The recent post about the East Main Street property that served as the county fairground for more than 15 years in the 19th century diverted my attention to the local harness racing scene in Old Princeton.
It’s news to most people that Princeton had two racetracks in the post-Civil War era – one at the fairgrounds east of Main and Fulton streets on the east side and another east of what is now Memory Hill cemetery on the south side.
Even fewer people know that a nationally known trainer and driver, George Loomis, emerged from the Princeton tracks.
Races were part of the annual agricultural society fair on the east side from its beginning in 1854. We don’t know much about the track, however, because there was no newspaper in Princeton until 1867.
The Republic in 1868 reported the Princeton Driving Association was rebuilding the track.
Princeton Republic, June 11, 1868 – “Princeton Driving Association. This is the name of a new organization which was made on Friday evening last. O.N. Russell was chosen president, Chas. Briggs vice president, T. McConnell secretary, C.W. Loomis treasurer.”
Princeton Republic, July 23, 1868 – “The Princeton Driving Association are driving business ahead and will soon have everything in ship-shape. The track walled in with a tight eight-foot fence, amphitheater and other necessary buildings put up.”
Princeton Republic, Sept. 7, 1868 – “The new fairground is being pushed forward as rapidly as possible. The track is almost completed, everybody who has a buggy or wagon is invited to make a trial of its merit at any time before the fair.”
The last fair in Princeton was held in September 1870.
Princeton Republic, Sept. 9, 1870 – “Let everybody remember the County Fair next week, Thursday and Friday. We will have the fastest trotting horses in the state. We will also have the largest show of stock ever seen at a county fair in this or adjoining counties. The German Cattle Fair is to be held in connection with the County Fair. Several stock buyers from the eastern and northeastern part of the state have signified their intention to be here. The trotting purses amount to over $300. The track will be in fine condition.”
Princeton’s interest in hosting the annual county fair seemed to wane with the rise of the more lucrative monthly Cattle Fair and arrival of the railroad through the fairground property, and it moved to Berlin in 1871.
The lesser-known racetrack, the Princeton Trotting Park, debuted in 1867.
Princeton Republic, September 5, 1867 – “A new racecourse is being constructed by C.H. Loomis, Capt. O.N. Russell and others on the land of the former just east of the south part of the village. The ground is level and makes a splendid bottom – as good if not better than any other in the county. A half-mile track will be completed in about two weeks.”
Princeton Republic, Nov. 21, 1867 – “The Princeton Trotting Park will be publicly opened on Saturday afternoon next. Mr. Robert Smith’s black stallion will trot with A.G. Hopkins’ bay mare. Considerable money has already been staked upon the result. A lively time is anticipated.”
Princeton Republic, Nov. 28, 1867 – “The trotting match spoken of in our last came off on Saturday afternoon in the Princeton Trotting Park. The rain the previous night had made the track, which is a new one and not yet fully settled, rather heavy. Hopkins’ mare came out two or three lengths ahead. Neither horse was considered very fast, as the time was 4:15. Both would do better under more favorable circumstances. Fred Cooke drove the Smith horse, and Charley Loomis the Hopkins mare. The funniest part of the afternoon was a lively foot race between some half dozen of the ‘fellers.’ John McClurg came out about a rod ahead in a 20-rod race. Billy Magill and Mart Wicks came in next, neck and neck. Ad. Hopkins tripped Charley Westbrook and both rolled upon the ground, otherwise the result of the race might have been different.”
There were two dominant trainers/drivers in the Princeton area in the 1860s and 1870s: merchant C.W. “Charley” Loomis, who owned a general store at about 527 Water Street (today site of Princeton Acupuncture) in Princeton, and farmer C.E. “Charley” Westbrook, who had a large operation, and his own racetrack, north of Manchester.
Loomis was born in Canada, arrived in Dodge County in 1850 and moved to Princeton in 1855. He and his wife, Hulda (Streeter), had two sons, Frank, born in 1858, and George, in 1862.
