The Monroe Racetrack
By Jim Nelson
Horse racing has long been known as the Sport of Kings. At one time, in the form of harness racing, it was indeed King in the Village of Monroe. It played an interesting part in the history of the Town and Village of Monroe for a relatively brief period in the 1900’s. As part of the racing circuit that moved through-out various parts of the country going from town to town, the harness race track in Monroe was well recognized and attracted high quality horses from across the country. From its inception in 1907 until 1927, when it ceased operation, the track’s fame flourished with many outstanding horses and horsemen coming to race in Monroe.
The first association president was Max O. Schaefer, general manager of the Monroe Cheese Company, and later president of the Velveeta Cheese Company of Monroe.
Monroe Race Track, circa 1908
He was one of the influential forces behind the formation of the group and remained as president until his resignation in 1916. Unfortunately, he was killed in an automobile accident in Southfields some nine years later and the organization lost a strong supporter. When Schaefer resigned in 1916, he was succeeded as president by Pierre Lorillard, Jr. of the Lorillard Tobacco Company.
The association had secured approximately twenty-one acres of land on the edge of the Village located generally between Ramapo Avenue (now Route 17M) and the Erie Railroad line behind the Monroe Cemetery. There, a half-mile track was constructed, along with a series of complementary buildings and viewing bleachers. The first races were held on August 8, 1908, with a large crowd of 2,200 attending. Thanks to the excellent condition of the new track, the winning horse, Patsy Grady, trotted a mile in 2:18½, which was considered a remarkable feat, particularly on a new track. This was even more impressive when one realized the owner, Mr. Van Ness, had driven the horse from Warwick, fourteen miles away, to reach Monroe in time for the races on the same day.
The property was improved in 1910 when a new grandstand was constructed. It was seventy five feet long and was planned to accommodate about 1,000 people.
To complete the additions, a bandstand constructed that year completed the building inventory. To further enhance the overall operation, the directors of the association purchased an additional seven acres fronting on Maple Avenue. This provided a more convenient entrance to the track and replaced the existing entrance. The original entrance required everyone to come in from present Route 17M and cross the Ramapo River just behind the Monroe Cemetery. The new entrance was a short, three minute walk from the Monroe train station and it provided easier access for the general public who were walking, coming by horse and buggy, or by automobile. With that change, the managers were also able to reconfigure the track to make the homestretch and finish line on the same side as the new entrance, in exchange for the existing backstretch.
A dead heat finish 1909.
With the growing popularity and reputation of the track, the directors elected to make more improvements in 1911. The grandstand was enlarged to seat approximately 1,500 people. New stabling facilities were constructed on the association grounds. Although no pictorial record of the track improvements seems to have been prepared or recorded at the time the work was done, photographs made years later, do show an impressive property. The grandstand projects a strong image of a colorful structure dominating the track scene. Other buildings, including the horse stalls, judges’ stand, infield gazebo and equipment sheds shown in these pictures some ten years after the completion of the final race program, provide strong, if silent, testimony to the exciting horse racing time in the life of the Orange County citizens of Monroe.
That effort was evidently successful since in that same year, on August 13th, the horse, Directum I, set a track record for a one mile pace on a half-mile track. The time of 2:04¼ was also a world’s record, erasing the previous record of 2:04½ established by George Canoe, in 1911, at Allentown, Pennsylvania. Directum I became the fastest pacer in the world at that time, pacing a mile in Syracuse in 1:56¾. He is listed among the harness racing horse immortals in the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame in Goshen, NY. This class of racing testified to the strength of the Monroe program in being able to attract many quality harness horses.
Racetrack grand stand, circa 1938.
News accounts in 1915 reported that the races in Monroe opened with finest list of racehorses ever seen in the country or state. Horses were arriving at the track by both train and motor truck, as well as trotting in from the local area. During the scheduled race meeting time in Monroe, the Erie railroad ran a special train to Monroe from Jersey City to accommodate the influx of interested patrons, and then returned them after the completion of the races.
