The Spring City Racetrack
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
As early as February of 1892 there were numerous newspaper stories speculating about the possibility of a public driving park for Spring City. It became a reality when in September of 1892 a large plot of ground known as Schuylkill Heights was purchased from Samuel H. Egolf. Sam was a well-known businessman who owned several properties, one was a 60-acre farm that was partly in the borough of Spring City and a larger portion in East Vincent Township. Once outside the borough most of East Vincent was rich farmland. One section of Sam’s farm, bordering Wall Street in Spring City, was known as Schuylkill Heights. It had a roughly created oval that served as a track where many local farmers and businessmen from town would often gather on a Saturday morning to conduct informal racing. Horse racing was a common sport in the area and several such tracks existed at this time.
Schuylkill Heights was located precisely where the present-day Spring City Elementary School sits. The closest local landmark would have been the White Hall Inn, (Rittenhouse Tavern).
In 1892 a group of men known as the Spring City Driver’s Association was interested in purchasing this ground from Sam Egolf. At that time the Association was composed of Dr. Mewhinney, Edward Custer, J. F. Smale, Milton Latshaw and a few others. They hired H. G. Ellis to survey a plot of ground and present plans for a third of a mile horse racing course. There would be room in the center for a ball field and the track would also be available for bicycle races. They presented this proposal to Sam Egolf and purchased the ground that same year. With the full support of local race fans, the flat dirt oval track was completed and in October they were able to run a race. In 1893, the work continued as the poles, wire, judge’s stand, and grandstand were completed in time for the grand opening.
Milton Latshaw became treasurer of the association in 1896. By the early 1900s it can be said that the local Spring City track was well established. The stands were filled every Saturday and the license plates of the cars in the lot represented many neighboring states. Racing had become one of the summer’s main attractions.
Harness racing, or sulky racing, was the mainstay of the track from the very beginning. There were other events taking place and even a flat race would make the racing card from time to time. In later years there would be horse shows and jumping tournaments held also. I have been told that in the 1930s a couple of auto races were scheduled. These were stopped very quickly as the track was not banked enough and the noise and dirt were not acceptable to the residents...residents who did not live there in 1893.
Milton Latshaw had a favorite horse named John Cook. He was his prize-winning pacer. Milton said he was a dark bay and an amazingly fast pacer. This photo was taken in August of 1902 at the Spring City racetrack. Bert Latshaw recalled that one day out at the track, after his grandfather had won a race, someone offered to buy John Cook for $1200.00. The swift reply was, “No! He is not for sale.” Bert recalled that a short time later this horse died.
Over the years the association had its ups and downs but managed to continue until 1958. I was talking to Dick Obenshine whose father George used to race at the local track. Dick recalled going over to the track in 1958 and taking photos of the stables before they were torn down. Horse racing was always a part of the slate of activities, but horse shows were also scheduled. The Memorial Horse Show was an annual event that started in 1943 and attracted large crowds of people.
About 15 years ago I bought a rare Horace Heistand photo postcard with a Spring City view. It was circa 1910 and looked like something had been destroyed by a storm. I wasn’t completely sure until Lawrence Shaner confirmed his suspicions. It was a photo of the Spring City racetrack grandstands after they had been destroyed by a storm. In the view one can see the boards strewn all about and several members of the Association surveying the damages.
When you first walk into the SFAHS Museum Gallery building, one of the first photos to jump out at you is the large blowup of two sulky racers as they pass by the judges stand at the old Spring City track. The two drivers in that 1941 photo are Leighton Hacker Sr. and Ed Custer. Many visitors do not know we had a track or where it was located. Leighton Hacker remembered his dad racing at the track. He also remembered that in the early 30’s, as a young boy, he sold race programs at the track for his father who ran the local Inter-Borough Press, He recalled that after WWII there seemed to be less racing events and more horse shows scheduled.
Pictured below are some of the horses that raced regularly at the Spring City Racetrack.
Who was Scudder? As often happens when you are doing a story you will get off the track a bit. You will become intrigued with a subject that you know will lead you to a place you had not intended to go and such is the tale of Scudder. When I did a story about the racetrack in 2005, I asked many of the older people at the society if they could tell me something from their memories about the track and most of those friends have passed on now. You see the track has been gone now for 62 years so to remember anything from those days meant you had to be older. One thing that they all said was they remembered Scudder. Scudder came along in the latter years as a track handyman, stable man and whatever was needed. He was an older black man in his 70s by the time the track closed. He was not exactly homeless, but the people and horses at the track were his family. He lived alone in a little building right near the track and used the bathroom facilities at the track. A longtime friend of mine, Dawn Shaner, had this to say: “Scudder lived in a cabin like shanty right on Wall Street past Gladys Sell's house but before the entrance to the school. (halfway between). Lawrence Shaner, my dad, was an electrician and he installed a light on the pole outside of Scudder's place and ran wiring to the building so Scudder could have electricity.”
