Originally published in The Fleet Foot, June 1989 (Vol. 14 No. 6)
Pedestrianism in old Tallahassee
By Herb Wills
On recreation in the old west, Louis L'Amour wrote that "social activity for families and many others centered around the churches, although there were dances, box suppers, horse races, as well as foot races (a very popular activity)...." Unfortunately, Mr. L'Amour never chose to portray this "very popular activity" in his western fiction, and the sporting events in his novels are usually limited to boxing matches. Tom McNab, former coach of the British Olympic track and field team and author of Flanagan's Run, recently published the first running western, The Fast Men, the adventures of two professional sprinters in the American west of the 1870's. McNab is a serious historian of the sport, and The Fast Men gives you a fair idea of what professional pedestriansism (the nineteenth century term for both competitive running and walking) was like in those days, at least so far as the gambling and other chicanery that went on. Through the 1930's, the story of professional running in America sounds less like Chariots of Fire and more like The Sting.
In 1879 Tallahassee was no longer under the threat of imminent Indian attack, but neither were most of the western settlements. That year the city hosted the first Middle Florida Agricultural and Mechanical Society Fair, half a mile north of what was then the city limits. These fairs continued annually until 1885. Local historians state that "footraces" were among the fair's events, but the Weekly Floridian for that period only mentions such an event as having taken place in 1879. At later fairs, athletics were apparently limited to wheelbarrow and sack races.
Unfortunately, no particulars about the 1879 race or races are recorded anywhere; the distance, times, and winners are all unknown. But an unusual race that took place a few days before the fair opened has been reported.
While the finishing touches were being made on the fairgrounds, a match race ("an exhibition of walkism," the Floridian reporter called it, apparently uncomfortable with the highfalutin' term "pedestrianism") was staged between a Mr. O'Harra and a trotting horse named Gracie D, both from out of town. Gracie D's best time over a mile was 2:26, so in order to make a race of it, O'Harra was to run a quarter mile (a half lap around the track) while the horse covered a half mile (a full lap).
The race began only an hour later than scheduled. O'Harra, resplendent in his suit of racing tights, moved to the far side of the track, while his equine opponent was led to its starting position on the near side. And then they were off. In the early going it looked as if O'Harra would triumph, but Gracie D caught him on the homestretch to win by ten feet. No one thought to time the event, but it must have taken close enough to 75 seconds that O'Harra was definitely running rather than racewalking.
O'Harra told a local reporter that "no three-minute horse" could beat him in such a contest. His plans were to remain in Tallahassee through the fair, presumably to take on the best of Florida's horses in similar competitions. But here the facts end; no such races were recorded.
Suppose that such an event did take place. The owner of a "three-minute horse" might enter his animal against O'Harra, but certainly not with the huge head start that Gracie D gave the ped. However, O'Harra's 75 seconds is not an impressive time for the quarter, even by nineteenth-century standards. Was he really that slow, or was he sloughing? Was the exhibition a set-up for a hustle? We have the lukewarm assurance of the Floridian that "there was no betting, at least none that we were aware of" on the original race, but even that would fit such a scheme. O'Harra and his handlers would have been content to hold their money and wager heavily on a later race with a local horse, perhaps with only a 330-yard head start this time....
But perhaps I slander O'Harra. No story made print concerning a later race, or fleeced Tallahasseans, or tar-and-feathered pedestrians. And I still don't know who won the footrace at the fair.