RACING IN WARRENTON
In Miss Mordecai's reminiscences of Warrenton we have an interesting
account of how the earliest race course was made, and of how racing became
a most absorbing pastime, and a source of revenue to several. Colonel
Johnston was mounting his fine nag one morning to ride her into the
village when he was struck with the beauty and symmetry of her legs and
her fine body. He spoke of it to his servant who had brought her around to
the rack and asked him if he thought she could run. He replied by telling
him how fast she could run in the "pasture" and how hard she was for the
boys to "ketch."
These thoughts grew into plan and by the time he had
reached the tavern he had laid the scheme to have a quarter-of-a-mile race
course made on his land lying on the edge of the village. At the tavern he
found Squire Kemp Plummer, engaged in playing the favorite town game,
backgammon. He asked him what he thought of getting up a saddle race.
"What will you start?" asked Mr. Plummer. "My nag against the best riding
horse in town," re-plied the Colonel. His companion's mettle was up in a
moment and he said: "Done sir. Your nag against my Bessy." "It is a bet,"
said Colonel Johnston, "and I'll have a quarter-of-a-mile race track made
on my land and you will see that my mare will distance yours and look
around to see how she comes in.
The news of the saddle race soon flew round and about the town. A saddler
was engaged to make one of the best models of his craft; by the time it
was finished the track was measured and ready.. The preparations all
complete, a fine day was chosen and most of,. the citizens, with the
country people who chanced `to be in town, walked out to see the race.-
.The nag did not disappoint either the master or the servant, who stood at
the jockey end of the track, and when his, favorite came , flying past
shouted, in his delight, "Da she, I knowed it fue'," stooping down as he
spoke and driving' with emphatic force the clenched flst of his right hand
into the cup bent form of his left. "I done told you, Straw, (the servant
of Squire Plummer) old Bess want gwine to see our nag's head no more atter
Thus commenced the race course ' at Warrenton. With the success of his
mare commenced the sporting career of an accomplished racer, to whom
nature's gifts of wit and shrewdness were too liberal not to have shone in
a sphere more useful; they were, nevertheless, thus applied. The mare's
speed was tested again and again; she performed wonders so that her master
determined to give her every advantage of education in his power. Humphrey
was appointed acting spy by his master to see fair play in the food
department. She was thus trained for a race mare and the old colored man
rejoiced in her improved appearance and success. Her faithful groom, after
enjoying a long career of foremost success of his favorite, all unprepared
for a reverse, was so overcome by mortification at her losing a race that
he vowed he would never more curry his own head. It was evident, too, that
he did nor forswear himself for his woolly pate, grown gray with years,
was covered with long twisted knots, which the village children called
"Uncle Humphrie's mulberries."
The Colonel Johnston spoken of was William R. Johnston,
who lived 'at what I knew as the old Kemp Plummer place, the present home
of John Hudgins. Colonel Johnston afterwards became a resident of
Petersburg, Virginia, and the most celebrated horse racer of that day.
The race track was the original road from near the gate of the Johnston
house straight north for about a quarter of a mile. In after years the
track was extended from the end of the Warrenton side in the shape of a
half ellipse westward, then southward to the beginning, the whole making
between a half and three-quarters of a mile. For many years that track was
used by the gentlemen of the county for racing purposes on stated
occasions. The celebrated race horse Boston, in that day the fastest
four-mile racer in the United States, was exercised and trained at this
track. His pedigree was never known. He was known in racing circles
throughout the country. His greatest race was on a course near Boston,
Massachusetts, against a celebrated little mare named Fashion, and was the
only four-mile race he ever lost. That race was regarded almost as a
contest between the South and the North in the Racing world. The older
people of Warrenton, and some of the younger ones too, remember and
cherish many of the traditions concerning Boston.
When Colonel Johnston changed his residence to the place where William
Eaton lived and died, now occupied by Mr. Burroughs, Boston's stable was
near a large holly tree that stands now, or did stand a few years ago,
about fifty yards due west from the residence.
But the William R, Johnston race track was an insignificant affair when
compared with the Warren-ton race course established many years later by
General M. T. Hawkins, Peter B. Powell, Thomas H. Christmas and others..
That race course was about a mile from the town,' a hundred yards or more
north of the old cemetery, but on the east side of the road from Warrenton
to the Plains. It was established about 1850. The track was one mile in
the shape of an ellipse, except the last quarter, which was a straight
line to the grandstand, whence the horses were started. The grandstand
faced to the east and was about a hundred yards from the road. The
stables, which consisted of plank stalls covered with shingled roofs and
built for the accommodation of two or three horses and the accouterments
and quarters of their trainers, were quite numerous and were located in
rows between the road and the track, a couple of hundred yards from the
grandstand. There was one large stable of a story-and-a-half, which was
used by General Hawkins for his horses.
