The Legendary Pennsboro Speedway
Fast Times in Ritchie County
By Betty Leavengood
In the late 1940's, my grandfather and I would get in his Plymouth coupe and head out U.S. Route 50, then a curving two lane road, to Pennsboro and the Ritchie County Fair. My grandfather always “straightened out” the curves as he drove so we would get there faster. After parking, he and I would climb the stairs to the top of the grandstand to spend an exciting afternoon watching sleek horses speeding around the track.
I recently drove to Harrisville to talk with Russell Grose about his memories of racing at the track, now known as the Legendary Pennsboro Speedway. Russell is a tall, distinguished-looking man, and he greeted me with a firm handshake and a friendly smile. A spry 94-year-old, Russell appears to be in his early 70's. “That used to be my Ford dealership,” he says, pointing across the street to Arlo’s Antiques. “I opened the dealership in 1942. When I retired, I gave the building to my daughter, Anita Richards, and she opened an antique store. ‘Arlo’s’ stands for Anita, Russell, Lonnie, and Opal. Lonnie is Anita’s husband, and Opal is my late wife’s name.
“I moved into this house in July of 1950. It used to be the Fry Hotel,” Russell says. He showed me a large grindstone on his back porch. “This belonged to my wife’s grandfather, George Layfield. I have it hooked up to electricity, and I can still sharpen knives with it.”
Russell showed me into a large, comfortable room with a cozy fireplace, several chairs, and a television set. “I call this room my Boar’s Nest,” he says with a laugh. I agreed that this is definitely a man’s room. The walls and ceiling are covered with an assortment of antiques. “There’s at least $10,000 on that wall,” Russell says as he points to his collection of antique match holders, tools, local pottery, lamps, and numerous other items. “When I retired, I went to a lot of auctions and sales at old farms.”
We sat down to talk about the Pennsboro race track. “In the beginning, there were just races at the track once a year during the annual Ritchie County Fair,” Russell says.
According to A Photographic History of Ritchie County, published in 1989 by the Ritchie County Historical Society, horse racing began in Pennsboro with the incorporation of the Ritchie County Agricultural and Fair Association on January 18, 1887. At the first meeting of the stockholders, the board of directors voted to procure a tract of land “by purchase or lease, fence the same, construct race course, erect necessary and suitable buildings, and hold a Fair sometime in the autumn of 1887.” The fair association leased a tract of land on the outskirts of Pennsboro from the Bradford family.
By April, bids had been received and contracts awarded. Projects included building an oval five furlong racetrack, ½ mile on the inside and ? mile on the outside; fences around the racetrack and the perimeter of the fairground; 28 stalls for racehorses; two bridges across the small stream that ran through the racetrack; a grandstand; and a large exhibition hall.
The first Ritchie County Fair opened September 21, 1887, featuring agricultural exhibits, livestock competition, women’s handiwork, food stands, entertainment, and horse races. Improvements were made each year, and by 1899, the horse barns housed 105 horses. In December 1899, the stockholders voted to purchase the leased land for $2,000 and to continue the fair for 40 years.
People came to the Ritchie County Fair by horse and buggy, on the railroad, and later, by automobile. In 1922, 20,000 people attended the fair and gate receipts totaled $10,000. They came to see the exhibits, enjoy the carnival, get together with family and friends, and to watch the area’s finest horses circle the track.
“I started going to the fair in the early 1920's,” Russell says.
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