Whit Monday races in Rothsville

By on June 21, 2017
 A rare up-close view of a local sulky racer. Photo from the Sketch Mearig Collection

A rare up-close view of a local sulky racer. Photo from the Sketch Mearig Collection

In April, I wrote about the Warwick Driving Park, once located just north of downtown Lititz. After that article appeared in the pages of the Lititz Record Express, several folks reached out to me asking about a similar racing track once located in Rothsville.

Here is that story.

In 1885, Daniel Habecker built a half-mile long track in Rothsville in a field behind what is now the White Swan Hotel. Before long it would become a very popular destination filled with hopes, dreams, and large purses; all lasting until 1917.

Contests would occur on “Whit Monday,” or the Monday after Pentecost — typically in late May or early June. Back then, many times, the day was considered a holiday with children being out of school, and adults not having to work.

It was a day of fun as entire families packed lunches and made their way to the local hot spot in anticipation of seeing the best in sulky races. On an extra special day, bicycles might also be seen competing. People from all walks of life arrived in droves from neighboring towns and as far away as Chester County and Philadelphia, all to take part in the festivities.

On race day, local taverns would get so packed with patrons before and after the events that many folks had to be turned away. No matter; several would arrive to the track already intoxicated, or sneak bottles of “the sauce” inside their jacket pockets to consume throughout the day.

In those days, everyone arrived via horse and buggy, each driver claiming they had the better horse. To settle the argument, they would often race down the road (sometimes in several inches of mud) to see who really was the best. Tempers flared and arguments broke out as more alcohol was consumed. Not surprisingly, fist fights and black eyes were common.

During 1896, eager teams could be seen coming from all directions; and by one o’clock in the afternoon, the small town took on the appearance of a country fair. That year, the Lititz Military Band was on hand and supplied plenty of music for the occasion.

In 1900, an immense crowd estimated between 2,000 to 3,000, gathered at the track. The first contest took place at 3:30 p.m. that day, and was won by A.R. Weaver’s “Daisy King.” As the day was coming to an end, a serious accident occurred. Henry Cooper, who lived between Rothsville and Brownstown, walked on the track and was run down by one of the horses. Doctors attended to him right away, discovering several broken ribs and other internal injuries.

In 1913, Beck’s Concert Band provided the music for a new-record crowd that year. Several new games of chance were also introduced, with victorious spectators walking away with a cigar as their prize. Lager beer was reported as the drink of choice that day and, surprisingly, there were no reports of fist fights.

What a unique scene it all must have been. These days, it’s hard for us to imagine this whole scenario playing out, all behind a humble hotel.

It was certainly a different time, and 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of what was the last Whit Monday races to take place in Rothsville.

Cory Van Brookhoven is president of the Lititz Historical Foundation and has authored several books on topics involving Lancaster County history, including Lititz. He welcomes your comments at coryvb@hotmail.com.

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