The Warrenton race course had more than a state reputation. Owners with
their "stables" from Columbia and Charleston, Richmond and Petersburg,
were present at the spring and fall races, and lovers of the sport in
great numbers from North Carolina and adjoining states attended. The
stakes were valuable and betting was high. Faro and "short cards" were
carried on in the town during the season of the races and large sums of
money changed hands. Horses of national reputation were entered for the
races. I have heard my husband often speak of a celebrated contest
witnessed by him as a boy on the course. He related with special interest
a four-mile race between two little mares, Idle Gazer, a sorrel with white
feet and brown face, belonging to Mc-Daniel of Richmond; and Lucy
Phillips, a dark bay belonging to either Hare or Talley of Petersburg. It
took three heats to decide the race, which went in favor of the sorrel
mare. He has also told me of another race between Engineer, an iron-gray
horse, and Longfellow, a celebrated animal belonging to McDaniel. Engineer
was a descendant of Boston.
There was an attempt after the war to revive interest in racing, but only
local horses contested and the enterprise fell through.
After writing the foregoing account of the racing in Warrenton I received
from a friend this clipping which serves to show the interest in horses at
DIED - Near Warrenton, on the 16th instant, Mr. Launcelot Thorpe, an
Englishman; who has been for several years past, employed in bringing over
from England valuable high bred horses. — Raleigh Register, July 28, 1806.
AN EARLY ELECTION
Miss Mordecai wrote such an original and unique acconnt
of an election in the early life of Warrenton that I give my readers the
benefit of it. often between" rival strains of "birds" belonging to people
of the same county
Advertisement of an approaching "main" as to time and place was made in
the local newspaper and by posters at the tavern, cross-roads and other
public places where people, were likely to congregate. The place chosen
for the main was generally near the county town, and during the time of
sport, lasting sometimes a whole week, the hotels and public places, the
bar-rooms and gambling dens, were open night and day, crowded with
patrons. On such occasions the town would have the appearance of circus
day. Thousands of dollars were staked on the issue of the contest between
the cocks. The strains or stocks of chickens were as important matters
among chicken fanciers as were those of race horses to their owners; and
the owners of several breeds were as proud of their possessions and as
jealous of their fame and reputations, as the Roman manager of his band of
gladiators was of his combatants. Even the children and boys knew the
peculiarities, the strength, the weaknesses of the several strains of the
fighting chickens, and could talk glibly and intelligently of Stonefence,
Indian Reds, Silver Grays, Washington's Greys, Red Eagle, The Blue Hen's
chickens, etc., etc., and had a contempt for the dominicker or dunghill.
For weeks before the main took place the chicken cocks, many more than
were to be entered in the fight, were put in the training of experts. They
were dieted and exercised, and every day or two were allowed to "spar" —
"hit a lick or two" without gaffs to test their skill and their courage.
No one except their owner and his friends was allowed to go near the cocks
while in course of training. The most important personage connected with
the affair, how-ever, was the heeler (gaffer) the one who attached the
gaff, an artificial spur made of polished steel, to take the place of the
natural spur of the chicken, which was sawed off to the right length and
other-wise adjusted to receive it. Victory depended greatly on the skill
with which the gaff was adjusted. If there were any defects in that
particular the chances were greatly against the cock, thus faultily
equipped, however strong and game he might be. I have re-liable
information that mains were not of infrequent occurance inside the town
limits. Up to the middle fifties of the last century the pits or rings
were located on a large vacant lot, adjoining the town common, fifty yards
or about that distance, south from the town spring, and one hundred yards
probably southeast from the present jail, the place where-on circus tents
had been pitched for their performances.
Among many curiously interesting things concerning Warrenton, Miss
Mordecai writes of a Frenchman, a citizen of the town, who was always
present at the cock-fights, and would pay a small amount for the chickens
that were killed or disabled in the contest or those that showed the
"white feather" and had their heads wrung off and thrown aside for
cowardice.' Those dead chickens he took to his own home, partly for his
own table, and disposed of some for a higher price than he paid for them
at the pit.
Visitors from the adjoining counties in North Carolina and Virginia
attended, and professional gamblers from Richmond, Petersburg and other
cities were present. The young bloods would drink and gamble and get
fleeced. Nobody had cash money in those days (all lines of business' or
enterprises being done on credit) and the losses at gambling tables would
be paid by notes or bonds. The gamblers would sell these evidences of debt
at once at a tremendous "shave," (loss) to the native money-dealer who
would eventually collect the whole, the makers being too proud and
"honorable" to plead gaming considerations in defense.
For many years no serious protest was made against cock fighting by the
conservative and well ordered people ; and even after public sentiment had
been aroused against the crime, and laws passed against it, it was many
years, and in many communities, before the law could be or was enforced.
The last cocking main I remember to have heard of was fought between men
of Halifax and Nash against Warren County people, and held at the Fair
Grounds at Raleigh, about one mile from the Capitol, during a session of
the State Fair. The main was held in defiance of the law, and the
participants knew it. Those immediately concerned were arrested and
convicted, and slight fines were imposed.
