Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in January 2014 before the launch of this blog . . .
The days of Uncle Dan Sapp’s Race Track
By Jared Olar
Though we’re now caught in winter’s icy grip, this week we’ll take a brief look at a tradition of summer and autumn – the county fair.
Tazewell County’s communities host several popular local fairs and festivals, though the major fair in this part of central Illinois is probably the Heart of Illinois Fair that takes places in July across the river in Peoria. In Pekin, Mineral Springs Park hosts the annual 4-H Fair in late July, but apart from the facilities and area used by that fair, Pekin does not otherwise have any fairgrounds.
If we look back about a century or more, however, we find that Pekin used to have its own fairgrounds, located not far from Mineral Springs Park.
According to “Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2002), page 84, the fairgrounds were built and laid out prior to 1872 by the Pekin Agricultural & Mechanical Association. The grounds occupied 80 acres along the north side of Broadway near 18th Street, and “Pekin History – Then and Now” also notes that the fairgrounds extended from Broadway to Willow. The most prominent feature of the fairgrounds was a one-mile racetrack and grandstand.
The 1949 Pekin Centenary, page 41, also recalls that in the 1890s “the Santa Fe railroad ran shuttle trains all afternoon to Pekin’s race track, the finest one-mile track in Illinois, where the greatest harness-racing horses of the era competed.” (Pekin Centenary p. 41)
The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial, page 152, provides these added details:
“Racing fans enjoyed going to the Tazewell County Fair Grounds at 15th and Court Streets where races were held every year from July to September for approximately 25 years, until the track was moved to Delavan. Bookmakers waited in front of the grandstand for bets, and there was a 20’ x 40’ gambling tent. People came and stayed all day to see the world’s fastest horses race on ‘Uncle Dan Sapp’s Race Track,’ considered the fastest mile track in Illinois.”
“Pekin: A Pictorial History” tells us who “Uncle Dan Sapp” was:
“For three decades, county fairs and other events were held at this location. Dan Sapp, two-time mayor and noted horseman, was one of the organizers. Sapp, along with Carl G. Herget, organized the Pekin Trotting Association which sponsored national recognized harness racing each September until about 1910.”
Dan Sapp was Pekin’s mayor from 1897 to 1898 and again from 1905 to 1907. Sapp Street in southwest Pekin is named for him. As for Carl Herget, as this column has mentioned previously, he built the Herget mansion on Washington Street near Washington School and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
As for Uncle Dan Sapp’s Race Track, however, not a trace of it remains.
This photograph from 1908 shows the horse race track at the former Tazewell County Fair Grounds, which were located near 18th Street on the north side of Broadway in Pekin.