The following year, 1916, similar reports in the papers noted that Monroe had more horses starting in one race than those entered in all four races in a program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania race meeting. In that Pittsburgh race meeting, only fourteen horses were present to answer the starter’s bell for the four races, fewer than four horses per race. On that same day in Monroe there were forty-five horses ready for the four races, making an average of
about eleven horses for each race. According to contemporary newspapers, it was certainly a good showing.
In 1926 Wm. H. Dickerson drove two horses to world records at Monroe. The first was a two-year old trotter, Ruth M. Chenault, who raced in 2:09¾. She continued to win, capturing all ten races in which she was entered that year and earning a total of $37,377.50, which was another record for a two-year-old. Her best time was 2:03¼. She is also among those listed as a horse immortal the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame.
The second world record that year was by three-year-old Peter Maltbie who trotted 2:08 ¾ for the Arden Homestead Stable. The stable was presented with a trophy for winning the same race three consecutive years at the Monroe races. The donor and presenter was Mr. Herman H. Crossman. Mr. Dickerson is listed among the immortals of harness racing in the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. These activities of 1926 were faithfully reported in the Monroe Gazette.
The Monroe track and races continued to attract top quality horses. In 1922 there were 279 horses entered in the seventeen heats, or divisions, scheduled for the meeting. Of those horses, 112 were actually stabled at the track. An impressive time of 2:15 or a fraction better was recorded in ten of the seventeen divisions and two world records were broken during this meeting. By 1926, purses for the race program had risen to $29,000. Admission gate receipts for that year were reported to have been the best ever. One interesting comment in the horse papers was that this year was only the second time in seventeen years the three-day race program had not been postponed became of rain. One of the horse papers, “The Horse Review”, had dubbed the Monroe track as the “wet spot of the Orange County Circuit”.
However, despite its popularity, after the 1927 races the Monroe track was dropped from the four track circuit in which it participated for many years, that circuit, called the Orange County Circuit, consisted of tracks in Endicott, Middletown, Goshen and Monroe. It was replaced by a new facility opening in Elmira, NY, with a new grandstand that could seat 5,000 people. The purses paid in that final year of racing in Monroe were $30,000.
Without the annual race meet, the racing association had financial problems. To complicate the situation, William Crawford, a strong track supporter, passed away. Mr. Crawford had made his fortune in a New York City department store operation. Locally, he maintained a lavish estate, which would later be known as the Zindorest resort in nearby Blooming Grove. His former home still stands, and is now a private residence. The track property was foreclosed by the Estate of William Crawford. The race track association was formally dissolved in 1929 and the property was purchased by Roscoe W. Smith who was intensely interested in community activities and recreational facilities for children of Monroe. Therefore, after his purchase, he encouraged students to continue using the premises for track and field events, ball games and other athletic contests. The grandstand remained a part of the property until 1964 when it was demolished. The lumber was taken to Museum Village, located just outside Monroe, where it was used to construct a new building housing early American carriages and other interesting historical items.
The property passed to Roscoe’s son Leland, who eventually sold it to the late Dr. Joseph Dupcak and his wife Georgina.
At this time, there is a strong recognition by the Monroe community of the pressing need for additional, easily accessible areas to be used by residents for leisure time activities. The purchase of the racetrack property is an ideal situation for the Village of Monroe. This acquisition will restore the original intent demonstrated when the track association directors recognized a similar need in the community for recreational facilities. It is also a way to enhance the effect of the Roscoe Smith legacy as a major benefactor to the Monroe Community.
Mayor Joseph Mancuso, recognizing the historical background that made this property a onetime centerpiece, led the effort to have the Village purchase the land. The Board voted to purchase it on October 16, 2001, from Georgina Dupcek, the current owner. This acquisition was completed March 18, 2005. It will benefit the community and restore this site as a showplace in the Village.