Ghosts of Main Street – Giddy-up!

May 9, 2019

By Julie Traynor

At various times in the past horse racing was a lively and popular sport in Marion, Michigan. Thanks to folks like Billy Jones, Egbert Chapin and John Gibson, true lovers and breeders of fine horses, Marion also became home to champion racers. The local sport was sulky racing.

Billy Jones and one of his prized sulky racers.

Billy Jones, father of the well-remembered Earle Jones, owned the land on the southwest side of the village along the river (now known as Veteran’s Memorial Park). As early as 1897 Jones began to develop a quarter mile track on what was known locally as Elm Grove Park or the Riverside Driving Park. It was free to use and local horses were often driven against one another in friendly one-on-one competition.

The popularity of the driving park soon led Jones to consider a regulation half-mile track in 1906. Villagers gave their money and time to make the track a reality. By 1915 the Marion Matinee Association was formed. It kept the track in excellent condition and held regular races. Horseracing was so popular at that time that Main Street businesses closed on Thursday afternoons during the summer. All of Marion was at the park.  Use of the track remained free and local horses trained there regularly. Marion was fast gaining a reputation for good racing and great horse breeding. John Gibson was well known across the country for his fine racers. When a state record was broken at Port Huron by The Eel, raised by Gibson, local horse lovers were proud to say that the dam, Belle Bidwell, and grand-dam, were both owned in Marion.

Elm Grove/Riverside Driving Park in a panoramic view, about 1920. This oversized postcard was made by the Marion Art Studio and is a digital donation to the Historical Society photo collection by Bonnie Hamer, great-granddaughter of early settler, J.B. Hamer.

The village purchased Elm Grove Park in 1923 and continued horseracing. Unfortunately, the Great Depression followed by WWII put an end to racing in Marion. The park was used for football, other high school sports and of course the Marion Fair.

The echoes of thundering hooves faded fast. But in 1966 the Marion Farm Exhibit Association, John Alberts, auctioneer Glenn Casey and other local horse racing lovers, revived interest in the track and soon racing was back.

The first Marion Fair in 1967 featured harness racing. The popularity of the races was astounding and became a regular fair event. Over $85,000 in prize money was awarded over five days during the fair in 1976.

The tradition of horse racing in Marion has been a roller coaster ride. The popularity of the sport is not currently the draw it was in the past.

Currently the track sees racing of another kind each winter when it is iced over to play host to the Marion Vintage Snowmobile Association’s winter fest racing.

However, if we have learned anything in our racing history it is that you can’t keep a good horse down. Marionites can likely count on attending horse races once again at the old ‘Riverside Driving Park’. It is just a matter of time.

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