Clare County Review & Marion Press

Postcard from the Pines: No More Horsing Around

Fair week is over in Marion, Michigan. The 4-H animals and exhibits were judged, ribbons were dispensed and the auction was held. Food vendors have packed up and the carnival is gone. Our annual fair is one for the history books.
Just as it was in many places across America, horse and harness racing was a big deal here. Whether it was a friendly race between two friends to settle a bet on the faster horse or for larger stakes at the Saturday races for a bigger purse, horses were a draw. And so was Marion’s Elm Grove Racing Park.
We owe our racing history to William “Billy” Jones, who arrived in Marion in 1887 to work in the lumber camps, which he did. But by 1897 he was working at developing a quarter mile race track on his property located along the river in the southeast quadrant of the village. This was so successful that within another 10 years work was in progress to extend the track to a half-mile oval. The track became a
Anyone was welcome to drive a horse around his track, but most races were on a one to one basis. The track became a well-known area favorite and was the site of many years of horse racing. The track we see today is that same track. It is still a quality race track, but does not host many races involving horses these days.
It was natural that Marion was home to horse breeders. John Gibson, Sr., was one of those men. He raised champion racers and had buyers visit from as far away as Canada. His pacer, the Eel, broke the state record at Port Huron in 1909. Gibson enjoyed a good deal of attention and his well-bred horses remained in demand, bringing more horse lovers to town.
Racing at Marion began to falter in the late 1920’s and continued through the Depression and WWII. The race track fell into disrepair. Fortunately, interest in horse and harness racing saw resurgence in the 1960’s when Johnny Alberts, Glenn Casey and the Marion Farm Exhibit Association sought to restore Marion’s famous track. The project caught fire and by the next racing season, coinciding with the first Marion Fair in 1967, the beat of horse’s hooves was once again heard at Elm Grove Park.
The first race was dedicated to Jones’ son Earle, who was in attendance. By the third year the highlight race was the coveted Billy Jones Memorial. Marion’s fast track had no problem scheduling races. In 1970 Marion set a record for racing 142 horses on one racing program. In 1976, $85,000 was paid out over a five day racing schedule at Marion’s Bicentennial Races.
Horse racing, both harness and rider, were featured at the Marion Fair for years but began to fall out of favor once again. By the 1990’s horse racing of any kind was no longer the huge draw it once had been and regular racing was dropped from the program. These days all the horsepower on the track comes from tractors, snowmobiles and monster trucks.
This year the grand stand celebrates its 58th birthday. It was built through the efforts of the Village of Marion and the Fair Board and has served the community well. Construction in 1964 was no easy feat, requiring the removal of many trees, some dating to the founding of the town. Preparation required a good deal of donated time and equipment.
At the same time the restoration of the race track was completed and the reintroduction of horse racing once again brought many fans to Marion each summer. These days the track sees use all year long, from vintage tractor pulls in July to vintage snowmobiles in February.
A few more tidbits about the Marion Fair you may not know; the late John Johnson (the son of Marion’s Dr. Donald Johnson) was a former Homemaker of the Year, and the first man to be so. The late Joanne Corner was Homemaker of the Year three times. Did you know that members of the Marion Area Historical Society manned the entrance gates and sold parking tickets for more than 20 years? And that the VFW Bingo in the north pavilion during the course of the Fair is the only time of the year folks have the chance to holler “Bingo!!!” in Marion, Michigan?
Or did you know that the newest exhibit buildings at the Blevins Street entrance sit on property once owned by the William Turner family? This is where the Turner’s raised sheep. Or did you know that the course of the Middle Branch River was modified where it runs through the Fair Grounds to better accommodate buildings?
Big name entertainers performed for grandstand crowds. When the stands were very new in 1968, country singers Merle Travis, Mel Tillis and Dottie West wowed crowds at the opening of the Fair and the structure. In the years since a lot of big names played the Marion Fair…most before they were big names. They often played here the summer before each became entertainer of the year. Through the years the likes of Alabama, Aaron Tippin, Leann Rimes and Jason Aldean, to name a few, played to a packed grandstand.
It’s too bad that country music sent the horses to the barn.
This week’s photo is of Billy Jones and one of his horses, taken on the track at his racing park.

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