One hundred and fifteen years ago, whisky baron Hiram Walker’s company town of Walkerville, Ontario was positively booming.
Enjoy Charlie Fox’s fascinating look back at those heddy days when his father cycled the race of his life.
An air of excitement spread through Walkerville on that Saturday, August 1st, 1896, for, along with the usual Civic Holiday festivities, it was the occasion of the 5th annual ten-mile road race sponsored by the Walkerville Wheelmen bicycle club.
Long before the 4 pm starting time the good-natured crowd from all over the Border Cities began arriving at the starting line on Walker Road in front of the planing mill. Young gentlemen in straw hats and young ladies in long skirts and white shirtwaists found plenty to talk about while waiting for the festivities to commence.
The editor of the Walkerville Herald circulated among the townsfolk, greeting subscribers and taking notes for the forthcoming edition. The town’s chief constable, meanwhile, kept a fatherly eye on some of the more exuberant youngsters.
Although a strong south-easterly wind had blown away the rain clouds which had been lingering over the district, and which had caused postponement of the race a week earlier, the day was not considered ideal for racing, since the course was still rather muddy.
While the 16 entrants made final adjustments to their cycles, and the officers of the meet consulted and made sure all was in readiness, spectators perused the club’s program (printed by Ladore and Company, First Street, Walkerville, Phone 666) which listed the entrants, the prizes, and advertisements for local enterprises such as Robert Weir “The up-to-date gents outfitter, suits to order, from $12.00 up”.
The major prize of the day was a Waltham gold watch, to be presented to the rider making the fastest time over the ten-mile course. Other prizes included a gold ring donated by jeweler Fred White, bicycle shoes by A. D. Bolby, and a bicycle lamp for the first man to finish on a Pulford and Ellis wheel.
Bicycle racing was taken rather seriously in those carefree days before television, income tax, and the National Hockey League. A young man who worked ten long hours for two dollars was inclined to consider carefully before spending one hundred and ten dollars for a new Cleveland Model 24 racing bicycle. The entry fee to the road race alone was half a day’s pay.
In order to give cyclists of varying experience a somewhat equal chance, and to make the finish more interesting, the race was run on a handicap basis. The handicappers for the day were Messers E. Chater, H.O. Kerr, and N. B. Vrooman. Several of the novice riders had attracted attention for their performance during practice, and the spectators felt that an exciting race was in store.
As the starting time approached the riders assembled at the line. Clerk of the Course Harry Almson reminded everyone of the rules and Starter Tom Reid took up his position. The Timers for the day were F.J. Miller, Fred White, and A.D. Bowlby.
At four o’clock the first rider, Louis N. Quick, pushed off on his Cleveland Roadster and peddled up Walker Road. He gained speed as he passed the Walkerville Brewery and the Farmers’ Rest and disappeared into the country.
William Livingston followed him immediately and thirty seconds later, A. Churchill was sent away. At 4:01 A.D. Green and Sydney Bird were started. Another thirty seconds passed and five riders, Harry Flowers, H.D. Johnson, W.H. Isaacs, Ed. Kerr and W.B. Revell peddled away. At 4:02 Tom Webster was allowed to go, followed in thirty seconds by Walter Chater. It was 4:04 when E.A. Hoare was sent off. Jim Douglas followed at 4:05, and the two scratch men, Chas. Fox and Art Robinson at 4:07.
As the last of the racers disappeared the crowd moved north across the Grand Trunk Railway, passed between the police station and the fire hall, and then east on Sandwich Street to the finish line in front of the new offices of Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd.
The riders, battling a strong head-wind, passed the scattered homes and approached the red brick houses that marked the intersection with the Tecumseh Road. A far cry from the present paved thoroughfare, the Tecumseh Road, rain softened and rutted, kept the riders on their toes. The brave man who risked a look over his shoulder to see how closely he was being pressed was likely to find himself suffering a severe case of gravel rash.
At the intersection with the Lauzon Road the riders, one by one, made a quick left turn and, with the wind finally at their backs, began the dash to the river. Here was a disconsolate cyclist by the side of the road. W.B. Revell, his tire punctured, was out of the race. He waved encouragement to the more fortunate competitors as they peddled past.
As the river road loomed ahead the skill of the handicappers was appearing. The riders were beginning to bunch up as they wheeled around the corner and started down the twisting home stretch. Excitement reigned at the finish line as the first rider appeared, followed at an interval of fifty feet by the second.
The aptly named Louis Quick crossed the finish line at 4:31:38, with Johnson two seconds behind. Kerr arrived twelve seconds later, and after an interval of a minute Isaacs took fourth place. Tom Webster arrived next, followed by Green, Churchill and Chater.
Tension mounted now as the two scratch men came into view. As they approached the finish line Fox had a slight lead, but Robinson slowly gained ground and they hit the tape together. While the early finishers were accepting well earned congratulations from their friends, and the runners-up were straggling home, the judges, J.H. Walker, H. Ellis and H.L. Rothwell, went into a huddle on the results, and the prizes were awarded.
Quick received a diamond ring, Johnson won a mantle clock, and further down the list Walter Chater took a lot of kidding when he accepted, for eighth place, the keg of beer donated by Chas J. Stodgell.
Then, after another huddle, the judges made a decision. There being a dead heat at 29 minutes, 40 seconds for the fastest time of the day, there would be a run off between Chas Fox and Art Robinson to determine the winner, and this would take place on Tuesday, August 4 at 6:30 P.M.
After this announcement the crowd began to drift away. In Walkerville kitchens kettles were singing and pots were sizzling, and in many a Walkerville parlor that evening the young folk gathered around the piano to conclude their holiday by singing the Stephen Foster favorites and listening to the talented young lady of the household pick out “To a Wild Rose” and “The Swan of Tuonela”.
And the winner? Well the result was almost an anti-climax. When the officials assembled at the planing mill on Tuesday evening, Art Robinson decided not to start. Charlie Fox, the young Sweaburg carpenter, went over the course by himself in 29:30, lowering the record by ten seconds. He was forthwith presented with the Waltham gold watch, which he used throughout the rest of his life.
It is now a treasured heirloom, still running, and keeping as good time as on that summer afternoon, long ago when Walkerville had the Big Race.
Charles E. Fox
To read more about the booming days of Walkerville, read here.