CARD PLAYING AND DRINKING
Of course in a community such as we have de-scribed the
people of Warrenton and Warren County to be — the descendants of English
people, of good families, education, training and associations — we should
expect to find habits and diversions similar to those practiced by their
ancestors. I have described cock fighting and horse-racing; and now I will
under-take to describe their almost necessary concomitant card-playing.
From the beginning, the men of the highest social life indulged in this
vice There were few professional gamesters among them, but in the
gentle-man class playing cards was the common diversion. "Old Sledge" or
"Seven-up" was probably the chief game of chance; but the elite indulged
in "Poker." The stakes were sometimes high, and serious and embarrassing
losses occasionally happened, but as a rule, "the chips" were cheap and a
limit was generally placed on the game. The idea of winning as an end or
purpose was not thought of, as a rule; amusement, interest and excitement
were the chief inducements of the game. In comparatively early times, it'
must be written, too, a few ladies of the very highest social standing
sometimes engaged 'In poker' playing and frequently their losses were
severe. The same double standard of morality which, has' always existed
among the English condemned card playing by women, but looked on the same
'vice, when practiced by men, as excusable if not commendable. The habit
was greatly emphasized and increased by the patrons of Shocco Springs, a
celebrated resort, eight miles from Warrenton.
For a number of years before the war, hundreds of people of wealth,
education, and liberal ideas, re-sorted to those springs, very often
spending the entire summer there. Poker playing was the rage among the
gentlemen patrons, old, middle-aged and young. At week-ends the young men
of Warrenton and the county would join the visitors socially in their
diversions and their games. Card playing, therefore, be-came general in
the community. Sometimes professional gamesters from abroad would visit
the town and the springs, and ingratiate themselves with the citizens and
take part in the card playing.
They would also set up a bank, or a faro table, for the benefit of those
whose taste ran in that direction. It not infrequently happened that the
young and in-experienced fell into the hands of these black-legs and
fleeced. I have heard of a game of cards at Shocco Springs at which the
successful player withdrew and went to bed in the same room where the game
was going on; whereupon, one of his friends, who had been compelled to
retire because of losses, proposed that he should re-enter the game with
the backing of his sleeping friend, the profits and losses to be shared
between them. The proposer understood the answer of the successful and
retired player to be in the affirmative, and so did the other
participants, and the game was continued until next morning. The losses
were heavy on the part of the guaranteed partner, and the sleeping
partner, being aroused and informed of the losses and requested to settle,
expressed great surprise and said he might have used a term which
emphasized in a certain way meant approval but when intoned and emphasized
as he had done it, meant refusal. "Um-un, but I said un-um !"
One of the responsible and reliable citizens of Warrenton, sprung from one
of the wealthiest and most distinguished families of the county, Mr. Peter
Davis, an old bachelor all his life, kept an open gaming house, which was
well patronized, within forty steps of the courthouse. The house consisted
of four rooms, the front one being the one in which he entertained his
guests who wanted to play cards for stakes. Such things caused no comment
and the players were never interfered with.
There was no rowdyism and no disorder of any kind attending the gambling.
I have often heard repeated an amusing story of an incident that happened
during a game of cards at Mr. Davis.' He sent his slave and attendant,
Grandison, to a certain busy corner of the town during a term of the
Superior Court, to watch for Sol Kim-ball, a hogshead maker; when he found
him he was to bring him to Mr. Davis' room. Mr. Davis needed a large
number of hogsheads for his tobacco crop. Grandison, upon receiving the
order, said: "I don't know Mr. Kimball," whereupon he was told to find and
bring to Mr. Davis the ugliest man in Warren County. Grandison soon hailed
Mr. Sol Stallings into the room where the card game was going on.
Decanters containing all sorts of liquors, sugar and water were on the
sideboard. Mr. Stallings demanded an explanation, saying he never played a
game of cards for money in his life, did not drink strong liquors, nor
smoke cigars. Mr. Davis cursed Grandison for the mistake and denied having
sent for Mr. Stallings, whereupon Grandison explained : "Master, I told
you I did not know Mr. Kimball and you told me to go out and bring to you
the ugliest man in the county, and I have done the best I could." Mr.
Stallings looked dumbfounded, saying: "This is the beatenest thing I
ever heard of" and made an abrupt exit.
Of course, there followed in the wake of racing and card playing the
habits of drinking and swearing. Almost without exception the sideboard in
each household was stocked with choice liquors, and bar rooms were
numerous in each town. There were no screens in windows or doors; people
of the highest social standing went in and out as if they were going to
theatre or church. Those customs and habits were kept up until several
years after the close of the War Between the States. One very popular
barkeeper, who was thoroughly illiterate, in his book of charges against
customers, had the individuals represented by signs, such as guns,
pistols, bowie-knives, demijohns, etc.
Montgomery, Lizzie Wilson;
North Carolina; traditions and reminiscences of
the town and people who made it, Raleigh,
Edwards & Broughton printing company, 1924.
Nola Duffy &