Westbrook had arrived in Green Lake County about 1856 with $500. By 1867 he owned a large farm of over 800 acres. In addition to cows, sheep and horses, his farm included goats, wild geese, sand hill cranes, guinea fowls, peacocks, rare turkeys, and chickens.
Princeton Boy was the fastest horse in Loomis’ stable. Westbrook’s best were Billy Mason and Charley Westbrook.
Princeton Republic, May 20, 1871 – “At C.E. Westbrook’s, on last Saturday, some very fine driving was accomplished. The fastest horse in this part of the state, Charley Westbrook, went against Billy Mason, getting well down in the thirties. E.L. Hoyt has a fine colt on the ground, and O.N. Russell’s colt troubled three times badly.”
The Fourth of July races at Waupun in 1871 attracted horses from across the state. Princeton Boy took two purses for Loomis, and Billy Mason took first in the sweepstakes purse.
Loomis and Westbrook opened a sales and training stable in Manchester in 1872. Loomis closed his business in Princeton and moved to Ripon in June 1874, a couple of months before Westbrook held a big auction at his farm and left for Kansas with a large drove of young stock.
Westbrook sold his farm and completed his move to Newton, Kansas, in December 1875. He died there in May 1911 at age 78.
Loomis also left the area in 1875.
Princeton Republic, April 24, 1875 – “Mr. C.W. Loomis has started five trotting horses for River Falls, Pierce County, where we hear he has rented the driving park with a good mile track for the season. Charley is one of the best drivers and trainers in the country, and we understand will have all the horses he can handle.”
Loomis moved to River Falls in July but would return occasionally to visit with Princeton friends.
Princeton Republic, Nov. 13, 1875 – “C.W. Loomis dropped down into our town on Wednesday evening last. Charley is looking well, and says his trotters are in fine condition. Princeton Boy is good for money against any horse in the state. His stable at River Falls has two newly purchased steppers that are booked for extra speed.”
Princeton Republic, Dec. 4, 1879 – “C.W. Loomis and wife, of River Falls, and Mrs. C.D. Loomis and daughter Annie, of Necedah, have been making their old Princeton friends happy the week past by a general visit.”
Princeton Republic, July 14, 1881 – “Charley Loomis and wife dropped in among their old Princeton friends last Saturday.”
Loomis, the former merchant, listed his job as horse dealer in the 1880 census. He lived in River Falls until September 1885, when he moved to Pipestone, Minnesota, where he died in October 1886 of typhoid fever at age 56.
Charley’s love for horses rubbed off on both his sons, especially George, who rode his first sulky in Princeton and began competing in prize races in the 1880s. He was a professional trainer and driver for over six decades! He was elected to the Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame sponsored by the Star Tribune newspaper as part of the Class of 1963.
George was in his prime when harness racing was at its peak early in the 20th century, and at the time of his death, he was the oldest driver in harness racing.
The Star Tribune, in November 2019, outlined some of the accomplishments that earned Loomis a spot in the hall of fame: “One of his biggest victories was in 1926 with Hollyrood Walter in the $25,000 Kalamazoo Pacing Derby, called the Kentucky Derby of the harness racing world. About a month later, Loomis drove Hollyrood Walter to a victory in a $5,000 race in Goshen, N.Y.
“In 1943, at the age of 81, he won three races and had a second-place finish at the Minnesota State Fair. Loomis’ performance highlighted the program at the 1943 State Fair, which the Minneapolis Star called ‘the best program the Hamline track has had in many years.’ …
“Loomis, a native of Princeton, Wisconsin, was praised for his ability to get maximum performance from his horses.”
One of the horses that Loomis trained set a track record for five furlongs (1 minute, 16.4 seconds) in Portland, Oregon, in July 1947. The 85-year-old’s racing career came to a dramatic finish one week later.
George Loomis died on July 26 driving in the featured ninth race at Portland Meadows.
His horse drew the sulky to the side and stopped.
Thank you for caring and reading about local history.