I found myself asking who Scudder was and soon the racetrack was not in the forefront of my research. I asked Leighton Hacker what he knew because I knew he sold programs there as a boy. He said: "Scudder was a storyteller. I remember him telling me big stories. He kept a child’s reader inside the stables and often carried it with him. He got his water from the stables and spent a lot of time there. He used the toilet facilities at the stable. I believe he was gone by 1958 when the property was sold although I do not know exactly when he left town."
I got several responses after I posted a photo of Scudder on Facebook a few years ago. One story was from a former resident who told me he used to hang out at the track and he often babysat for his 8-year-old sister. He said there were several kids at the track and Scudder would go into the stables and bring out a big old red reading book and sit on the bench and read stories to the kids. He was not sure if he was reading or if he was looking at the pictures and telling the stories as he talked. The kids were happy, and I do believe Leighton was right. Scudder was a storyteller.
Frank W. Scudder was born on Oct 2,1886 in New York. He served in World War I as a private in the Army 806th Co. Transportation. Corp. He served for two years from September 27, 1917 to July 17, 1919. He was a stableman and handy man most of his life. In 1930 he was living in Upper Darby as a stableman. He spent some time in East Whiteland before ending up in Spring City at the local track where he lived for 20 years, until it was sold in 1958. He headed out of town at the age of 72 and I do not know where he landed. He died January 9,1962 and was buried at Beverly National Cemetery in New Jersey.
When this photo was donated, I recognized it immediately as the local racetrack in Spring City. I colorized it and assumed it was taken at the grand opening ceremony. That would have been 1893 but Carolyn, the museum director burst my bubble and said it was from a gala celebration in the 1920s when they all dressed up to reenact the original opening.
1920 is 100 years ago so I am still happy to have it as part of our track collection.
There were many social events and yearly award dinners over the years. I talked with another one of our former members, Pauline Hughes, whose father, Roy Keen, was a well-known driver/owner. Roy hosted the annual association banquets in the early years, but they became so large they had to be moved to the Tall Cedars Temple on Hall Street. She remembered there was some bitterness when the school board was looking for property to build the new elementary school and choose the Wall Street location. (The new school opened in 1960. Some of the local horses then moved their racing to the Reading Fairgrounds which was still in operation at that time.)
As the years went by, the annual banquets continued to grow and by 1930 there was a record crowd of 250 people in attendance. That evening the music was provided by a ten-piece orchestra. There was an Amos & Andy minstrel show, several readings by Evelyn Deisher and Don Urner of Royersford rounded out the evening’s entertainment with several accordion selections. Roast turkey was served to all. If you get the idea that racing in Spring City was a big thing you are correct. In a post season race that was held in November of 1929 there were horses entered from four different states. Many of these horses had run in the Bellwood Hunt the previous week. As the fifties came to a close so did the era of horse racing in Spring City.
Rumors of the race track being torn down were all over town. In an Inter-Borough Press Article dated March 28th, 1957, it was stated that if plans materialized for the new Spring City Elementary School then this season may be the last for training trotters and pacers at the Spring City track. The stables were full at this time with many horses being housed and trained there. Among those owners who still had horses stabled there were: Henry Roediger, Roy Keen, Thomas Stauffer, Eddie Custer, Jonas Shoemaker, Leighton Guiden, Bill Allred, Clarence Grepps, Mr. Wall, and Mr. Messig.
Whenever the circus came to town, the logical location for the "big top" was the Racing Association property. Many area residents remember going to the circus at the Wall Street property. At left is a ticket offered for sale on eBay from two 1954 performances. Hunt Bros. Circus was out of New York State, was transported with 30-some trucks, and became the oldest circus owned and operated by the same family. The practice of using the property for the circus continued even after the track closed and the elementary school was built on the race track grounds. I remember taking my children to one circus in 1977 when my wife was in the hospital. That had me thinking as I assume they had permission from the school.
What remains from the track today is but a few memories, a couple of old programs, some photos packed away in a box in someone’s attic, perhaps a trophy or racing uniform once worn by a jockey. Although this era came to an end more than 60 years ago, I hope that this story will help answer a few questions. If you are lucky, the next time you slow down to15 mph at the Wall Street school you may get a glimpse of the horses as they round the last turn.
William C. Brunner served on the board of the Spring-Ford Area Historical Society for 30 years, 15 of those years serving as its president. He now serves as President Emeritus and continues to write articles, blog posts, and newsletter inserts for the society. Bill has written three books about Spring City and Royersford, all available at the museum. He loves photography, garden railroading, postcard collecting, and local history. He graduated from Spring-Ford High School in 1962. He and his wife of 57 years, Joyce, live in Spring City. They have a son, Chuck, a daughter, Joyce, three grandchildren, Amber, Willie & Frank, and 5 great grandchildren.