to have water at the track and they will have it put in immediately.”

The September 4, 1896 Courant reported, “Opportunities in Plenty for Trotters and Pacers. There will be plenty of opportunities for local owners of horses to win out a dollar or two before snow flies – that is if they have the requisite speed for getting there a little sooner than the other fellows. Among the earlier opportunities will be a day at Woodland Park, Manchester, September 12, with a 3-minute event for 100 bushels of oats, at 2:30 and free-for-all with $200 up in each.” There were also races at the Tolland County Agricultural Society, Suffield Agricultural Society, and “the world-renowned Danbury fair,” where purses varied from $250 up to $400 for trotting and pacing classes.

Financial Embarrassment

The October 15, 1898 Courant reported that the Woodland Park Driving and Agricultural Corporation was “in a bad way financially…and has been for two years or more….The first three or four years that it gave meetings at the race track in Manchester it was very successful and had reduced a debt of about $1,500 to about $400. Reverses came and for the next two or three years every race meeting was a losing venture and the debts piled up. It did not realize enough money on many of its last meetings to pay the purses and Clinton W. Cowles, who was for a portion of the time treasurer, went down into his pocket and paid in the hope that ….the corporation would again get on its feet.” The corporation gave no meetings itself for the past couple of years, but was renting out the track to local men who organized the races, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. “Two or three men in Manchester have talked of taking the property if they could get it a reasonable figure….and they would run an agricultural fair at the grounds every year and they feel certain that they could get the track into the position which it once occupied. Some of the stockholders of the tramway company…are willing to come to the assistance of the local corporation – the stockholders own several acres of land at Love Lane.” These same stockholders also owned the summer resort at Laurel Lake, along the tramway (or trolley) line.

Despite financial embarrassments, the Woodland Park corporation didn’t cede to the tramway stockholders, who had planned to demolish the Woodland track and replace it with a half-mile track near Love Lane.

Field days, bicycle races, Scottish games, and harness racing continued at Woodland Park into the early 1900s.

Mr. Horton Buys the Racetrack for a Concrete Plant

The September 20, 1909 Courant reported that C.W. Cowles, who held a mortgage on the land, was selling it to F.B. Horton of South Manchester. The Courant said that the half-mile track, “one of the fastest in these parts…has been unused for several years.”

Mr. Horton also bought land west of the park from Mary Forbes and some from John Jeffers, giving him 22 acres and 940-foot frontage on Woodland Street.

In November, work started on changing the old trotting park into a facility to manufacture concrete slabs and blocks, using Mr. Horton’s patented process. The barn was to be used as a workshop, with concrete mixer, color mixer, and press.

Tobacco and Suburbs

In the 1920s, Gustave Schaller had a tobacco farm in the area and a cider mill in 1934. In 1945, he was advertising “pulverized peat or humus, ready to be delivered anytime…especially recommended for tobacco beds, nurseries, lawn, plants, etc.”

In 1938, James F. Horton began selling new houses in “the Woodland Park tract” including small Cape Cod style houses with four rooms. There were 60 lots in the tract to be developed, and one of the first houses sold had a lot measuring 75 by 150 feet.

In 1958, “Woodhill Heights” was developed in the area, with “low prices, different models, and fabulous location,” according to the Jarvis Realty Company’s advertisements of the era. There were ranches, colonials, and split levels, priced from $17,200 to $19,200. [Webmaster's Note: Al Werbner phoned to say that he and Alexander Jarvis and two others drove to Long Island, various communities, to look at models of houses and builders. He said the house pictured in the story on Schaller Rd. was quite an innovation at the time. -S.B.]

The split-level was intriguing to many of us Manchester residents at the time, and I remember going over with my parents to gawk at this modern phenomenon, which some ascribe to Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed houses to fit organically into the land. The “half-floors” of the split-level theoretically divided living and private areas.

The suburban streets in this neighborhood today have a variety of house styles amid maturing trees, laid out along quiet streets – some named for the former entrepreneurs of the area – Horton and Schaller. But the days of horse-racing in Manchester are no more.

[author's postscript: Sulkies, I found out, started using bicycle wheels in 1892, greatly decreasing the weight of the sulkies, and increasing speed. After that sulkies were sometimes called 'bikes' -- so historians have to be careful when reading 1890-1920 articles, as to whether it's bike racing (bicycles) or sulky racing. I self-edited that part out of the story -- not local enough, but of interest to those who do research and want to avoid pitfalls. -S.B.]

While we've been unable to find photographs of
racing at Woodland Park, this image from the
Brighton Allston Historical Society web site
gives an idea of the action and equipment found
at Woodland Park during its heyday.
 

Susan Barlow serves on the Board of Directors of the Manchester Historical Society