Thursday, March 17, 2016

McCullough Speedway - Watseka, Illinois

The following article appeared in the February 2016 issue of the Iroquois County Genealogical Society quarterly newsletter, The Stalker. In addition to interviews with living family members, I completed much of the research in the newspaper microfilm collection at the ICGS archives. We have hundreds of Iroquois County and area newspaper microfilm which offer excellent research opportunities.

I hope you enjoy the story. If it reminds you of your own childhood memories, please comment below. Come to visit us at the archives of Iroquois County Genealogical Society.
My dad still refers to a section of the family farm north of Watseka, Illinois as the “racetrack,” telling the hired men “Go check down by the racetrack.” Several years ago, I started asking questions and discovered that there was indeed an auto racetrack in that field during the 1930s and early 1940s run by his dad, T.J. McCullough and family. My dad, Robert and his surviving sisters were young children at the time, but they have happy memories of those summer days.

There was a large grandstand to allow the crowd a good view of the track. Dad’s mother, Myra sold burgers prepared from a cook stove under that grandstand. Walter Craft brought the drink wagon, selling many flavors of Sweet Tooth pop. Youngsters, Delorous, Barbara and Doris looked under the grandstand for coins hoping to get enough for a taste of that pop. According to Dad, when the grandstand was demolished, the lumber was used to build the corn crib standing today in the barnyard.

From the Old Courthouse Museum collection
There were parties and dances, too. My Uncle Virgil talked about building the dance floor with Harry Sweet up at Mackemer & McBroom’s Lumber in 1932, then moving it out to the racetrack. A tent was put up over the dance floor to protect the partiers from the weather. When that party was over in 1934, the floor was sold to Henry Oldberg of Papineau, who later sold it to the Dutch Mill Restaurant in Gilman, Illinois. When the Dutch Mill was sold off, my sister purchased a piece of that floor.

The “auto speedway” was started by a group of Watseka businessmen, according to an article from The Watseka Republican dated April 22, 1925. At the time, this farm was owned by August Wockner. The dirt track was started in the fall of 1924, with the first races in May, 1925. It was known as the “Lightning Speedway,” and it apparently lived up to its name. “The half-mile track was 60 feet wide, with two turns of 510 feet each, and getaway stretches at each side.” It was expected to be a good investment with good returns, and “one of the largest amusement enterprises in this section of the middle west,” according to the April 23, 1925 issue of The Clifton Advocate.

The first races in May 1925 were well attended with 1600-1700 patrons watching W. H. Barton of Hoopeston finish the fastest 5-mile in 5 minutes, 31.4 seconds. That’s 54.3 miles per hour, amazing in 1925.  In his Buick Special, he also finished the fastest half-mile trial in 32.1 seconds, 56 mph. With a $200 prize, the 20-mile race was won by H. Rose of Rantoul, driving a Frazier Special. Other area drivers mentioned in these early race results included Howard Edwards, Melvin Harwood, Clyde Ash, Lester Grice, Harvey Edwards, Eugene Gilkerson, Joyce Galloway, Verney Cantway, Arthur Delozier and Howard Frazier.
The Watseka Republican, May 22, 1941

In 1931, Thomas James (T.J.) McCullough purchased the Wockner farm and continued the races. The track was known for a short time as the Watseka Speedway. Eventually, it was called the McCullough Speedway and attracted drivers from Chicago, northern and central Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. The races were sanctioned by auto racing organizations and attracted much attention. As public interest changed, the races went from full-sized autos to midget races, even running motorcycle races in May, 1938. There was one fatal accident in May, 1937 when John Ronald Bergal, 27, of Hammond, Indiana died following injuries he suffered when his car “turned turtle” rounding a curve, throwing him from the car.

1940 racetrack
  ABOVE: July 14, 1940
IL Historical Aerial Photography
(ILHAP) 1937-1947
In 1940, the farm implement company of T.J. McCullough & Sons was established. (This company can be seen in the photo from 2009 below.) From my research, it seems the last races were run during the summer of 1941. They included both the big car professional and midget car racers. However, life was changing. By the end of the year, many sons went off to war, and Americans were busy supporting those efforts.

BELOW: Evidence of McCullough Speedway is still visible in this 2009 Google Earth image recorded by USDA Farm Service Agency. Aerial Photo Source: Google Earth

Google Earth: 2009

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