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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 dey started."

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 that time:

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.


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.


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; Sketches of old Warrenton, North Carolina; traditions and reminiscences of the town and people who made it, Raleigh, Edwards & Broughton printing company, 1924.

©2004 by Nola Duffy & Ginger L. Christmas-Beattie

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