Southern Maine has a long and varied history of horse racing. The first standardbred horse from Maine to run for a stake was Zuarrow, a chestnut gelding from Waterville. He was entered in a Massachusetts race in 1819, just one year after the first professional American Harness Race. Zuarrow trotted one mile across the Charlestown Bridge in 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Trotting hit its stride in 1835 and steadily grew in popularity in Maine throughout the remaining years of the 19th century, even in Kennebunk.The secretary of the Maine Board of Agriculture was alarmed to report in 1866 that horse-racing formed the most prominent feature at agricultural fairs. He quoted from a document written by the editor of the “Canadian Farmer,” who stated, “There was a trot each day and purses to the amount of $1,000 were offered by the society out of its funds. The excuse for this is that the people will not come out in sufficient numbers to pay expenses, unless racing is provided for.”
Horse racing was embraced in York County with astonishing enthusiasm given the sway that propriety was said to carry here in those days. Gambling on the horses was considered good clean fun and was enjoyed by the staunchest of moral policemen. York County race results appeared on the front page of the Eastern Star in 1877.
Any straight stretch would do for a track. In Kennebunkport, heats were run on North Street and what is now known as Ocean Avenue. Racing on town streets became so prevalent in Maine that a law was passed stipulating that anyone using a regular roadway as a race track could not sue the town in the event of an injury.
Sulky races were featured at every county fair and most municipal celebrations. They were primarily run on the beaches by 1900, but occasional winter heats on the frozen Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers were reported in the Biddeford Weekly Journal.
In 1904, it was reported that Dr. Merrill, Professor Wheeler, Ernest Benson, Freeman Seavey and Mr. Robinson, all of Kennebunkport, regularly raced their horses at Kennebunk Beach. Mr. George Bayes was the starter and Dr. Merrill and Edward Bryant judged the heats.
A new track was prepared by the Kennebunkport Driving Club for late winter racing in 1919. Permission was granted by Kennebunk Lower Village landowners to dam up the outlet at the road and allow the marsh inland of Western Avenue to freeze solid. Two or three sulkies were pulled around the ice track in each heat and kids entertained themselves between races by letting their kites pull them across the slippery track. The ice was so thick that spectators could drive their automobiles all the way to the end of the marsh. The new track, dubbed Lake Speedway, was a roaring success.
The following May, a meeting was held at the Mousam House in Kennebunk to form a combined Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club. Freeman Seavey was elected secretary and treasurer; Roy Taylor, Ernest Walker, Harry Washburn, Harry Day became assistants; and Earnest Benson was named president and manager of the club.
Benson, whose pristinely cared for racing silks were red and white, was uniquely qualified for the top position. As a Kennebunkport blacksmith, he boarded horses for fellow club members and made special racing shoes for the contestants. The club raced in the winter at Lake Speedway and the rest of the year on Gooch’s Beach. Popularity of the sport quickly grew in the Kennebunks.
In March of 1922, the Biddeford Weekly Journal printed a rumor that the West Kennebunk Grange was thinking of leasing the local deputy sheriff’s training track for a fairground and possibly, a venue for harness racing. Sure enough, on July 22, 1922 the West Kennebunk Grange Trotting Park was established for summer racing on Constable Edwin I. Littlefield’s land. Heats were held every Saturday afternoon.
Fiske, Benson, Maling, Taylor, Smith and Jenney of the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club and Matt Bowden, L E Wiggin and others of Biddeford, agreed to trot their 20 or more horses for 40 percent of the gate receipts. The Grange received 60 percent to be invested in maintenance on the track. The trotting park accommodated crowds of 3,500 within the first two years, but maintenance of the park was not adequately performed by the Grange and the track fell into disrepair.
On Nov. 15, 1929, it was reported in the Lewiston Evening Journal that the Kennebunkport & Kennebunk Driving Club had purchased 22 horse sheds at the West Kennebunk Trotting Park as well as the judges stand and ticket office. Edwin I Littlefield, by then a senator, retained ownership of the land. Sheriff Ernest L. Jones was elected manager and treasurer of the Driving Club.
The West Kennebunk Trotting Park was used mostly as a training track after 1930. Local races continued to be run on Lake Speedway and Gooch’s Beach. World War II put an end to the regular races, though occasional heats were run until 1948.
Little remains of the West Kennebunk Trotting Park, which now lies under the turnpike garage. Few people still remember the horse racing years in the Kennebunks. Fortunately, Cecil Benson does and his help with this column was greatly appreciated.