HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE MONTGOMERY COUNTY FAIRGROUNDS (S. Main Street)
by James "Rocky" Whalen
The first Montgomery County Fair had a modest beginning on October 17, 1839, at Swaynie's Hotel barnyard located at the head of the canal basin. After exhibiting excellent growth and organizational qualities, Dayton was awarded the first Ohio State Fair in 1853. Operated by Robert Steele, the Fair was celebrated on the same grounds currently occupied by the Montgomery County Fairgrounds.
The initial Southern Ohio Fair was held here in 1874 (by then the Ohio State Fair had moved to Columbus). The race track was enlarged, a stable was built to accommodate persons owning fair horses, 500 season tickets were offered for "driving on the Trotting Park," and a $1,000 purse was established for the fastest mare or gelding.
The same year, the Southern Fair Association invested $3,400 to construct the unique board and
batten-sided octagonal building currently listed on the Ohio Historical Registry, and considered a candidate for a similar national honor. However, the main attraction of 1874, drawing 75,000 eager fans, was the appearance of the world's fastest racehorse, "Goldsmith Maid," which set a new world trotting-horse record of 2.18 minutes for one mile. The Fair Board of Directors' "Speed Committee" declared this an annual event. Stabling and straw were provided free for all trotters and pacers in races.
The Dayton Baseball Club was given free use of the grounds once each week during the summer for practice games. When admission was charged, the club was assessed a fixed fee for the use. A mild departure from orthodox sports activities surfaced in 1892, when the Fair Board gave permission to an organization for three balloon ascents and parachute jumps at a total cost of $150. The Dayton Bicycle Club rented the track four days in July for racing, the first of several meets over the next few years. Among "driving clubs" using the track was the Dayton Trotting and Pacing Association, which rented the grounds for $50 a day, boasting purses of $300 to $500 at various distances.
The original track grandstand, showing decay and deterioration and considered a menace to public safety, in January, 1900 was demolished and rebuilt. Six hundred chairs were purchased from Cincinnati's Lincoln Park Grounds in 1872 to further enhance the grandstand. Automobile and Motorcycle Clubs were allowed to hold race meets, each twice yearly.
Because 75,000 enthusiasts turned out at the Fairgrounds on June 18, 1908 to celebrate the quasi-sporting feat of Orville and Wilbur Wright's manipulating a biplane to become airborne five years earlier, the huge assembly is worthy of mention here. The brothers received gold medals from the United States Congress, Ohio General Assembly and the City of Dayton.
Sporting events flourished indoors at the Fairgrounds in 1922 following construction of the Coliseum. Since the University of Dayton was eager to upgrade its basketball program from the antiquated campus gymnasium, the school collaborated with construction of the Coliseum floor. The UD Flyer netters played home games there from 1923 through the 1949-50 season, with many contests in the early years against such Division III schools as Capital, Wilmington, Rio Grande, Cedarville and Antioch. Then they moved on November 29, 1950 to the new University of Dayton Fieldhouse. Since baskets at the Coliseum were movable, additional floor space was available for other purposes.
For the next three decades, an abundance of sporting events in the Coliseum emphasized its popularity, convenience and flexibility, such as hosting wrestling and Golden Gloves boxing matches. Industrial and high school basketball games kept the Coliseum calendar filled with the venue also hosting Dayton District Tournaments advancing Stivers, Roosevelt, Xenia, Hamilton, Middletown, Northridge and Chaminade to Ohio State Championship titles.
Promoter Elwood Parsons formed a team of Wright Field personnel, all former college basketball stars, scheduling semi-pro teams to meet at the Coliseum for the 1944-45 season. Called the Dayton Acmes (backed by the Acme Aluminum Company), the talented personnel included Coach Bobby Colburn, Bruce Hall, Dike Edelman, Chris Hansen, John Mahnken and Al Negratti. The follow season, Beryl Drummond, John Schick and Rex Gardecki, Sr. joined Hall, Hansen, Mahnken and Negratti to form the Dayton Mickeys (sponsored by tavern owner Mickey McCrossen). Playing an independent professional schedule at the Coliseum, the Mickeys scored an outstanding victory over the celebrated Chicago Monarchs starring Pop Gates and Sonny Boswell.
The Dayton Mets (sponsored by the Metropolitan Clothing Company) packed the stands in 1946-47 with an outstanding pro team after adding stars Nathaniel (Sweetwater) Clifton, Roscoe (Duke) Cumberland and Sonny Boswell. Chris Hansen was the only returning airman. Playing teams from the new national Basketball League, forerunner of the NBA, the Mets performed excellently again most, including George Mikan's champion Chicago Gears. The Dayton Fire Department shut the doors several times that season when the Coliseum's 2,800 capacity was strained.
Tom Blackburn, first year coach of the Flyers, garnered his first win at the Coliseum on December 6, 1947, overpowering a depleted squad from Wright Field 61 to 30 before a crowd of 900. The NCAA rules of 1948-49 prevented all freshmen from varsity play. Blackburn, possessing one of his top squads of newcomers, including Monk Meineke, Chuck Grigsby, Junior Norris, and Pete Boyle, entered them in AAU competition. Sponsored by Zimmerman Builders, the freshmen won the Dayton City Leagues and the State title, automatically becoming eligible to play in the National AAU Tournament in Oklahoma City, where they lost to a college varsity playing under the AAU label.
Box 21, sponsor for the Miami Valley Rangers, held a rodeo in 1951, with proceeds used to purchase a portable iron lung, plus additional operational equipment. The Dayton Saddle Horse Association and the Dayton Kennel Club also were active this year, the latter hosting the National Dog Show. By the mid-1960s, most local high schools had constructed their own gymnasiums for basketball and other indoor sports. However, Willard Marquardt, athletic director for Dayton schools, still required the Coliseum for Kiser and Roosevelt basketball games.
A baseball diamond on Fairgrounds property was used by area high schools and Little Leaguers on summer evenings and Sundays. The "Speed Committee" had a full schedule hosting competition among members of the Dayton Horse Show, Miami Valley Pacing Derby, Ohio Colt Stakes, Miami Valley Racing Association and saddle horse meets. Demolition Derbies had become popular, with 60 to 75 cars entered in a two-day competition at the Fairgrounds.
While motorcycle races had been held previously, J.R. Kelley started the annual Old Time Newsies Charity race in 1971, won by Ronnie Rall. Gary Scott won the race seven times, Steve Morehead four and George Roeder three times in succession. N.C.R., Frigidaire and other industrial plants continued use of the Coliseum on a regular basis for intramural sports activities.
"Sports in Dayton" by Ritter Collett, Landfall Press, Dayton, 1996
"For the Love of Dayton, 1796-1996" Published by the Dayton Daily News
Minutes of Montgomery County Fairgrounds Board of Directors' meetings from 1859, thanks to Dan Bullen, Executive Secretary.